When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it threw every church’s evangelism and outreach plans into disarray. We had to get used to lockdowns, restrictions, mandatory masks, and social distancing measures. Worship services and evangelistic outreach had to occur mostly online. Churches found themselves forced to adjust.
It was no different in the Chesapeake Conference. Shortly after the lockdown began, we tried to figure out how we could reach people during a time of crisis and offer them hope—especially since so many were stuck at home and feeling uncertain about the future.
We decided to put together an online evangelistic meeting that people could access and participate in from their homes. We did not know how it would go, but we knew we could not miss the opportunity to reach out to those searching for hope. People were asking questions and the time was right. We couldn’t just sit, waiting for the lockdown to end and the virus to subside. If we did that, we would miss a precious opportunity. As a result, we ventured into new territory. Online evangelistic meetings were a new experience for us as well as many other churches.
We planned a two-week series called Forecasting Hope to present the prophecies of Scripture in a Christ-centered, positive, and hope-filled way. Except for a media team, we livestreamed it from an empty church. We set up a website through which people could interact with us by live chat, email, or a toll-free number.1
The feedback we received was encouraging, leading us to extend the series an extra two weeks at the request of the viewers. In the end, more than 1,400 people registered for the seminar. We received 56 prayer requests, 57 requests to join an online Bible study group, 226 book requests, and a handful of decisions for baptism.
The experience taught us some important lessons about conducting effective online evangelistic meetings. We did some things right and did some things wrong. But here is what we learned.
1. Expect online evangelistic meetings to take as much effort as face-to-face evangelistic meetings
People assume that online evangelistic meetings are less difficult than traditional in-person meetings. They are not. While they may be cheaper, they are not easier. It takes concerted effort to get your church on board, assemble a committed media team, devise an advertising strategy, prepare for the messages, plan how to follow up on interests, and think through how you are going to interact with participants and call for decisions. Crucial to decision-making, interaction with the participants requires concerted effort, intentional strategy, and fervent prayer.
2. Make registration easy
Here is where we messed up a bit. We wanted to track people’s attendance each night so that we would know how often they watched and what their level of interest was. That is not a bad idea, but it just ended up complicating things. When a person registered, they received an email with a username and password, which they had to enter each night to access the livestream feed. Because it involved too many steps, we probably lost some viewers. After the first two nights, we did away with the login and stopped trying to track attendance. In fact, our system crashed the first night. Next time we will do it differently. Likely, their email address will be their login. The simpler, the better.
The other thing we discovered is not to ask for too much information on the registration page. Name and email are usually sufficient for online meetings. You can get other contact information, such as their address and/or phone number, by offering free books and resources during the series. Make registration as easy as possible. However, do not skip registration altogether. You need some way to be able to contact people and follow up.
3. Advertise on social media
Be intentional about promoting the seminar. If you are going to put in the effort to have a quality event, you want people to attend. To get the word out, advertising on Facebook, Instagram, or some other social media platforms is very inexpensive. If you do not know how, SermonView or any number of advertising companies can do it for you. After all, advertising would be your biggest expense even for a traditional face-to-face seminar. It’s just as essential for an online seminar. You can advertise for $500 or less.
4. Create ways for the viewers to interact with you
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of interacting with your online audience. It’s the difference between an effective meeting that produces quality interests and an ineffective one that bears no fruit. If you want people to make decisions, you must provide ways for them to connect with you. It’s just like visitation in a face-to-face meeting—except that you must find a different way to do it. Decisions do not come from the preaching. While conviction may result from the preaching, decisions come from personal interaction. That is why visitation is so important in a face-to-face evangelistic meeting. So, how do you “visit” in an online meeting? Here are some suggestions:
A dedicated email. Create a special email address for the meetings, something easy to do with Gmail or other providers. It allows people to make comments, submit questions, or request any materials you may offer (such as free books). Have someone dedicated to answering all incoming emails within 24 hours. It gives people an easy way to respond and another opportunity for interaction.
Live chat. Train members to man a live chat function during the meetings. It allows viewers to react instantaneously. During the preaching, invite people to go to the live chat where they can speak with a Bible instructor. Ask listeners, How did you hear about the meetings? Do you have any questions? How did you become interested in Bible prophecy (if that’s what your meetings focus on)? Is there anything I can pray about for you?
While Facebook Live offers a live chat as you are streaming, it is not private. Everyone can see the comments made, thus inhibiting deep conversation. Plus, many times, members post a lot of church lingo there and use it to greet one another. It would be preferable to have a private live chat function, such as those you see on business websites. SermonView helped us with this.
A toll-free phone number. During the preaching, you can keep referring to the toll-free number and inviting people to phone in. You can use the church number if someone mans it during the meetings. You can obtain a Google number and have it forwarded to a trained, trustworthy church member. Or you can partner with AIM (Adventist Information Ministry), which will provide you your own toll-free number during the meetings and take calls for you. They will then pass the information on to you so that you can follow up with a phone call.
Free book and/or resource offer. Everyone loves to receive free things. By offering books and resources on some nights, you obtain contact information, including a mailing address or phone number. You then have the options of mailing the book to the viewer or delivering it to them in person. If you choose to mail the item, follow up with a phone call a couple of days later to make sure they received it, which will lead to a conversation. Either way, it’s a wonderful opportunity for personal engagement.
Submitted prayer requests. Regularly invite people to submit prayer requests. Viewers can do this through email or by calling the phone number. You could also have a prayer request button on the livestream website (or whatever platform you are using) through which people can present their requests. There can also be an option for the person submitting the prayer request to submit their phone number and ask that someone call and personally pray with them. Then you can have a trained church member phone them, pray, and interact with them. While it’s true that many people prefer to be anonymous online, some will want contact with a live person. We had several such requests during our meetings.
Offer online Bible studies. Give people the opportunity to join an online Bible-study group. They can contact you via email or the toll-free number, or you can have a special button on the livestream website through which they can access and complete a short form to join an online Bible study group. It will give you a great opportunity to follow up after the meetings end.
5. Make appeals
It is a little more challenging to get decisions via online or digital evangelistic meetings because of the greater anonymity and less personal interaction. So, make regular appeals by inviting people to respond or engage through the interactive mechanisms we just discussed. For example, if you were going to make an appeal for baptism, you could invite them to email you to share their thoughts about the step, or call and talk with someone who would pray for them or get on the live chat where someone could encourage them. Keep leading the viewer to the interactive components. When they use them, you can make a more personal appeal.
6. Follow up with your viewers
Follow up at the end of the series by phone call or email. The conversation could consist of thanking them for watching the program and asking whether they have any questions or inquiring whether they have any prayer requests. It will take the conversation deeper and give you a chance to connect with them. You might even ask them whether they are interested in studying more in an online Bible-study group, if you have one. That would give you regular, future contact with them.
7. Do not be satisfied with likes, views, and number of subscribers
Likes, views, and subscriptions do not necessarily translate into decisions. While they might indicate whether people are watching or listening, these statistics do not mean people are making decisions and growing closer to Jesus. Although entertainers care about such statistics, soul winners focus on decisions. Interact with the viewers and lead them to decisions.
8. Have a good media team
Media team members do not need to be experts, but they do need to be knowledgeable, committed, and consistent. Poor audio or video, bad camera transitions, or starting late because someone did not show up sends a message to the viewer that what you are doing is not worth watching. Quality is important.
9. Form a committed prayer team
Choose a group of prayer warriors who will pray during the meetings. You can also give them all the prayer requests that come in so that they can continually lift them up in prayer. The team can even phone some of the viewers who submit requests and pray with them. Your people should take notes on their interactions with the viewers. Prayer not only moves mountains but, more important, it also moves hearts.
Nothing beats being able to meet people one-on-one, but online evangelism can be an effective component of sharing the message. When you combine personal, public, and online evangelism in a master plan, a congregation can cover all the components of sowing, nurturing, and reaping, and reach people—like Ellen.
“Ellen,” was a young adult in her early 30s. A friend had told her about the Forecasting Hope meetings, and she began watching regularly. During the meetings, she began emailing us and sharing bits and pieces of her life. Eventually, I called her on the phone to pray with her and let her tell more of her story. She had stopped attending a church more than 13 years before, but watching the meetings online began doing something in her heart. She made her decision to be baptized. It turned out she was actually moving to our area three weeks later. So we made plans to have lunch with my wife and connect Ellen to a local congregation where her desire to be baptized could become a reality.
There are many people just like “Ellen” in the online world who are searching for Jesus and truth but are not ready to walk through the doors of a church—at least not yet. Through online evangelistic meetings, we can reach their hearts and nudge them in the right direction.
- SermonView partnered with us in creating the website. You can view it at ForecastingHope.org.