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Pastor How (Tan Seow How)   pastorhow instagram
Pastor Lia (Cecilia Chan)   pastorlia instagram
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Stay connected
Pastor How (Tan Seow How)
pastorhow instagram
Pastor Lia (Cecilia Chan)
pastorlia instagram
Heart of God Church (Singapore)
hogc instagram

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This article appeared on Outreach Magazine on 24 July 2020.

Length: 5-minute read

Optimizing Online Services Without Cannibalizing In-Person Services

I keep hearing people say, “When it is back to normal…”
Guys, that ship has sailed.
Even when it is ‘back to normal’, it will never be the same again.
It will be a new normal.

Church as we know it is over.
The debate about online church is over. Online won.
Stop trying to stuff the online genie back into the bottle.
Instead, use your three wishes.


Wish #1: I wish for my church to be strong in BOTH online and in-person services.

The online church has moved from the sideline to the front line.
So now you need to build BOTH front lines.

The nature of content consumption has morphed from in-person to online. 
Your faithful church-going congregation has been exposed to the online church.
Your regular face-to-face customer has been introduced to internet order and delivery.
They have now tasted the honey and they like it.

While the traditional in-person service attendees are generally faithful to their ‘home’ church, the online viewers are polygamous. 
If you don’t have an online option, they will just drink from another well.

The unchurched have also taken that half step towards church and Christianity.
You can’t cut them off after the coronavirus crisis.
As much as we want things to go back to normal, we don’t want those seeking and searching to go back to normal. 
They are literally so close (digitally) and yet so far (physically).

If you have not already done so…
Start planning and preparing to permanently hire, redeploy staff/volunteers to your online church/business.
Start allocating a permanent budget and resources to your online church/business.
Shift our thinking permanently—we don’t have a main church plus an online department. 
We have two main churches or two congregations—on-site and online.
We have two storefronts—physical and digital.

Hendro (left) is one of the newest members of our ever-growing IT ministry. He joined at a very exciting time! Check out his story.

Wish #2: I wish for my in-person service to offer something unique that online cannot.

From what I hear, the big concerns of having both online and in-person services are:
“We will lose physical attendance.”
“Christians will get lazy and lose the habit of attending church services.”
“We must not lower the bar for church commitments.”
“We don’t want to cultivate a consumer Christianity by making it even more convenient.”

All very real concerns.
Trust me, they crossed my mind too.
I have been trying to solve this puzzle for a long time.

Here’s how I see it.

  • The online church is for the unchurched and non-Christians. It is primarily for evangelism and integration. It is designed to reach people who don’t go to church anyway.
  • The online church is just an introduction to church and Christianity.
  • The online church is just an appetizer for people to check out your church. 
  • The online church is a tool for Christians to invite their family and friends to church—albeit online. It is a lower commitment, less intimidating half step.
  • The online church must have a roadmap leading (almost nudging) the interested seekers towards the on-site church. 
  • The online church is not a substitute for already church-going Christians.
  • The online church is for those who cannot physically get to your church because of distance, travels or sickness, etc.

But how do we practically educate Christians about this underlying purpose? We can’t possibly control our members to not watch online and compel them to come in person.

Here’s what you need to think about: what makes people want to come to an in-person church service?
How do you prevent your online service from cannibalizing your in-person service?
What part of church life will they NOT be able to get online?
What is non-downloadable?

I can think of quite a few…

  • Fellowship
  • Corporate atmosphere
  • Face-to-face ministry
  • Holy Spirit encounters
  • Kids’ church
  • Youth ministry
  • Volunteerism—serving
  • Purpose
  • Revival
  • Belonging
  • Warmth, buzz, vibes and energy
  • Discipleship… real life, real time, on the job
  • And many more…

The Non-downloadable Elements
(Click on arrows to view more)

My team has been experimenting and trying to solve this puzzle at Heart of God Church for a long time.
This is how you can differentiate your online and in-person services.
It is almost like producing two kinds of content for two audiences. In essence, almost like building two churches. (See Wish #1)

That is why it is important to build a Strong Church, which is the church model that HOGC is built upon. In HOGC Experience (HoGcX), our yearly pastors’ intensive training course, we teach about the 5 Pillars of A Strong Church, all of which are non-downloadable.

5 Pillars of A Strong Church
(Click on image to enlarge)

HoGcX is a five-day all-access intensive training course for decision makers, influencers and implementers.
HoGcX is a five-day all-access intensive training course for decision makers, influencers and implementers.

Here’s the common mistake.

  • If your online service is just an identical recording of your in-person service, then it is a substitute. Consequently, people will just stay and watch at home.
  • If your church is built solely on the teaching/preaching eloquence of a ‘gifted man of God’, then guess what? All oratory content is downloadable. Consequently, people will just go online to get their weekly fix of their favorite preacher.

Good and bad news.
Bad news is, if the church is built on the ‘revelational’ content or oratory performance of a preacher, he/she may be able to build a huge following online but it will also offer nothing unique to get them coming in person.
Good news is, if your church is built on non-downloadable elements (listed above), then the pressure is off your stage/camera performance and the load is shared among all the other departments.

To prevent the online services from cannibalizing in-person services, the on-site church must offer the non-downloadable elements.
What makes people get out of the house, prep the kids, commute to your physical building are ______???
Figure this out and they will come.

So whether or not the on-site and online church become a zero-sum game depends on how you build both.
Future-ready churches are those who can clearly differentiate the purposes, audiences, content and elements for both platforms.
Future-ready churches build an in-person service by focusing on the elements that are non-downloadable AND build an online service by focusing on the unchurched, teasing them and leaving a breadcrumb trail that leads to the physical church.
The future belongs to churches who can do BOTH online and in-person services.

I am not going to do the innovating for you, but this line of thinking should get you started…
Ponder over soccer, NBA or sports events like the Super Bowl.
They are broadcasted live to every home, yet people still go to the stadiums.

Some season ticket holders go religiously, others make it their once in a lifetime pilgrimage.

Sports executives have figured out how to have BOTH packed stadiums and broadcast/online fans.
The two do not cannibalize from each other. In fact, they feed off each other.
If you can solve this puzzle, you will build a Strong Church for generations.

Like any sports fan, I would prefer to watch my favorite games in person. Hopefully, our online viewers will feel the same about the in-person service.
Like any sports fan, I would prefer to watch my favorite games in person. Hopefully, our online viewers will feel the same about the in-person service.

In the movie “Field of Dreams”, Kevin Costner keeps hearing a voice telling him: “If you build it, they will come.”
Another Voice is telling us today: “If we build it (physical and digital), they will come.”

Last wish?

Wish #3: I wish for my team and I to have the commitment, wisdom, energy, tenacity and patience to make BOTH wish #1 and #2 come true.

The HOGC Staff Team. Together, we will make both wish #1 and #2 come true!

Heart of God Church on Outreach Magazine

Read this article by Outreach Magazine (a leading US-based Christian publication) for a peek into our history.

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  1. Mike Kai says:

    Not a lot of time to comment but… BRILLIANT!!!!! AMAZING AND SO THANKFUL FOR YOU!!!

  2. Jeffrey Rachmat says:

    Thank you my friend! Very helpful.

  3. Arnel Policarpio says:

    Thank you Pastor,
    This is an eye opener for every church leader who wants to adapt to the new normal..
    God bless your ministry

  4. Grateful for the insights. May the Lord bless you.

  5. Rev. Blair Cuares says:

    Powerful Revelation for both Online and On Site Church.This is a big help for our Church.Thank you very much Pastor…God bless you more!

  6. Agnes says:

    Thank you Pastor. It’s an insightful material that is current. As the Lockdown are being eased in various countries the new normal calls for a lot of consideration. God bless you.

  7. Catherine says:

    So true, insightful and practical.

  8. Benjamin says:

    What an awesome read.

  9. judith says:

    This Wow! Simply Amazing……thank you very much God bless you more & more in the LORD!

  10. Remy Moreño Aral says:

    Thank you so much! A real eye-opener, and a great challenge! Very relevant to our times!

  11. Cherie Low says:

    Read this not once – but digested it TWICE.
    This has been so helpful and a paradigm shift for every church pastor, management, leader… even the church builders! THANK YOU, Pastor!

  12. Alex Low says:

    WOW this is all just so so true!!!! This crisis may just be temporary but it very much has an effect on how people are going to church from now on!! As a BIG sports fan I can not help but to agree that there is a world of difference between watching a match live in the stadium than to watch it online!! It just doesnt beat being there…. soaking up the atmosphere… the chants… the announcers over the PA… none of these can be found online! And its very much the same for church too! Nothing is going to change ministering to people and praying for them in person. Some of my deepest encounters and revelations from God have come when my Pastors and Leaders prayed for me during revival nights in church… deep in the presence of God as the whole church worships and prays… that is not something I want the next generation to have watered down for them! Thank you for the insights and the truths Pastor How!!

  13. Huishan says:

    This is brilliant!! Love it!

  14. Tan Li Xing says:

    Thank you Pastor How, this article is a great insight for the next step for us as members in church and serving in ministries. That we can be involved in both the online and on-site church. Excited for what the future holds as we go into the new normal

  15. Eunice Lim says:

    Truly making permanent changes in this temporary situation! It is so common that people always think about how will things be when everything goes back to normal but this is actually the new normal. Instead, using this time to open up many options and opportunities. Love the insights and perspective about how online service can actually support and be a help step to the non Christians. It is really a great balance. True that it is because of the fellowship, volunteerism, disicipleship, face to face ministry and worship atmosphere is what the online service cannot replace.

  16. Huishan says:

    This is so brilliant!! Using technology for greater reach and building the intangibles in the physical church at the same time.

    I love the example of having 2 Churches, 2 congregations – on-site and online because this shows that we’re definitely not staying still and taking a pause, but we’re riding on the wave to advance the gospel to more people than before and that is progress!

    We don’t have to trade one way of doing things for the other. Thankful to be in a church that is trained, equipped and always ready to try new things in times like these.

  17. John Tan says:

    Thank you Pastor How. This is an insightful article which is not afraid to call out the elephant in the room. I am a pastoral leader in church and leading a few connect groups. During this COVID-19 season, the groups I lead have grown a significant number in size and one of my big concern was whether the people/individuals whom we have grown and added to our groups will bridge the gap of the “online church” and too join us for physical services. They have been regularly but also comfortable attending our online services behind their laptops, but I have never met them in person! My worry was that when physical services resume, I would start to lose the growth over the past months. But this article is like a bright light shone in the heavy cloud of mist in my mind. Such wisdom! It is true that while we can all watch the NBA, and our favorite sports or even concerts on television seated on our cozy sofa, we would rather go experience the games or concerts live. The buzz, the atmosphere, the pent up excitement of actually being present in person is an experience that the online platform cannot offer. Instead of worrying and thinking how to bridge the gap back to the “old normal”, we should plan for the “new normal” – where the online and physical platform serves to feed off each other.

  18. Nadine says:

    What an awesome read! A lot of food for thought. This COVID situation may be a passing shower, but the effects of it has definitely shifted the way we do church permanently. Pastor How’s article has given a lot of insights on how we can approach juggling both online and in-person services!

  19. Colin Chia says:

    As I read this article, I can’t help but think “wow… it is so true, so practical, and yet it tugs at my heart.”

    Right at the start, when it called out to “shift our thinking permanently”, that is a mindset change that I knew I needed to have.
    Practically, society and the way we do things will never be the same again – not just in the church world, but in every aspects of our current lives (food, shopping, etc).

    In the last couple of months, many of us have adapted to living on the virtual world that some habits have been formed, and we need to recalibrate to know how to suit both. It’s like F&B services will never be the same again.. Retail shopping will never be the same again.

    YET what was shared about the in-person having more than the online service resonated as it reminds me about the community, the relationships that we have in church. Nothing beats the “human touch”… when you are down, and you have someone to cry with; or when you have a win, and to have someone to celebrate with.

    Practically, as a foodie, it’s like going to a restaurant and having the full menu as opposed to a truncated menu that can be delivered. I will rather travel, make the effort to have the full experience of the restaurant with friends than to have a watered down selection, and eat at home.

    Frankly, to me, the church is like my Home! I love spending time, serving and building with the people in church.

    Moving forward, as a Staff in HOGC, I’m inspired & challenged to fulfill Wish #1 and #2 together with my Pastors for Wish #3!
    Looking forward to the future, not thinking of either… or… but of both… and…

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