Will Livestreaming a Worship Service Hurt a Church’s Attendance?

Today, hundreds (probably thousands) of churches today are livestreaming their Sunday services. But in spite of those numbers, there’s still a significant number of pastors worried it will give their members a reason to stay home instead of show up at church. I’ve searched for empirical data on live streaming and its impact on church attendance, and I can’t find any (if you know any studies, please let us know.) But at our media consulting company, Cooke Pictures, we’ve helped numerous churches livestream their services and in every case, it’s been a positive experience. As I’ve shown in other posts, the benefits easily overcome any concern from our pastors.

However, just to confirm, I also talked with Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor and innovation leader at Life.Church in Oklahoma City about their experience with livestreaming services:

“We have lots of data on different aspects of our online services, but I’m not sure what data we’d need to prove people would or wouldn’t come otherwise. Our physical campus attendance has continued to grow by double digits and we’ve had church online right on top of our weekend service times for more than 11 years. We do have people that come to those online services that normally attend physically, but it’s hard to prove if they would have otherwise come. In some cases attending the online service may have replaced just skipping altogether. The good thing is that online can keep people connected that would otherwise drop off.”

Then Bobby hit the nail on the head:

“It is definitely true that availability of content online does create opportunities for people to choose not to come physically if they are only coming to get content. But our church environments should be focused on community and experiential elements and not simply content delivery. Podcasts, Spotify, LiveStreams and more are everywhere and choosing to not have your church online won’t stop your congregation from listening to another popular pastor. They just won’t be listening or watching you. If you create remarkable experiences and opportunities to connect with others in your buildings, Spotify and podcasts won’t be able to deliver on that.”

Then he made a great point that this is just another in a long line of “concerns” for church leaders:

“I’m not a theologian or historian, but it seems like the Church has a history of being concerned how access to new technology and platforms will affect church attendance. Remember there was a time when Bibles couldn’t be printed in English, then they weren’t allowed outside of the Church, then one major denomination wanted to ban bicycle use on Sundays in the 1890s because it was thought to distract people from coming to church. I remember when tape ministry was only available to the “shut-ins.” The good news for pastors that are concerned is that they are not alone in worrying…that’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

Bobby’s exactly right, much of my Ph.D. studies were focused on the struggle pastors and church leaders have experienced throughout the history of technology. After all, many church leaders were among those who initially criticized the printing press! Working with churches for a living, I completely understand the hesitation, but perhaps if we can look back at our history, and see that all those concerns never amounted to much, then we could look forward with a greater vision for changing the world.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Bobby’s experience with Craig and LifeChurch ought to speak for itself. While we do not (now) have a media ministry like they do, I pray when that times comes I will be open minded about it and see God’s hand and work in it.

  • Vic Bolton

    I was a partner in an LLC for years that specialized in marketing, creative, and digital strategies for ministries, including some of the huge ministries in metro Atlanta. One of our services was a streaming platform, back when that was still a ‘new’ thing. We put a number of major ministries onto their first platform – always overcoming pastoral objections about potential impact on the live attendance – and in every case there was no negative impact whatsoever. In fact, it expanded the reach and enhanced the brand in every instance. My observation was that those who are physically planning to come to church will show up regardless of the availability of a stream. For them, the online presence is helpful when they are sick, out of town or otherwise unable to attend that service, but they will show up as soon as they are able. Now, for those looking for an excuse not to go or who are not as ‘faithful,’ the stream allows at least a percentage of those folks to watch who otherwise wouldn’t be present. One interesting side note we encountered was a subtle impact on giving that occurred in a few places, which may be a part of the reason pastors are skeptical. Seems there is just a tad more of a ‘pressure’ to participate when the buckets are going by in the sanctuary, versus an in-home environment where one must click the ‘Donate’ button to give online. Some folks felt that people were less likely to give at the same level online, but that concern was more than compensated for by the increased audience numbers that a streaming option attracts. It’s pretty much a no brainer now…

    • Thanks for that insight Vic. Yes – I remember those early streaming days when you were pioneering that technology. Regarding giving, we now know churches that are getting a remarkable response from their live stream audience, so I think that concern is even overcome now. Thanks as always for your perspective!

  • Tony Harrison

    My church has been live-streaming our services for years, and have had many people who told us they attended online first to get a feel for the church and then eventually started attending at our campus.
    That can be a double-edged sword though. If the quality of your live-stream is poor then it can give people a bad first impression of a church and cause them to look elsewhere.

    • Absolutely correct Tony. The quality of the stream says a lot to viewers about the quality of the church.

  • Nathan Jones

    I once spoke at a little 300-member Mennonite church waaaay up in northern Alberta that streamed their services. A whopping 10,000 streams were downloaded out of China. So, in truth, a 10,300 member church! While the people might not be physically sitting in your pews, you never know who the Lord will let your church reach worldwide.

    • Great example Nathan. I spoke at a pastor’s conference last year and met a pastor who preaches to 700 in his church, plus, has 10,000 following his live stream. Not bad!

  • So good. We do church online and it is a fully interactive experience. Life.church and others have informed our delivery and ministry.

    There are so many different elements that make a ‘stream’ work in my opinion:

    – Don’t just make it a stream. Make it interactive on the site. Give people things to do and ways to respond, not just watch.

    – Think about the way your vision is shot so that it works in the smaller space on a desktop or ipad. Where possible don’t just use your IMAG feed.

    – Ensure your speaker understands that there are just as many people watching online as in the room. Help them to understand and include people online in any response. Not just ‘come to the front’ ‘cos they can’t online!

    – Don’t, don’t DON’T include your church video news if it says ‘come to the foyer/welcome desk’ If they can’t sign-up online, its a waste of time. It makes the audience feel like they are an after thought.

    – Ensure your stream can have a multi-bit rate where possible. So that it won’t drop out if you are broadcasting to 2nd world countries.

    – Don’t be afraid of new technology. We are living in a new life-cycle era where we need to refresh our approach every 6 months/year. In a few years time, how we do online today will change – again.

    – A cultural thing. Your online congregation is a real congregation. Treat it as part of your multi-site strategy. Not just a stream.

    – Provide links throughout your site to the online experience. Countdowns. Bumpers on podcasts/videos all pointing towards it.

    – Think about how you will use social media to reach new audiences. A huge part of a successful digital strategy is right here. Move your billboard/newspaper $ budgets here.

    And….I could go on, and on, and on…. :) Good work Phil!

    • Brilliant suggestions Steve. Worth passing on for sure!

    • Daniel Burke

      Right on dude!

  • Daniel Burke

    In the last church I worked for(video/media) the average attendance for family averaged once every three weeks. So for example you needed to run announcements 3weeks out to cover all the bases theoretically. The pastor of said church had major fears for loss of attendance due to streaming, although the broadcast level video system was more than capable. Sad because, outside of attendance zones, there are people to reach… overseas & multiple time zones. Just seems short cited to me. Same pastors always want excellence in “overflow” rooms @ Christmas & Easter… a shared virtual experience, just closed circuit.
    Granted post service video was available later the same week, but eventually they dropped the worship part due to storage, bandwidth & licensing costs, so it was just the message(head speak).
    In the current church I’m volunteering with they do live streaming, but it’s kinda hack. Treating streaming like IMAG & a lousy pipeline for basic production protocol, like scriptures, images…text, changes on the fly.