During the past year, many churches have started live-streaming their services for the first time. But here is what happens often. At first, people are excited and you see an initial surge in online views. But slowly, you see a decline in online engagement. So how do you keep people connected online? Is live-streaming enough? Or do you need to take the next step and move to an online campus?
So what is the difference?
Live streaming a church service has worked well for many churches. It allows you to take what is already happening at your physical location, and share it online with those unable to attend. I’m thankful for the technology that has enabled so many churches to stay connected and continue ministry while in-person meetings were not possible. For many churches, this will continue to be the path forward for their online ministries.
However, online campuses are more than a live stream, they are built around online communities.
Have you ever watched a live stream of a concert? It’s fun, but it’s not the same experience as being there in person. In a similar way, a live steam of a worship service can be powerful, but it’s still not the same experience as being there. When you take your existing service and just share it online, it’s tough to connect and engage with those watching. It can feel detached and uninviting.
An online campus is focused on those that are not in the building. So your goal is to create online community and engagement. Instead of watching the service, you are inviting them to participate in the worship service. It does take more effort, but it can dramatically expand your reach. We have a huge mission field all around us, and we can reach beyond our community by starting an online campus.
So how do I start an online campus?
We can use our online campus to create conversations and build relationships with people who do not attend your physical location. It’s also a great way for those who are traveling or sick to stay connected. You start an online campus in a very similar way to starting a new physical church location. It takes planning and preparation to do it effectively and to create an online ministry that is sustainable.
So here are five steps to creating an online campus.
Step 1: Building a Team
One of the biggest mistakes that I see smaller and medium-sized churches make is that one person handles their online ministry by themselves. If you want to develop a true online campus, you will need a team of people.
You will need a technology director who can help plan out the strategy for your campus and help set up everything each week. Camera operators and audio engineers are also needed to help create your live stream. And finally, the key to having a great online campus is having hosts who help engage, chat, and pray with those watching online.
The best way to find volunteers is to see who already has a passion. Who is commenting and sharing your current live stream? Who is already involved with social media, Youtube, or Facebook due to their work or blog? Help people see how they can make a difference in someone else’s life and they will be excited to serve.
Step 2: Developing A Strategy
Here are some questions to ask while developing your strategy.
- What do you want to accomplish?
- How will you build relationships online?
- Will you film a special service for your online campus or will you add interactive elements to your current service?
- Will you just offer online services at the same time as your existing in-person services?
- What equipment and software will you need?
- How soon will you implement everything?
- What platform will you choose and which service will you use as your streaming provider?
- What is your budget?
These questions will take time to work through, but they will help you prepare a plan that works. Remember that you aren’t limited by your existing in-person times for service. You can do simulated live services online by sharing previous services.
Step 3: Building Your Campus
Based on your mission and goals for your online campus and your answers to the questions above, you will need to pick a solution for your campus. You can simply direct people to Facebook or Youtube and utilize their commenting and chat systems that are already in place. The drawback is that it’s not private. If you need to pray with someone or ask questions, everyone will see what you comment.
You can also embed your Facebook or YouTube live stream into your website. If you use WordPress for your church website, there is even a plugin called WPLivestream that will do this automatically for you each week. But again, chatting and commenting are difficult.
The Church Online Platform, developed by the team at Lifechurch.tv is what most churches use for their online campus. It’s an amazing free platform that will enable you to create an interactive service. You will still need a streaming provider, but they provide the platform to pull everything together for your online campus. There is a built-in chat feature with the ability to have private prayer rooms. There are moments built-in that allow people to interact with the service as it happens. You can share quotes, give online, and even share salvation decisions all within the platform. The best way to learn how it works is to see it in action.
But the church online platform is not your only option. Brushfire has a similar online church platform that works well. And yet another option is to use the chat feature in Restream to pull comments from different platforms together.
Step 4: Inviting People to Attend
This is an important step that you simply cannot skip. If you want people to find your new online campus, you will need to advertise it and communicate it just as if you were opening a physical campus. Run ads online, share with your congregation, do community events, and share as often as you can. It takes time, but you want people to engage and interact.
Step 5: Engaging with Guests
The Church Online Platform has an excellent guide for training your online hosts. Your hosts are connecting with people, creating conversation, building relationships, leading prayers, and encouraging people to take their next steps for Christ. I would encourage you to think about how to include those watching through your online campus into your worship experience. Speak to them and acknowledge them, and let them know that they are a valuable part of your church. Essentially you are treating your online campus just like a physical campus of your church.
I shared earlier that the biggest difference between livestreaming your church service and developing an online campus is community and engagement. That’s our goal, to help build community so that we can engage with those watching, and challenge them to take their next step for Christ.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Church Tech Today