The Unseen Congregation
by John Partridge
You might have noticed that I’ve been trying something new. It’s not totally new, but I’ve been trying to do it more consistently. What is it? I’m trying to remember that our entire congregation isn’t sitting in the sanctuary but is gathered, collectively, online as well as in the pews. I read an article recently that resonated with me when it said that those of us who were livestreaming should address those online as if they were present. The goal is for us to make those on-line feel as if they are included as participants in worship and valued members of the congregation and not just watching church on television.
For most of us, the online part of our ministry is invisible and that’s why I have sometimes given a statistical summary at the beginning of the year. With all the busy-ness of Covid I didn’t do that last year, but I think that it’s still an important reminder that our ministry is larger, and spread wider, than just the people that we see in church on Sunday morning. That has been true since I first started posting sermons online in 2008 or 2009, has been growing in importance ever since, and grew even more as everyone went online during this pandemic. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
In January of 2018, Christ Church had 172 “followers” on Facebook. By 2021 it was 228, and this past year it grew to 248. By internet standards this is still a small circle of influence, but it reminds us that whenever we post sermons, or announcements, news, photos, or anything else about our church, there are more people watching than we might think.
The same is true of our Sunday morning messages. As I mentioned, I have been posting the text of those messages since 2008 or so, and tracking subscribers since 2009. In October of 2009 a 3 (three) people downloaded a Sunday sermon, but today that number has grown to almost 700 per month. Subscriptions to those messages have grown from 333 in December of 2019 to 411 today.
And that brings us to our YouTube livestream. When COVID-19 started, we were dumped headfirst into the world of online worship. We didn’t have time to prepare, and we all thought, at the time, that it would all be over in a few months. For both of those reasons, we didn’t take the time to launch a new YouTube channel for Christ Church, but instead just used the one that I already had. We “launched” online worship with the six (yes, 6) subscribers that my channel already had for my random rocket, railroad, and travel videos. Since that launch, I almost never use my channel for anything other than videos for Christ Church, and our subscribers have grown from 6 to 86. Over the course of 2021, more than 1300 computers watched videos on our channel and the people sitting at those computers watched a total of 857 hours of video.
It’s clear that there are a great many “invisible” people behind computer screens who are increasingly connected to Christ Church. Statistically, visitors will connect with a church online before they even consider stepping foot in the door physically, and some of those online visitors do indeed come inside. We’ve already brought some of them into membership. But our reach goes beyond Alliance, Ohio. We know that some of those who watch our services on YouTube are shut-ins, medically fragile, Covid cautious, former members, family members, and others out of town, and out of state that want to stay connected. But a measurable percentage of visitors to our YouTube channel were from India, and the people reading those sermon texts this past year were from the United States, Canada, India, Ireland, Philippines, Australia, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Pakistan, China, Slovakia, United Kingdom, Kenya, and 37 other countries.
I have often explained that posting sermons online was entirely accidental. I started copying, and eventually posting, sermons because I type a manuscript rather than trying to preach from a handful of bullet points on a three by five card. I do that because I’m a better writer than I am a preacher, and because I’ve never had the confidence to preach from a handful of notes. I have never taken credit for whatever success (however limited) we have had online. The credit has, and should, always be given to God. In Isaiah 55:10-11, God says:
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
That is exactly what we are seeing as we continue to grow our presence online. God is at work, through us, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in Alliance, Ohio, and around the world. I hope that all of us will be mindful that there is an “unseen congregation” worshiping with us each week. Our worship, and our ministry, reaches far beyond those of us who sit in the sanctuary.
Isn’t God awesome?
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