Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Ideas for Swimming Upstream(ing) with Online Church

asian family with baby watching church online on laptopPhoto Credit: ©GettyImages/twinsterphoto

According to the research of the Barna Group, one out of every three practicing Christians are not watching online church services during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Don’t hit the panic button just yet. It doesn’t mean they are leaving your church, much less the faith; they just aren’t watching you online.

And there might be a reason.

Hulu recently released findings detailing four different kinds of streamers. Among those who use various streaming services, whether Netflix or Disney+, their study revealed that people don’t use these services in any one common way. Further, each subgroup consists of different demographics with different psychographic traits.

Hulu Identified Four Groups of Streamers

Here are the four groups:

Therapeutic Streamers. This is the largest of the four groups, and consists of those who stream content as a way of decompressing. Their chosen content often has a nostalgia element. Think streaming Friends. Demographically, it’s the closest to the population as a whole.

Classic Streamers. This is the group who watches at set times with family, friends, or a partner as part of a daily routine. They are more likely to be married, and somewhat likely to be more affluent than the average.

Indulgent Streamers. Can you say “binge?" An indulgent streamer will take a weekend and race through an entire season, or multiple seasons, of a series. This group tends to skew older and is more likely to live alone.

Curated Streamers. The smallest of the four groups, these are the people who seek out series and movies that create or drive cultural conversation—a conversation they want to be able to engage. Demographically they are likely to be Generation Z.

Could There Be Differing Groups of Christian Streamers Online?

I would argue that it goes without saying. But let’s not consider them as different kinds of streamers so much as different kinds of “interactors” with streaming and, in particular, online services.

Here are four groups to consider:

The Dialed In. Barna’s research found that one out of every three are not following services online. But that means that two out of every three are. That’s the vast majority. However, that doesn’t mean they are watching your church’s offerings, even if it is the church of which they had been a part.

The Fatigued. Let’s face it, there is a serious case of online fatigue right now. Unplugging is in, and being online (at least as much as we were) is out. Unfortunately, many lump online services in with everything else they are purging.

The Needy. There are those who crave interpersonal interaction and the experience of in-person corporate worship. All Christians should embrace the importance of both, but there are some who consider it their life-support. Not only will they eschew online offerings as inadequate, they will seek out any and every church that is daring to open in order to experience what they so dearly miss.

The Disappointed. Finally, there are the disappointed. They faithfully went online, but the content, quality, and value was dismal.

Ideas for Each Group

Let’s see if we can combine the Hulu study and my own stab at the ways people are viewing online church services.

For the dialed in, give them what they miss. Give them as much of the service they loved as you can online. They are your “Classic Streamers.”

For the fatigued, put on your leadership pants and cast the vision of elevating the importance of spiritual content. Yes, a little less “Baby Bum” might be good, but not less of what your church has to offer. Further, consider digging into your archives and providing some nostalgia that will warm their hearts, such as highlights from the recent past, or even a “best of” series in light of services and talks. In other words, care for your “Therapeutic Streamers.”

For the needy, try and offer as many physical experiences as you can. You may not be able to open, but you can offer alternative experiences that honor social distancing while allowing social interaction. Consider them your “Indulgent Streamers,” and the more you can combine the physical with the digital, the more the digital will serve.

For the disappointed, it’s not simply about quality, but relevance. Did you speak to the pandemic in light of issues related to hope and fear, faith and perseverance? Did you speak to the killing of George Floyd? If you didn’t, you added to the disappointment and lost the “Curated Streamers.”

We’re all swimming upstream these days, or more to the point,

…swimming upstreaming. 


Garth Franklin, “Study: There Are Four Kinds of Streamers,” Dark Horizons, July 21, 2020, read online.

Brandon Showalter, “One Third of Practicing Christians Not Watching Online Church Services During COVID-19 Lockdown: Barna,” The Christian Post, July 12, 2020, read online.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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