I assure you this isn’t about boasting, but our recent Sunday Facebook Live services have garnered a huge (for us) total: 1400 reached, 500 views, 60 comments, and nearly 300 clicks and likes, all since the beginning of the lockdown.
I repeat: this is not about boasting. W E Sangster said “ A crowd isn’t an achievement; it’s an opportunity.” But what sort of opportunity is it?
Firstly, who are these people? Most of the comments and clicks come from the 40-50 of our own households who are signed up to Facebook, but there are another 10-20 of our regulars who watch without having a Facebook account. When you factor in the numbers in the households, plus children, we are probably catching most of our usual congregation of 90-110. So who are all the rest?
We know there are people who are on the fringes of our Sunday services, who would attend only occasionally. Perhaps they are irregular because normally they can’t be bothered to get up on a Sunday morning, but now they can attend in their pyjamas. Also, there are many who are connected to our youth work, Pre-School, or parenting classes who would not think of coming on Sunday, but who have found their way to us because of the other videos we are putting up – parenting advice, craft for children, short Bible devotionals. Others will be present just because their previous usual Sunday routine took them elsewhere at 11.00, but now there is a space in their schedule. Perhaps others have kept themselves at a distance from church because of the fear of coming into the building, but they can now do so anonymously. And there will be some who dip in just because they have seen a comment by a friend about the service.
So what is going on? It occurs to me that this is a bit like an open air meeting. As the meeting progresses with its singing, preaching, tract distribution and conversation, people wander past. Many don’t stop because they are not interested, but maybe they catch a snippet of Bible text. Others pause to listen from a distance for a few minutes. They don’t want to be button-holed by the zealots, but they are struck but what they see. Others are curious enough about what they witness to stop and stand a little nearer, and are content to receive a tract and exchange a few words with the church team. Still others come close and listen. They don’t stay for the whole time, but they have engaged with it.
There will be other ways in which people interact, but the encouragement for the team will be that the seed of the word has been sown in many lives. They won’t know what effect it will have had in those brief minutes, but they will pray that it bears fruit. That is what appears to be happening with the Facebook “congregation”. People are wandering in, perhaps briefly, but who knows what vital truth they may encounter? Evangelists are always saying that you can never predict the impact of a well-placed tract: people suddenly find one and it speaks to them in their greatest trial. The Gideons always have testimonies of people whose lives were changed when they stumbled on a Gideon Bible in a hotel in an hour of need. So who knows what impact the content of an online service will have on those who surf past? And when it comes to chatting to people in the crowd, we have had some of those conversations with a few people already.
So this isn’t about counting numbers, or assuming that we suddenly have an online congregation of thousands who hang on our every word. Nor am I sure we will have such an online following once we are unlocked and life goes back to normal. It’s simply about recognising that we are in a season of new opportunity and praying for the seed as it is broadcast. So make sure you hit “Like” to let your friends know you are “in church”, share some spiritual links with your contacts to help them find Jesus, and above all look to God for a harvest from these unexpected openings.
Ian Rees is the pastor of Salway Evangelical Church in Woodford