From Social Distancing to Social Presence: Bringing Community to Online Ministry13 min read

The current crisis has forced us to rethink ministry and mission. Our old ministry models of large gatherings and close personal contact are not safe, nor are they permitted under government guidelines. Until recently, very few of us even knew what “social distancing” was. Now the need for social distancing has changed much of how ministry is done in our country.

For congregations, the primary focus has been on public worship. Articles about livestreaming, micro-worship services, and drive-through communion have increased in the last few weeks. Congregations have sought new ways of conducting a safe, yet meaningful worship service for their members. Yet there is a critical component most often missing in the congregation’s attempts to strengthen the body of Christ through technology, and that element is social presence. In the online education world, social presence describes the individual’s sense that they are truly present in an online group. When a person experiences social presence in the online world, they experience genuine affirmation, encouragement, and community. Social presence is the individual’s sense that they are truly experiencing the online event. Until the individual can experience social presence, they will feel as if they are a spectator or voyeur and not a part of the event. Social presence is developed over time and through intentional strategies of engagement. Livestreaming worship services and morning devotions are beneficial. However, engagement is not watching a livestream or listening to a video/audio podcast. Engagement is a “one another” activity. You know, the “one another” passages of the New Testament. There are about 100 “one another” passages like love one another, encourage one another, or forgive one another.

One another passages call the individual members to support, care for, and encourage their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Engagement is not a “pastor to the people” model of ministry, but a “member to member” model of ministry. As important in the New Testament, the one another engagement activity often involved physical contact. The most challenging, at least for our culture, is Paul’s encouragement given multiple times to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Jesus said in John 13:14 that we should wash one another’s feet. We are encouraged to serve one another in Galatians 5:13 and to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the spirit in Ephesians 5:19. Hebrews 10:24–25 challenges, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Unity in the church is expressed as the right hand of fellowship.” In the early days after Pentecost, the church crammed into homes and other small spaces as they met daily for prayer and the breaking of the bread. From the early days following Pentecost forward, the strength of the congregation was equated with the size of the gathering and genuine fellowship expressed in a handshake or a holy hug. We need to develop digital equivalents, particularly if these days of social distancing continue for an extended period.

Many congregations have scrambled to put together a livestream or streaming worship service. Too often, the focus has been on replicating portions of the service that can be approximated through technology. Little attention has been paid to the overall process of developing social presence. The result is a streaming worship service that feels more like a TV show than a worship service. The missing ingredient is fellowship, the lived reality of community. A face to face worship service is bathed in fellowship, holy hugs, a warm handshake; caring smiles shape the context in which God’s Word is read, and His grace is received in the Sacraments. While nothing can substitute for the immersive experience of physical presence, we can and should do more to engage the body of Christ through our use of technology.

Creating an engaging online experience requires a three-point strategy. First, gather people together at the same time. Because engagement is a member to member ministry activity, we need to gather people, through technology, at the same time. Second, create opportunities for the participants to interact with the content and with each other. Third, develop post-worship online interaction opportunities for the participants.

Step One: Gather People

Whether your worship service is livestreamed or a streamed pre-recorded service, keep the congregation together by encouraging people to gather for worship at their regular time. In times of uncertainty, routine becomes a stabilizing anchor. More importantly, attempts to create an engaged “one another” community will not succeed in an asynchronous environment. You want people listening and engaging at the same time. If your congregation has four services on a Sunday, be committed to having the pastoral staff and the required technical support staff involved for each of the four worship services. You want to create windows of opportunity to gather the congregation for worship online, just as you did for physical worship. You can make your service available for streaming on-demand after the regular Sunday Schedule is complete. You want to encourage people to participate at the same time so that they can interact with each other. It can be difficult to control access to the video once it has been made available online. However, both Facebook and Vimeo give you control over when the video feed becomes available and how long the video becomes available.

I would encourage that at the same time your worship service was supposed to start, you share a brief welcome. This could be done through the chatbox or video through a webcam. If you have more than one service and there are more service times ahead, make the video feed private until the next worship service.

Step Two: Create Opportunities for Interaction

Social presence in an online environment will not develop without multiple positive experiences of social interaction. The least threatening method of interaction is the use of polls. Polling for the opinions or reactions of the participants is an excellent way to get them engaged. However, it is still a very controlled form of interaction. The moderator of the poll keeps control of the process. Polls are the safest form of interaction when the gathering includes over fifty participants. Commenting is another form of interaction. When the participants are encouraged to post comments about the topic, they get a sense of belonging, and it increases their positive impression of the experience. Commenting involves a bit more risk on the participants’ part as it requires them to share their opinions. Spelling and the desire to be grammatically correct can add to the stress. Unless the comments are moderated, which they always should be, commenting is risky for the congregation. People tend to forget their social filter once they become comfortable posting comments.

The use of a chatroom is similar to posting a comment, except that it is interactive. People are expected to use the chatroom like a text messaging conversation. Like text messaging, grammar rules and spelling are largely thrown out the window, so the process is not as intimidating. As with commenting, the use of chat poses some risks and challenges for both the participant and the ministry. However, the chat room promotes one of the highest and most desired forms of engagement possible in the online environment.

The final type of interaction is live video and audio conversation. While the process of talking is not new, talking in a group through technology is different. The social constraints that prevent people from talking over each other in face-to-face conversations are different in online conversations. This difference, combined with the time lag that may occur, can make video and audio frustrating. It should not be used for groups over ten or twelve participants. Engagement through interaction can be accomplished through a variety of strategies depending on the platform you choose.

One strategy for engagement could involve a combination of live video and streamed video for the service. For example, before the sermon, remind people that the prayers will be offered following the sermon. Encourage them to submit a prayer request using the chat feature or by emailing the person who will organize the prayers. If the number of people in attendance is small, you could encourage people to use the chat function to share requests and encourage others through simple words of encouragement. During the sermon, the pastor could include a poll or encourage people to ask questions using the chat function. If you do encourage interaction using a chat function, I recommend the use of a moderator to manage the chat messages. It is too difficult for the pastor to focus on the chat, preach, and manage the flow of the liturgy. While it is best for the moderator to be in the same room with the pastor, the position can be off-site.

Polling and chat functions are not part of YouTube live or Vimeo. You can use their comment features to accomplish the same task, but the comment features were not designed for that purpose. The features are native to Facebook. However, as I’ve said in other posts, the number of people with Facebook accounts is a small percentage compared to those who use traditional website technologies. LifeChurch.TV, the church that developed and manages the Bible App, has a free service that provides an immersive community environment around Vimeo and YouTube. It is called Church Online Platform. The platform synchs video with the chatroom. It has powerful moderator functions and encourages online prayer. As with all the good stuff the church produces, the service is free.


Another option for creating opportunities for engagement would be to use the Zoom platform. While the pro-license will set you back $15 per month, the plan includes up to 100 participants and a call-in feature that allows non-technology people to listen to the service through a standard phone line. For an additional $5 per month, the plan will support up to 300 participants. In addition to great chat and interactive features like polling, the system supports the integration of a secondary video source, like a PowerPoint presentation or a music video feed, allowing the sermon or worship slides to be viewed with an inset video feed of the pastor. Because Zoom supports video and audio, there is a tremendous potential for interactivity. One easy setup would be to have the pastor introduce the service using a webcam, then switch the feed to a video with the music, the Scripture readings, and the sermon. After the sermon, the feed would switch back to the pastor to share the prayer requests and offer up the words of prayer. The service would conclude with announcements and then switch to another video with the concluding worship music. For an even more interactive and engaging experience, the pastor could preach the sermon live, using a webcam. He could ask questions during the sermon, and the moderator could manage the chat room responses. Unless you have fewer than 12 people online, I encourage that you only allow people to interact with the chat function. Managing the audio and video of the participants becomes distracting in larger groups.

Groups are another great feature of Zoom. You can manually assign people to groups or have Zoom do it automatically by numbers. In the individual group rooms, the participants can use the video, audio, and/or chat to share prayer concerns and encourage each other. It is essential to have a moderator in each room to help people get comfortable with the technology. Zoom has some limitations and a bit of a learning curve, one of which is the lack of toll-free phone numbers in either of the lower tiers (so people who call into the service may have to pay long-distance charges). A toll-free option can be purchase for $100 per month.

Having systems in place to increase engagement is critical. However, the interaction strategies will not succeed without educating and training the membership. Many of the providers have a library of video tutorials. In addition to recommending the tutorials, your staff should produce tutorials that are specific to your worship service. The tutorial would cover the benefits of engagement, the use of the technology, and the next steps that the member can take to learn more. Make sure that the staff and the key leaders are fully aware of how to use the technology. Their confidence will instill confidence in others.

The more we allow people to witness our care for each other through our online interactions, the more clearly they will see God’s love for them. For the dynamic of witness through online worship to occur, we need to design interaction into our online worship. We need to be intentional in creating easy paths for people to join in the community interaction. Whether we are using Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, or Zoom, we need to develop easy ways to share how people can connect with us. For those who use Facebook, use the watch party feature every Sunday. The feature makes it super easy to invite people to participate in the livestream. For other platforms, create the watch part dynamic by including a countdown time for the next service on the website and a quick link to access the virtual space you create for your meeting. Avoid the use of extremely long URL’s. Use your website or to make the process simple. Gatherings that don’t require pre-registration are the best option for first-time guests.

Step Three: Develop Post-Worship Interaction Opportunities

The interactivity of Zoom is useful for worship services, but it really shines for Bible Studies and devotional gatherings, and for gatherings under 40 minutes, Zoom has a free account option. Imagine a daily devotion that could include a recorded message by the pastor and then a period of prayer and encouragement moderated by an Elder or a member of the congregation. Not only would this strengthen the community, but it would also help your people become comfortable with the technology. Researchers have found that after several positive experiences with technology, it becomes transparent to the user. Over time, the online groups will experience the dynamic of social presence, the sense that they truly were gathered together. It takes time, patience, and practice to develop social presence, but it will happen. Once social presence has developed in a large enough percentage of your congregation’s population, online gatherings will feel like live gatherings and people will engage.


Here’s my challenge to you as you plan your worship services and devotions: include interactivity. Get to know your technology so that you are comfortable with it. Watch the video tutorials. Conduct dozens of trial runs. You know you are ready for livestreaming or streaming when you are sick of the whole process. If you want to explore Zoom, get a free account, launch a meeting, and play with the technology.

This article focused on the importance of interaction or fellowship in our online worship experiences to build community and strengthen the congregation. The article contains recommendations that were presented in broad strokes. If you would like to try a Zoom-based interactive devotion to experience the process for yourself, send me an email, and it can be arranged. If you would like assistance with any of the recommendations, you can contact me at

Photo (c) Pearl/Lightstock

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About the Author

Rev. Dr. Todd Jones is Assistant to the President – Mission Education and Support for the Michigan District

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