Remember when most of us were attending church online—that spring and summer of 2020?
We weren’t sure how to feel about worshipping online. Or maybe we were sure, and we hated it. We might have wondered: Did we actually “go to church” if we didn’t even leave our house? We know the church is the people, not the building, but we sure struggled not being in the building.
On the other hand, it was nice to be able to turn the volume up or down when the music was too loud or the speaker was too quiet. And some people got to go to church the way they go to Walmart—in their pajamas.
Ah, the memories.
But what if online church isn’t just a memory? What if online church isn’t just an accommodation for a pandemic?
I’ll just say it: Online church is here to stay, and churches that offer some form of online evangelism, discipleship, mission and pastoral care will be the ones best placed for the not-so-distant future.
Opening the church doors
Online church opens the doors of the church to a wider range of people.
As I alluded to in a previous editorial, individuals and families with sensory processing disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder can participate in worship with their local church, even when they are unable to attend in person.
People unable to attend church in person due to physical impairments, health issues, work schedules or travel are able to maintain connection with their church when worship and Bible studies are available online.
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Online Bible studies and worship services provide safe spaces for some to investigate a church before attending in person. This is a compassionate gesture toward those who don’t trust churches for various reasons.
During the last 18 months, many churches have found joy in people joining them for worship and Bible study from out of state or outside the United States.
Online ministries have encouraged and strengthened Christians who sometimes are isolated. They also have been opportunities for evangelism and mission.
Kudos to those churches who have embraced online ministry, even to the point of hiring staff to oversee and minister to “digital campuses.” Thankfully, it isn’t always necessary to fund an additional staff position to do online ministry. Nearly every church has someone in the congregation—a volunteer—capable of overseeing at least one online ministry.
Objections and what they say about us
Not all churches have warmed to the idea of online church. Yours may be one of them. It’s understandable. There’s a sense in which online is virtual, and virtual isn’t real. Real or not, 190 million of us in the United States use Facebook, and about 70 percent of U.S. adult Facebook users are on the social media platform daily—presumably to keep up with real people.
Some churches are hesitant to try online church or outright resist it, because they don’t have a good internet connection. That’s an impediment, for sure, but if worship services and Bible studies can be recorded and uploaded later, a bad internet connection may not be an insurmountable obstacle.
Others opt out because they don’t have the hardware to record good audio or video. Money and appropriate expectations about quality can remove this obstacle easily.
Still others struggle to find someone with the technical know-how to provide online worship and/or Bible studies. This hurdle also can be jumped by a church willing to train or recruit someone to do that work.
Churches that resist providing at least one online ministry need to think through what their resistance communicates. To some, this resistance signals a church holding tightly to the past. To others, it says, “We don’t want the kind of people who do church online,” or “We’re not willing to put forth the effort to reach people that way.” If that describes your, it’s better to own it, say it and live into it than to keep people guessing about you.
If your church resists providing online ministry, but it doesn’t want to hold tightly to the past, doesn’t want to reject certain kinds of people, and might be willing to put forth some effort, then examine unflinchingly what your church is communicating about itself by what it does and does not offer.
Churches that have walked back online ministries over the last few months—such as discontinuing online Bible studies—have sent at least one message to their members who can’t return in person yet or at all. They have suggested those members don’t matter or will be welcomed when they can come back to the building. That’s a message that doesn’t have to be communicated—and isn’t true. Is it a message your church is sending?
When the time comes, and it will come
Some churches, in the clamor to get back to “normal”—meaning, attending worship and Bible study in person—seem to have brushed their hands clean of online ministry. They seem to think it was a blip on the radar, a fad or a temporary necessity. This may be shortsighted.
The churches that decided to incorporate online ministry may be among the best positioned for the not-so-distant future, depending on how flexible their hardware and personnel are.
Churches need to be online, not as a replacement, but in addition to in-person ministry. They need websites clear and easy to navigate. They need to do outreach, evangelism, discipleship, missions and pastoral care on social media or other online platforms as a complement to traditional forms of ministry, including phone calls, sending cards, and in-person visits when appropriate.
Alongside—preferably, preceding—their online engagement, churches need a robust theology of presence. They need to be clear about why they are in the online spaces they inhabit, and what they will and won’t do in those spaces.
Churches need to figure out how to incorporate at least one online ministry into what they offer. There will come a time—a short period or long—when that online option will be the only way a group of Christians has to get together. Might as well practice and perfect it now, and enjoy the benefits and blessings it can bring now.
Nothing compares to being in the same room with our brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s true. And when that isn’t possible, we can make getting together online far better than doing nothing.