What the Online Church Can Learn From Online Education


by Rev. Dr. Jessica H. Jones

This season in ministry has forced churches everywhere to move to an online environment, exploring video conferencing, live streaming, pre-recording and video editing segments for their website, and trying to navigate pastoral care for those not connected, as well as those already saturated with online content. Someone joked last week on our clergy call that leading an online church was definitely something that was not taught in seminary!

While navigating this pandemic is happening within our churches, our schools are facing unprecedented upheaval as well. Teaching online takes specific training because learning behaviors are different in an online environment. Many teachers are frustrated that they are being thrown into online teaching without adequate preparation, recognizing the different skillset necessary to craft effective instruction across technology.

I live in both of these worlds. My training and background are in both ministry and education, and in fact, my current area of research is in clergy teaching style and adult learning in congregations. Listening to colleagues navigate both sides of this pandemic has shown me again how those of us in fulltime ministry might benefit from what the field of online education already knows. 

For instance, research in online learning environments has shown that online learners have a drastically reduced attention span for presentations compared to those learning in face-to-face presentations. In fact, one study showed people’s attention span in an online environment was approximately 6 minutes long, whereas an average attention span for a lecture is arguably 10-15 minutes. In order to keep people engaged, the facilitator must draw the learner back in through interaction or change in environment somehow, thus starting the clock over for one’s attention span. How might churches adjust online programming knowing this?

A church is not a classroom; however, one could argue it is a primary place people go to learn about God. In fact, I would argue they are inextricably linked. Any clergyperson could explain spiritual formation through ritual activity; the truth is, we know we learn and are formed through repetitious activity, we know we learn through symbolism, we know we learn through worship, we know we learn at church. We know humans learn through relationship, and understanding worship as a dialogical relationship between God and his people leads us to see learning through that relationship, as well. If we are learning through our relationship with the Lord, and that relationship is nurtured at church, it is helpful to consider at least what we know about human learning while staring at a screen for hours on end.

Depending on what you are trying to accomplish virtually as a church, and depending on your technological capability, here are four best practices from what we know in online education transferred to suggestions for adjusting online ministry:

(Click on the chart to enlarge)

One disclaimer here: the purpose of all of this is to minister to people, not to entertain them. Therefore, when making choices in an online environment don’t focus on bells and whistles, but instead focus on how to dialogue with your people. Focus on connection. All of these suggestions are made with that intention, not the implication that churches need to produce high quality theatrics. No, the focus of this article is to encourage churches to have personal connection with the people, which cannot be done through live streaming alone, nor can it be done if we present long lectures delivered without understanding the limitation of an average human attention span.

No matter what you try, commit to continuous improvement. Ask for feedback from trusted members and slowly work to incorporate their feedback. In this season we are aiming for people over perfection, and faithful over fancy. It will not be feasible to incorporate all of these things, but keeping them in mind as you reach parishioners through computer screens will help retain relationship and encourage ongoing formation during this pandemic season.



Bunce, D. M., Flens, E. A., & Neiles, K. Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Clinical Education 87(12), 1438-1443.

Guo, P. J., Kim, J. & Rubin, R. (2014). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos, presented at ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, New York, 2014.

Maltese, A. V., Danish, J. A., Bouldin, R. M., Harsh, J. A., & Bryan, B. (2016). What are students doing during lecture? Evidence from new technologies to capture student activity. International Journal of Research & Method in Education 39(2), 208-226.

Martin, R. K. (2003). Education and the liturgical life of the Church. Religious Education, 98(1), 43–64.

Ozan, O. & Ozarslan, Y. (2016). Video lecture watching behaviors of learners in online courses. Educational Media International 53(1), 27-41.

Jessica H. Jones is the Canon for Next Generation Discipleship in the Gulf Atlantic Diocese and a deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. Jessica also serves as the Associate Academic Dean and Thesis Director at the Webber Institute for Worship Studies and is a PhD Candidate in Educational Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University.