Online services will be suicide for many Episcopal churches

By | February 14, 2021

One of the moves many churches, in all denominations, have made in response to the pandemic is the move to virtual services, either streamed live or pre-recorded. But there is reason to be wary, for some, myself included, believe that streaming services will, in the not-distant future, prove fatal for many parishes.

Origin of the parish

Before we go further, let’s take a look at parishes, and how they are part of the picture.

The notion of a parish, long rooted in churches with an episcopal polity, goes back to at least the sixth century.

Tied to Anglo-Saxon notions of townships as local units of governance, the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, is thought to have formally implemented the structure in the English church. As a result, local clergy were assigned to each local township, where they acted in concert, and often were, local government officials.

This structure was increasingly formalized over the centuries that followed, and is today formally recognized in the statutes pertaining to the Church of England, as well as church canons in the US.

Role in the modern church

Of course, in the modern church, we see that the notion of a parish already is a little shaky.

No longer closely aligned with geography, many churchgoers choose a parish not based on geography, but instead on the fit and feel of a particular church, its particular form of piety, the fellowship opportunities it affords, and more. That’s even true in the far more rigidly hierarchical Roman church, where suburban worshippers often choose a parish based on whether it is perceived as liberal or conservative, family friendly, etc.

Hand in hand with the decline of the parish as a quasi-geographical construct is the notion that church membership is no longer normative.

Indeed, I remember as a child moving to a new town, and immediately getting the question, “Where do you go to church?.” While such a question today would be unusual, if not downright weird, in those days one could infer a great deal about one’s lot in life from the church she or he attended.

The result is that today we can pick and choose, and there is empirical evidence to suggest that people have much less loyalty today to one particular parish or denomination. And that’s a good thing, because it provides an incentive for churches to engage with their members, to act with integrity, and to not take parishioners for granted.

Online business model

But things get complex, if not downright ugly, if we take a look at the business model behind online worship, or lack thereof.

Of course, right about now, there’s more than one reader gnashing their teeth and saying that church is not a business. And while we can debate that point endlessly, the reality is that churches have bills to pay, just like other non-profit organizations.

For starters, we need to recognize that the Internet is the great equalizer, providing access to information in ways that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Indeed, while 50 years ago church might be one of the few outlets for socialization outside work, the internet and social media make it possible to interact throughout the week with friends and family. Thus, church already has lost one of its key selling points for previous generations.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of opportunity for online worship already out there.

One can jump online and quickly do a virtual visit to King’s Chapel in England for a quick redux of Lessons and Carols, followed by Mass with the Pope, then on to a Pentecostal service marked by speaking in tongues. One can even pursue some of the murkier corners of Christianity, including content from places like the hate-filled Westboro Baptist church. (More on that later.)

But behind the scenes we see a different, larger problem, which is that many of the ostensibly free services that online consumers take for granted have deployed highly effective strategies to monetize their online users. Whether it is the all-pervasive data profiling and reselling of data via Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants, or the ad sales that support small sites, like Episcopal Cafe, there is relatively little on the web that actually is free.

Thus, churches have blundered into a space in which consumers typically have the expectation that the goods or services they receive are free. And much like Amazon Prime, the online world is all about quick results, with overnight delivery, easy returns, and more. In short, it’s almost the opposite of traditional church life, in which cancel culture collides with notions of long-term church membership and support.

To make matters worse, online worship is nice. Really nice. All of the taste, none of the calories of “real” church.

This morning, for example, I attended virtual services at a nearby Episcopal church in my ratty bathrobe and fuzzy wool socks. A long string of announcements in the middle of the service allowed for two warm and absolutely delicious sticky buns. And I loudly slurped down four Monster energy drinks, a throwback to years of getting up at 4 AM to trudge off to work.

In short, this morning was wonderful. Beautiful music, a great sermon, a delicious breakfast.

But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that what was missing from virtual church added to my pleasant online experience.

No wailing children whose parents don’t want to ask them to sit still.

No catty remarks or evil looks from ladies in the altar guild.

No having to overhear ridiculous gossip at coffee hour about alleged extramarital affairs by parishioners, speculation about the sexual orientation of others, critical comments about the deteriorating parking lot, or any of the other silliness that mars in-person worship.

In short, all good, no bad.

And since I’m not a member of that church, I don’t particularly feel the need to donate. Indeed, nothing in the live-streamed service asked me to do so. I might go back later this afternoon and see if I can donate. But knowing that church and its website, the online donation form will be hard to find, involve filling out all sorts of information, and doom me to a lifetime of the parish’s badly written newsletter in my inbox. And for sure the church doesn’t take Apple Pay, which I love. So I’ll swing by the website later today, but I’m not making any promises.

In the meantime, those of us attending online worship services like it so well, we may never be back for the “real” deal, even when the coast is clear due to COVID-19.

The Episcopal church and the big ask

All of that implicates another issue, which is one baked into the very DNA of the Episcopal church. That is the dreaded need to ask for money

Let’s be honest: It’s an issue at every church, and one where even the most gregarious priests suddenly act like the 18-year old at McDonalds, asking for a raise, when facing requests to support a stewardship campaign.

In fact, if you’re lucky, you may even get a priest who mentions a specific revenue goal, and apprises of efforts to reach that goal.

Nor are lay “leaders” any better. They may be perfectly comfortable (real life example) gossiping at coffee hour about a member who allegedly had a penile implant, or speculating about other’s personal lives, but asking for money? That is a step too far and one likely to be met with stiff resistance.

Indeed, asking for money is like the old joke about Episcopalians and fishing: Put a bucket by the ocean, pour a stiff drink and wait for the fish to jump in.

In fact, the best you can hope for in most parishes is the relatively lame, “There’s still time to make your pledge for 2021.” And that is true even in parishes facing dire economic pressure.

Of course, that contrasts sharply with evangelicals. Yes, the money may be going to pay for a private jet, a big house, or other inappropriate expenses, but quite a few will stand in front of the TV cameras, tears pouring down their faces, as they beg, plead, and entreat you to further the work of the Lord by sending cash. NOW.

Do I espouse an evangelical model? No, of course not. But unless churches have the courage to say upfront what they need, they probably will not have their needs met. And churches that are bad about these issues in person are even worse when they are online.

Online engagement, content and revenue

That raises another question, which is how much demand is there for online services? The answer, I suspect, is relatively little.

We already know of several churches that have long had a vibrant online presence. St. Thomas’ Manhattan, St. John the Divine, Trinity Wall Street, and the National Cathedral all offer glorious  settings, beautiful music, and high-end videographers. Indeed, many of these churches have been online for years, have amassed large audiences, and know firsthand how to produce not only an excellent online service, but how to pull in donations as a result.

That leaves the average suburban parish at a profound disadvantage. Equipped with volunteer videographers, often mediocre audio-visual setups, no existing audiences, and no concept of online presence as inherently interactive, far too many resort to their usual trick of putting a bucket by the ocean and waiting. As a result, they have little or no concept of how to draw revenue from their online worship.

Nor is the Episcopal liturgy particularly suited for live-streaming.

Devoid of personal participation and community, ancient forms of worship may become nothing but tired rote when broadcast online.

Similarly hymns, often dating from Victorian times and sung by a choir and congregation with the help of a massive pipe organ, can sound trite when posted online.

In short, evangelicals have long known that online survival goes to the fittest, which often comprises the most colorful, the most engaging, and the most interactive. Indeed, we may laugh at images of folks like Tammy Faye Bakker, but there were solid business reasons for her garish makeup and clothes.

Nor does online attention necessarily align with the quality or truth of one’s message.

Consider Westboro Baptist, an otherwise small and relatively inconsequential church, with its ugly anti-LGBTQ showmanship. We may loath the message, but the in-your-face rhetoric has given the church worldwide name recognition far beyond that of most Episcopal churches, or even cathedrals. Indeed, absent punitive damages or some other major misstep, the media savvy of hatemongers like Westboro Baptist may well result in that church outliving the Episcopal Church.

Compounding matters is the fact that the average 20-something is used to getting Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook (if they still bother with the latter) and other online services for free. Few, unless they are in the industry, could tell you where the money comes from, let alone what the underlying business model is, even as their fingers dash across the screens of their iPhones, sending out selfies on Snapchat. Thus, young people, the future of the church, are unlikely to see a connection between pledging and their ability to attend virtual services, even as many will find that streaming services don’t provide the stimulation that are used to getting from online media.

Nor do the mainline churches have social media influencers who can help. Yes, there are thousands of talking heads on YouTube offering everything from fashion and beauty tips to live-streamed funerals and the ever-popular top-ten lists, and more. But even among young Episcopal clergy there’s relatively little social media presence.

As for older clergy, many have only the vaguest idea of social media and how it works. Indeed, we get a wry chuckle out of middle-aged clergy who proclaim their passion for evangelization and outreach, yet haven’t updated their Facebook page in six months. And forget Twitter or Snapchat. Such cluelessness means they don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone the answers to those questions.

Neither is our average vestry member going to offer much help. Older and often resistant to change, the notion of social media is alien for most, and there are very few within the Episcopal Church who can discuss with any authority things like the freemium model so common for online services today.

Thus, looking around, we see little to suggest that the Episcopal Church even understands the context in which it streams online services, let alone the implications for parishes, or steps needed to prevent their online presence from eroding what little revenue stream many parishes have left.

Other asks

Beyond the need for most churches to figure out how to ask for money online, there’s another issue that slaps even the casual observer in the face when viewing online services. That observation is that virtually all services omit even the most basic thing in marketing and fundraising, which is an ask.

Specifically, when someone is done watching the service, what would you like them to do? Email the church office? Subscribe to the church newsletter? Volunteer at your food pantry? Come back next week?

And in every case, effective marketing stands traditional writing on its head. In other words, traditional writing removes redundancy. Marketing copy lives and dies by redundancy.

Because viewers may tune in at the beginning of a service, mid-stream, at the tail end, or via an archived copy, it’s important that the ask be repeated multiple times. Thus, an effective video features a welcoming lead-in, a trailer, and at least one reference during the video, probably during the announcements. And ideally, it should have appear via popup or ticker tape several times during the video.

It’s also important not to turn off comments. Far too many churches worry they’ll get online trolls and haters commenting. And while there are strategies and software to reduce the risk, the reality is it will happen. And that’s okay, because we cannot grow the church if we are afraid to get our hands dirty. Indeed, young people, and those fleeing evangelical churches, want an experience that is authentic. So if all we can offer is a thoroughly sanitized version of stained glass, flowers, music, sunsets and Chardonnay, folks won’t be interested. So better to deal with the trolls and grow the church, than offer an inauthentic and dying vision of the church.

On a related note, a vibrant online presence means we will get haters. But that is okay too, as it means that our message is getting out there. On the other hand (and yes, I am thinking of specific churches here), we try to shut down free speech, we will discover that denizens of the Internet relish freedom of speech and a diversity of opinions. In other words, churches that try to suppress criticism by going to court, counterattacking, and the usual bag of tricks will discover that the last laugh is on them, as people quickly turn their backs on an organized church that is too precious and narcissistic to deal with the reality of life online.

Nor is it okay to sit in splendid silence when your church draws reviews, positive or negative. Comments are like an online focus group, and prompt, thoughtful, courteous responses show that you take reputational issues seriously and are open to engagement. As one expert says:

People who read blogs have a lot of power – the power of influence. I can’t think of a single thing that a business needs more than the regular input from their customers. After all, businesses need is to know what people will buy, right?

Similarly, while this applies to all churches, those that want a cyber presence need to be especially careful to be on their good behavior. Gone are the days when church bullies can act badly towards someone who sits in their pew, says or does something they don’t like, and more, and think that the person on the receiving end will just quietly slink away. Indeed, a single negative Yelp review can profoundly damage a church, and Forbes reports that 94 percent of consumers avoid for-profit businesses with bad reviews, while two-thirds of consumers check out online reviews before making a purchase. Ibid. That percentage skyrockets when looking at younger consumers.

Given that many Episcopal Churches already are dying, and the fact that there are plenty of other choices out there, we cannot afford to have people leave the church, let alone leave and be unhappy with their experiences.

Going, going….

There’s an old adage, profoundly relevant to the Episcopal Church, which is that if we don’t know where we are going, that is exactly where we wind up.

That adage is painfully true when it comes to online services. Far too many churches turned to virtual services as a survival strategy for the pandemic, with zero thought to the larger implications of this tactic. And while for some churches there may still be time to think through their online strategy and business model, the reality is that the advent of online worship will be the decision that causes a great many churches, already struggling to survive, to collapse.

As for those churches not in near-term danger of financial collapse, the message is this: Sit up. Pay attention. Think through your online presence. Draw on those who can help you be successful online. Don’t assume that just streaming services will save your church, or even that steaming services are inherently a good thing.

As for churches that don’t, it’s a safe bet they are goners.

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