3 Important Ways to Rethink Church Online vs. In-Person

Dr. James Emery White

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Goran13

The two most frequent questions I get asked from other pastors during this surreal time of pandemic, affecting all of us globally in so many ways, are “How do you keep people engaged?” followed by “What do you do differently in your online service than you did when in person?”

Since I addressed the first question in my last blog, let’s tackle the second one now. Without a doubt, there are three very specific, very conscious, changes we made at Mecklenburg Community Church for the online experience that you might want to consider if you are a church leader:

1. Rethink How You Offer Worship

First, rethink how you offer worship. Perhaps the best word is how you “present” worship. For example, whatever you offer in terms of music, ask yourself whether you are offering it as a presentation to watch or as worship to engage.

Those are our buzzwords. We evaluate anything musically in terms of whether it is “presentation” (something to be watched) or “worship” (something to be engaged). Yes, sometimes the best moments are when the two areas converge, but it is an important separation, nonetheless.

What a lot of churches are doing is offering “worship” as a presentation to watch. But if you were to ask them, they are hoping it is worship to be engaged. Discerning the difference is a bit of an art, but one we try to practice.  

For example, when I’m reviewing what we put online (and I review every service, in full, before it is put online), I’m looking at several things: are we erring on the side of too much presentation and not enough worship to be engaged? Is a vocalist leading or performing, meaning are they acting like they’re singing to a packed auditorium or reaching into the intimacy of a living room?

So much is about eye contact and whether the band and singers are themselves worshiping as they sing and play. The goal is talking to people and leading people as if they really are with you online and not in person. 

Yet they feel like you are talking to them in person.

None of this is disingenuous or inauthentic. It’s simply about trying to reach out to people in the best way possible because you genuinely care about reaching out to people in the best way possible.

2. Rethink How You Deliver the Message

The same is true with the message. Speaking personally, I’ve changed my speaking style since we’ve been entirely online. I went from standing behind a lectern to sitting behind a small music stand for my notes. 

I look directly into the camera instead of looking from side to side and up and down as if I were in front of audience. Why? Because I’m not, and those watching me know it. 

I talk more personally and directly because I am talking more personally and directly. I’m not speaking to a crowd; I’m speaking to someone who is either alone or with their spouse or family in their home. It’s a much more intimate setting, and if you don’t realize that, you’re misreading the medium.

What we’re after is to have what we offer online to be authentic to what everybody watching knows is reality. And not simply authentic to that reality, but catering to that reality.

3. Rethink Length

One of the realities that isn’t often considered by churches is that attention spans, which were already shortening in our culture, are even shorter when viewing online as opposed to participating or watching something in person.

Don’t you find this to be personally true?

Let’s say you go to a service or conference… would you even pause about a session or talk being 30 minutes long? But what if you are online and you are baited to consider a video that you can see will be 30 minutes long. Are you going to click on it? Not likely. Online, you are more inclined to watch something that is three minutes or less. 

Online offerings – including services and messages – should be shorter in length than in-person offerings. I was pretty much in the 30- to 35-minute range when we had services in person. Online, I try to be in the 20- to 25-minute range. Our entire online service is usually 45 minutes or less. 

It’s a different medium, and people engage it differently.

And as a different medium, we should offer it differently.

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, 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 @JamesEmeryWhite.