Growing New Congregations – Online

Growing new congregations can seem daunting as we are faced with continuing lockdowns and a global pandemic. For many parishes, the challenge of loving and engaging their existing congregation in a digital world is – rightly – the focus of much hard work. But research has shown that one in five people joining an online church service each Sunday are not those who normally attend church. Many parishes are beginning to recognise this opportunity to reach out to new faces – some based in their community, others from much further afieldeven as far as Africa.  

Two parishes in particular, St Mary’s Hitcham and Winslow Benefice, have seen significant growth in online church attendance and have found opportunities to welcome these new visitors and invite them into the church family. Read on to see how God has been at work through these online communities.

From Revd Sue Sampson, St Mary’s Hitcham: 

St Mary’s, Hitcham, is a small church on the edge of Burnhamnear Slough. We have a gathered congregation coming from Maidenhead, High Wycombe, Stoke Poges and from BurnhamOur electoral role is 82 and in normal times we can welcome 60-65 people across our two Sunday services.  

First steps online

When COVID-19 struck last year, like many churches, we were devastated that we could not worship together in church. But within a week, I was sharing daily reflections on Facebook and by the second Sunday we were livestreaming our services – initially from the vicarage and later in the church. It has been incredible to witness the number of people joining us online – far more than we ever saw in church! And the numbers increased as we extended our posts beyond our Group page, Facebook St Mary’s page and into the main Facebook Forum.

We identified quite quickly that some would join us live, but many more would view the reflections and service throughout the day. For example:

Reflections – 5-10 people engaged with these live but by the end of the day, this had reached over 70. 

Sunday services – 25-30 attended live but by the end of the day we could reach 120. 

How to connect with people?

There is one word of caution – we know that all those viewing the services don’t necessarily stay for the whole time, but we do know from the engagement figures and those who ‘like’ the page that our numbers have increased significantly. But here is the key issue – how do we make real connections with these new people, some of whom are from Uganda, Kenya and Australia? What happens after the crisis and lockdowns allow us to resume our services? 

We have had two new people actively join our church because of live streaming and they came as soon as we were open for services. It isn’t many yet, but it is a start.  

Investing in and thinking long-term

At St Mary’s, we recognise that these ‘new digital’ congregations really matter. And just because the lockdown may end, they might not come to the church building. What they are engaging in is their church. So quite early on, we took the decision to invest in some equipment that allows us to livestream as best as we possibly can. We had issues at the beginning – and still do from time to time – but we know that we will be continuing to invest in our digital congregation for some time to come and we want to do the best we can.  

To make better connections and to engage with these congregations in a deeper way, we are currently doing two things: 

  1. We have just launched a ‘survey monkey’ questionnaire of eight questions and invite all who visit our livestreaming to take part. We have only been doing this for two weeks but have a good response so far, with one person giving us her contact details. Small, but important steps. We are asking what encouraged them to visit us and participate in the services, what else they would like to see, and if they want to keep in touch via email or phone. In this way, we can improve our provision and meet their needs. 

  2. It is essential that we engage and respond to comments made on the Facebook page at the time they are made in the service. We are in the process of finding people who would like to do this. In this way, people can see they are being listened to and that we care about them. When we are back to some normality, we will be able to invite them to join us for social events and even church. I have one lunch set up as soon as lockdown is lifted! 

This may sound quite simple and many of you are doing probably doing this and much more. But I honestly believe that we have so much potential to reach out to new people for the Kingdom of God and even grow new congregations. 

From Revd Andrew Lightbown, Winslow Benefice:

Engaging online early

As with all churches, COVID has forced us to learn on the hoof, as we go. We made an early decision to provide online worship on a Sunday morning, with the worship very much reflecting the tradition of the church. We offer a Sung Eucharist, whereby the choir record the mass setting and a hymn from their homes and send it to the director of music, who edits and mixes it. Since restrictions have allowed, we have recorded the service from church. We have recently added BCP Evening Prayer and Compline into the mix. We now provide two Sunday services, as well as a weekly Sunday School (Little Acorns), a daily variant of Midday Prayer and a hymn for the day. 

‘Watch parties’

Like many churches, we don’t know some, perhaps many, of those who are now engaging with us. They come and attend on their terms, alongside the regular congregation. What we have become aware of, however, is something called the ‘watch party.’ What happens is that a ‘host’ invites family members and friends to join them for the service, where the service is the ‘traditional’ offering of the parish church. The host can discuss the service and remain online with their guests after the service. I am aware of three regular watch parties and of other watch parties being set up around specific, one-off, services (our online nativity for instance). 

Exploring new opportunities

We are looking at ways of encouraging others to act as ‘hosts’ in what I am beginning to see as a hybrid Parish-New Congregations model. I like the word host as I think it is softer than ‘lay leader,’ (I also think it has a nice theological resonance).  One of the interesting things has been that the person who hosts the largest watch party has very explicitly said that she finds it far easier to invite family and friends to join her online than she would to invite them to physical church. 

The Holy Spirit has been taking the lead and showing us the way in this new COVID-world, and our role is now to join in with this expectantly and prayerfully.

What happens next?

These are inspiring and exciting stories, that show us the real potential to invite and welcome more people into church and in a new, digital context. As Revd Sue Sampson rightly asks, how do we make real connections with new people, and what happens when the lockdowns end and we resume normal service? Are we considering the long-term potential to grow church online?  

Share your online stories

If you have stories to share about the growth of online church through your Sunday or midweek services and activities, please get in touch. We would love to share your stories and support all our parishes explore the future of digital church as a way to grow new congregations. 

Get funding

With many more churches live streaming services from within the church building, the need for internet connectivity and wifi is greater than ever before. We recently received a generous donation from a private donor for the purpose of offering grants of up to £1,000 for churches investing in bringing internet into their church building in preparation for live streaming. We are also able to provide funds for churches wishing to purchase a livestreaming kit. Read more and apply now.