Why do church online?

Jeff Reed invited me to be on a panel discussing the “why” of church online. We tackled the big questions about what it really means to be the church in an online context, and identified the strengths and weaknesses of building relationships through digital channels. These are my detailed responses.

Written by

Randall J. Greene

Published on

Go BackDigital

At the Church IT Network conference last week, I was invited to be on a panel of folks discussing the “why” of church online. We tackled the big questions about church online, dialoguing about the importance of it, what it really means to be a church in an online context, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of building relationships through digital channels.

Jeff Reed, our moderator sent us a sample of his questions ahead of time to allow us to prepare. And since I process my thoughts by writing, I typed out my answers to the questions. I highly recommend listening to the full panel conversation on Jeff’s podcast, The Church Digital, or on The Church.Digital website – that way you’ll get to hear amazing insights from the full panel, the rest of whom are deeply engaged in actually doing church online. But I also wanted to share my thoughts with you all. In this short series of blog posts, I’ll share my complete answers to the questions Jeff posed, many of which we weren’t able to get to in the panel discussion. 

1) Is church online just so people can watch from home?

Currently, my church has a pretty limited approach to church online. We stream our Sunday worship services online and have found that it’s really helpful for people in nursing homes, homebound, and for people who are blind or have disabilities that impact their mobility, because it allows them to access the content of our weekly services when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate at all.

Streaming our services online also allows people to remain connected with our church when they’re traveling. At our church, we have a lot of businesspersons who travel on a regular basis, as well as many older folks who go south for the winter, and we often hear from them that our online worship is deeply meaningful for them.

Beyond livestreaming our worship services, we also publish a podcast of our weekly sermons and livestream some of our midweek classes.

We’re currently building a platform that will allow groups within our church to share conversations online through our mobile app, just like they could do within Facebook groups. We are building this within the context of our app because we know that the world of Facebook can sometimes be a toxic, harmful environment for people, so this will allow us to maintain some separation between the toxicity of Facebook and the (hopefully positive) environment of our church’s mission and ministries.

2) What is church? Can church online meet that standard?

A church is a community of folks who come together across lines of social division to live as Christ taught us to live.

All of us who have been around the church for a while know that the church is more than a building, more than a two-hour block of time on Sundays, but we still default to those ideas when we use the word “church” conversationally, so it gets confusing. In the last year or so, I’ve found myself subconsciously starting to use the word “community” in place of “church” when I’m talking about the actual full-bodied, faith-filled life of what it means to be the church.

Church cannot be described as set hours of time contained within any set of physical or metaphorical walls, because the Christian life is fundamentally a posture of existence. It cannot be sectioned off from certain areas of life because it permeates the very fabric of our being, transforming us individually and collectively into a new creation. Church is the way we interact with the people around us; it is our character, how we live when no one else knows; it is how we treat ourselves, others, our creator, and God’s creation; it is reflected in the moment-by-moment decisions we make every day.

Because of that, I believe that, to the extent that we already exist online, we are already doing church online. The question isn’t whether we can be the church online – the question is how we will be the church online. And if we’re not actively and intentionally working to improve the way we are the church online, we are failing to adequately represent Christ in that space.

3) What are the weaknesses of church online?

These are some of the objections I hear all the time:

  • It’s impersonal: We’re unable to be physically present with people when we’re only engaging online. 
  • It’s shallow: There’s no real commitment to attending online – people can just tune in on their couch in their (proverbial, of course) underwear. 
  • It’s consumeristic: People are there for what they can get out of it, with no concern for how they can give back, because there are no ways to serve in an online context.

When we try to make digital church a replication of what we do in a physical space, it does come up short. But OF COURSE it does! A digital context isn’t a physical context, so we function differently inside it, and it works differently for us. This doesn’t mean that we can’t build a church in an online context – it just means that we need to do it differently. 

4) What are the strengths of church online?

Church online flattens hierarchies – to some extent, it eliminates the realities of “margins” in our societies. If one of the tasks of the church is to be good news to the poor and powerless in our societies, then social media is a wonderful gift to the church. It is no exaggeration to say that justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have been successful because of the way social media flattens societal hierarchies. In a social media landscape, anyone can have a voice – in the history of the human society, we have never had such a vehicle for magnifying the voices of people on the margins.

This is not to say, of course, that social media is a completely positive medium. There are many risks and concerns that rightly come with it, to say nothing of the general sense of societal upheaval that stems from the sudden changes in social authority (which we’re seeing play out right before our eyes these days), but those dangers don’t negate the positive changes that come from it. We must be self-aware of the dangers, but we also must not neglect the potential.

In addition to a flattening of hierarchies, church online also allows us to be connected to our communities throughout our days, regardless of where we are at any given time, or whether we’re traveling, or whatever. When we have a question or need, we can reach out to our community immediately. We can maintain our relationships through little touches that permeate our existence, rather than needing to wait for a weekly assembly. This allows us to be better at embodying the church when we’re at work, at school, shopping, or doing other parts of our daily routines.

The danger that arises with this is that continual availability often comes with an expectation for us to actually be online continually, which psychologists have demonstrated is an unhealthy pressure for us to feel. We must be balance perpetual connectivity with intentional times of disconnection. We can’t allow the 24/7 potential of messages to become the burden of always being “on” to respond to needs – that’s why we have a community of people supporting one another. When I need to be offline, someone else will be available.

5) What is your church’s vision, and how can church online help?

My church has two statements that relate to this question:

  • Purpose: To build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.
  • Vision: To be used by God to change lives, strengthen churches, and transform the world.

The type of vision I’m outlining for church online here connects directly with these two statements in that it takes the work we (as a church staff) do for Sunday worship and empowers our congregation to embrace it throughout the week. As a church, we can’t have our doors open for people to use our facilities at any/all hours of the day, but digital channels can allow them to develop those relationships at any time. In the same way, our physical buildings don’t have enough room for small groups and communities to meet whenever they want to, but digital tools allows them to meet at whatever time works for them.

But these tools aren’t only for localized, interpersonal connection. The global nature of the internet means that we can connect in groups all over the world. One of the church-related Facebook groups I’m a part of has a ton of participants from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, and my understanding of my own faith has been greatly impacted by the conversations we have in that group about how our churches and lives look different in our various contexts. We can use online church as a means of transforming the world – and as a means of allowing the global church to transform our own world.

6) I’m broadcasting my services online. Is that enough?

Pastor Douglas Estes, in his book SimChurch, talks about the difference between watching a church service and being a participant in a church service, and the distinction he makes has really stood out to me ever since I read it. He says that we’re not participants in an event until we have the capacity to disrupt it. For example, if someone is sitting in the pews of a church service, they could stand up and shout to interrupt the pastor and disrupt the service; but if they’re watching a service online, they have no way of truly engaging with what’s happening in the sanctuary – all they can do is watch.

This inability for people to fully participate in livestream broadcasts has changed the way I think about video streaming and its role in online church. If a church is streaming their services to allow people to learn from the sermon and hear the music, that’s fine… but I wouldn’t call that “online church.”

Online church has to be bigger than that. It must be a descriptor for the way we are intentionally using digital tools to deepen the Christ-likeness of our community. This includes a worship component, but it also has to include discipleship opportunities, spiritual practices, relationship development, service, and evangelism – all of which can exist or be facilitated within an online context.

7) What does “community” look like in church online?

I think most of us are underestimating the way digital technology and social media are reshaping our world today (although those of us in the room right now might well be the exceptions to that).

We often make comparisons between the advent of the digital age and the invention of the printing press, examining the ways in which they both initiated dramatic revolutions in the distribution of content to the masses. That’s probably a fair comparison, but I also think the internet is doing something much deeper than that – social media and related innovations are challenging our very conceptions of what it means to be human. They are reshaping what it means for us to be in community with one another.

Walter Ong has a book called Orality and Literacy in which he examines the existential differences between literate societies and pre-literate (oral) societies. What he describes is that the people in those societies have profoundly distinct ways of conceptualizing their entire existence. They think differently about time, about relationships, about history, and so on.

From what I’ve seen and studied in the digital age, I believe we are in the infancy of another shift just like that.

  • Twitter is fundamentally changing the way we think about time – news that would have been considered “breaking” twenty years ago is, in the same amount of time, considered “old” (and probably “fake”) now.
  • In a Snapchat generation, the idea that we might build something (like this sanctuary) that is meant to last for 100 years does not compute.
  • For those of us who grew up online, the idea that [we did something stupid when we were a teenager and posted it online] weighs much differently than it does for folks who grew up before social media.

My point is this: I don’t think we know what community within an online context truly looks like yet; we are still in the infancy of this fundamental ideological shift, and we need Christians to make sure the shift isn’t being led just by the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, but that the church is helping lead the way into an understanding of online community that reflects the type of community God has shown us we as humans need.

But my conviction is this: Community within a digital context is not something that will be self-existing, as if the digital context is a separate world or sphere of existence. Community online is not a metaphorical building that a person will enter into for an hour a week and then exit from. Online community is emerging as an intrinsic part of our new existence, and the work we do needs to be in light of that reality.

8) Hebrews 10 tells us to not abandon meeting together. How do we respond?

Hebrews is a letter to a group of people who were under persecution for the ways they lived their faith, and chapter 10, when we look at it in context, is a call for them to be encouraged and to gather together as a means of sharing the hope they have in Christ. The ones who “abandoned meeting together” were doing so to avoid persecution – the author of Hebrews was telling readers that their witness to Christ within their community was more important than protecting themselves.

Fundamentally, I would agree with your pastor that we shouldn’t abandon meeting together. I don’t think online church can replace the physical community of people that are around us. But I do believe that doing (or being) the church online empowers us to be better embodiments of Christ throughout the day – because digital connections can permeate our days, online church allows us to be and share that hope continually, rather than just once a week at a church service.

In that sense, church online actually allows us to “meet together” – in the sense used in Hebrews 10 – on an even more regular basis than our weekly worship does.

9) How do I talk to leadership about Church Online / Online Ministry?

Tell stories about people who’ve been changed by their online relationships with other Christians.

I’m guessing you’ve probably already tried talking through the statistics and data – the capacity to reach hundreds/thousands, the Facebook algorithms, the toolsets, etc. If your church is like most of the churches I’ve spoken with, leadership gets excited about the data right up until they actually have to invest in it. Then it stalls out, because it’s hard to invest in something that’s such an unknown.

Stories are powerful drivers. Stories speak at a deeper level than data – the data is necessary to have, because they’ll want to see it, but the stories provide a lasting motivation.

10) I’m just a small church with no budget. Is church online too big for me?

My friend Sunie is a pastor of a small church in Ponca City, Oklahoma, but she shepherds a much larger flock of folks through the way she uses Facebook. Using nothing besides her personal Facebook account, she teaches, preaches, and ministers to hundreds of people online. She builds community there in her local community, but she also fosters connections with people she’s never met in real life by asking questions and mediating online conversations.

Doing church online doesn’t have to be expensive, it just takes time and thought – we need to be intentional about doing it well.

11) Should every church do church online?

Not necessarily (but a “but” is coming). We all have our niches – for everything there is a season, right? I think the trajectory of our society is leading toward digital permeation of our lives, but that doesn’t mean all of us have to rush into it. We need churches and people who are going to lead the way to help shape what community looks like in a digital context, but that doesn’t mean all of us need to be at the forefront of it.

BUT we need to recognize that, whether we do it intentionally or not, the people in our churches are already “doing church online” in some way – we know this because they are already doing life online, and by living online, they are representing Christ online.

12) What does it look like to plant an online-only church?

I have a hunch that an “online-only church” would quickly and naturally become an “online-only church that occasionally gets together in person.” I was a part of a Facebook group once that was like this – although we didn’t call it a church, it was a bunch of Christians who were loosely connected in real life (most of us didn’t know one another outside of Facebook), and over a period of about a year we developed pretty close friendships online. It didn’t take long for us to find a way for many of us to meet up in person.

And I think this is healthy. We are embodied people, and we ought to seek an embodied community. Digital tools are extensions of our bodies (as Marshall McLuhan would say), but they don’t replace our bodies. 

13) What does church online look like ten years from now?

The digital world and the physical world will become more synthesized together, rather than being seen as distinct planes of existence.

We will pendulum swing back out of heavy-reliance on digital tools, but that is not a return to a past without cell phones – it is a new, blended reality where social media is increasingly integrated into physical existence. Rather than replacing our face-to-face relationships, social media becomes a better agent of extending our face-to-face relationships.

As a society in the year 2029, the realism afforded us in our tools for digital connection will help us better understand that the people on the other side of the screen are human.

At the same time, our online human-to-human interactions are supplemented with increasing numbers of interaction with artificial intelligence. As an example, my Google phone (right now!) will screen calls that come in for me. As another example, much of the direct messaging we see online today is done through chatbots. 

This type of mediation within our interpersonal relationships will become the norm, making it more difficult for us to tell the difference between an authentically human interaction and an AI-supplemented interaction. Because of this, we will struggle to know when to treat an interaction as if there is a person on the other end and when to treat it as if it is a bot. When we are uncertain, we will tend to treat it as a bot (because that is easier for us – there’s no requirement to be compassionate or empathetic toward a bot).

In 2029, most of our church communities will therefore not be online-only in context, although many of them may be regularly mediated through online platforms. They will have in-person components, whether those meetups are once a week, once a month, once a quarter, or once a year. The meetups will allow us to verify that we’re having real interactions with real people and solidify the depth of the relationships that have been formed on a day-to-day basis online.

In that way, the digital and the in-person contexts will be symbiotic, working together to create intimate and complex relationships that nurture our senses of individual and collective identity.