In this season of technology and ministry where many churches are delivering sermons via youtube, facebook and livestreams we have had to reassess how we measure engagement with our church services. This idea of measuring engagement was already in flux before the pandemic of 2020 began. While two decades ago we could measure church service engagement based on weekly attendance, before the pandemic began church service engagement for many was now measured on monthly attendance – who attended at least once a month was considered a regular attender. There are a variety of reasons for this changing dynamic, but perhaps that is best saved for another post.
With online delivery I’ve seen churches struggle with how to measure online attendance and engagement. Some pastors have missed the boat in over-estimating their online engagement, while others have been devastated by what they wrongly perceived as poor engagement. I also believe there is a new form of online engagement many churches aren’t paying attention to.
The wonderful thing with online delivery is the amount of analytics, or statistics, available to churches to assess their engagement. The challenge is it can be overwhelming. So how do we calculate online engagement? Prior to Covid when we were live-streaming we would take the Peak Number of Live Stream viewers during our live stream and multiply by 1.5 assuming every other viewer was a couple. This number was conservative as other churches pre-covid would use other numbers such as 2.2 as a multiplier to determine online attendance. (Full disclosure: we usually subtract one from our Peak Number of Live stream viewers as we often are one of the viewers as we monitor the stream).
At our church, based on our engagement with our congregation, the vast majority of homes had two people watching, and at least one out of four homes had four or more people watching. So we went conservative again in our numbers and with the increased number of families watching we started using 2.5 as a multiplier to assess our online engagement. This meant that on average we felt there were 2 1/2 people watching per unique connection. While our initial conversations indicated we could go as high as 3.0 or even more, we felt that would be overreaching and overestimating. At the start of covid a multiple of 2.5z put us close to 90% of our normal attendance. In talking with our church early during covid and hearing how people were engaging with us we felt that was an accurate reflection of our initial online engagement… while we recognize some of the children in that number are not always fully engaged with the whole service, we did not want to exclude children in the homes anymore than we want to on a Sunday morning when children are in programs.
One of the keys to assessing our online engagement has also been consistency. The ratios we used at the start of Covid we wanted to hold to unless we had significant indicators that the ratio had changed. This consistent approach has given us an accurate portrayal of church engagement. We were able to assess when things declined, when things increased, and the impact streaming issues we endured had on our attendance. Some churches are struggling with their church engagement because they haven’t stopped to calculate what their multiplier should be leading them to underestimate their reach.
The challenges some churches are facing is not understanding metrics. One Sunday on facebook we had 28 Peak Live viewers. This would equal 70 live people based on our 2.5x multiplier (we also livestream to youtube which has more viewers for us than facebook does). However my metrics showed 168 3 second views. If I used my 2.5x metric on that we would have had over 400 viewers! Some churches are using the 3 second views as their metric so some churches that would only have 40-50 people on a Sunday are now seeing 100+ three second views or, as listed sometimes, people reached. Unfortunately those three second views are often just people scrolling by and pausing for a second.
The neat part of online delivery of services is there is a new demographic in our church engagement that we have never seen in our in-person worship services. One of the statistics that we are given is the number of one minute views. In other words, how many people watched for at least one minute. In person, this would be akin to a car stopping outside our church and the driver getting out and popping his or her head in for a minute to see what’s happening. That is something that almost never ever happens. So we don’t pay attention to that demographic of engagement. Online though, people can be on facebook and see our livestream and we find we have quite a number of one minute viewers. On the example given above with 28 peak viewers we also had 71 one minute views of our service. This means 71 people watched at least one minute of our service (and would include our 28 peak viewers). Now we know every minute of our livestream matters. Obviously, we can’t pack our service so full of content that every minute is a gospel presentation but we can do our best to ensure our services run smoothly, our live stream problems are being worked out, etc. so that when people view for a minute they can have the opportunity to engage with our service without technical snafus, dead time on the screen, or other issues. Our prayer is that God works through His Holy Spirit in those one minute encounters to impact those who are taking time to engage on some level. The reality is that every minute matters in our service now as it is an opportunity for someone to engage with a church community for the first time.
For us these one minute views have led us to invest significant time and resources into ensuring our live-stream is as solid and consistent as we can make it. We want to minimize distractions. We work to ensure that we don’t have dead space in our services, and also have often de-centralized our sermon so there are different segments and parts that people could engage with throughout the morning. We also have our worship often spread throughout the service. In Covid I’ve switched from preaching off point form notes to preaching off a full manuscript so I’m intentional in everything I am saying. These are some of the things we are doing to try and leverage those one minute views. None of these things were drastic changes. None of them are life-changing. However we want to do what we can to engage the best way we can with those one minute views as well as the rest of those watching that morning.
There are a lot of other metrics we could evaluate. I for instance also am tracking the number of minutes viewed in total, we could look beyond our livestream numbers to engagement with the services throughout the week as people access it on demand, etc. We have decided to not overthink the metrics. We want to know how our engagement is going in relation to past weeks so we can adjust our services, technical issues, etc. as we need to. Ultimately we are still, and always should be, dependent on the work of the Triune God in the lives of each individual, and us as a community as we move forward in faith through this unique season of the church. Now we as the church are in a season where the church has new and wonderful opportunities to engage and reach the world in ways they never have had before.