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Should We Show a Crowded Sanctuary on Our Church Livestream or TV Program?

Will showing a crowd look good, or are people still concerned about COVID?

One of the biggest questions I’ve been asked over the last year is on a church livestream or TV program whether or not we should show crowds in the sanctuary during a worship service. In one case, a church showed the congregation but then received indignant letters from people saying they would never attend that church because it wasn’t safe.

On the other hand, you hate to never show the congregation or worse – show lots of empty seats. So what do you do?

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely uses psychological research to advise on everyday dilemmas, and he had an interesting answer to a similar question recently in The Wall Street Journal. Here’s what Dan suggested:

Dear Dan,

I own a small comedy club, and we’ve struggled with ticket sales during the pandemic, even as restrictions have been eased. Last weekend, for the first time in a while, we sold out a show and had a long line out the door. I wanted to post a picture on social media, but I was worried that the image of a crowd might put off potential patrons. Is this a reasonable concern?  —Juan

You are contrasting two social forces and asking which is stronger: the power of norms (everyone is going to your club!) or the fear of gathering in crowds.

A study conducted in China in 2020 sheds some light on your dilemma. The study found that 37% more people dined out when they were told that their neighbors were also doing so. The researchers noted that in an atmosphere of uncertainty, information about what other people were doing (a descriptive norm) weighed heavily. Without the uncertainty, however, the descriptive norm made little difference: The researchers told subjects that all their neighbors were doing something considered to be perfectly safe (visiting a park), to virtually no effect.

In your case, I suspect that the picture showing people lined up for your club would be appealing. You could also add reassuring information, like noting the improvements in local Covid conditions or the precautions your club is taking to protect patrons, such as mask requirements and proof of vaccination.

For a church, that means show the congregation, but perhaps use an onscreen graphic to let people know that the church is continuing to follow recommended guidelines. You could also have a pastor or livestream host make mention that the Covid mandates are now being relaxed and invite people to the church.

While we’ll always get some pushback during times like this, Dan’s suggestion for a comedy club makes perfect sense for a church!

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  1. In the early days of COVID, our full auditorium shots airing on TV, I would add a graphic saying, “Service Recorded on 1/15/20”. Now since COVID, on both our stream and broadcast, we show reasonably full seating. We just don’t show as wide of a shot as we used to. I don’t shy away from empty seats here and there, but I don’t show an empty room. Since we have folks attending who are maskless and those who wear masks every week, I make sure to so them both. We want to show we have all kinds and everyone is welcome. Of course we’re in Texas, and we’ve been open and mostly mask-free since May of 2020…

  2. We had our biggest (non-holiday) attendance of our services EVER this past Sunday, Feb 27. Very, very few masks except in designated areas. We can only attribute this to the CDC changing their guidance on indoor masking the week before. And yes, online live attendance was down, but only slightly and not a the same ratio of the in-person attendance. So maybe the fear is finally in decline.

  3. Back when I was in radio, we operated under the guideline that only 10% of the audience was “active” – meaning they would ever call in with a request, enter a contest, send a complaint, etc. Unless we did something really egregious, we would never hear from the vast majority of our listeners.

    That let us know that despite what praise or criticism we might receive from listeners, we were only going to hear from a tiny proportion of them, so all of it needed to be taken with a grain of salt.

    The other thing I learned from research when I was in the banking industry is that an unhappy customer is 6 – 8 times more likely to provide feedback on service than a happy customer. So six or eight complaints to every one compliment probably meant our service was about equally split between complaint-worthy and compliment-worthy.

    Just something to keep in mind regarding viewer comments. It’s easy to get a handful of complaints and figure everyone’s unhappy or a few compliments and believe you’re the greatest thing ever.

  4. So true Ron. I once worked for a CEO who would completely change our national advertising based on what his barber told him. Needless to say, it led to chaos….

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