Years ago, I developed a course entitled “Catechesis and Community,” looking at new forms of Christian community and how the faith was being transmitted in a post-Christendom world. I included a whole class on “online church.” At the time, the inclusion of a digital Christian presence was met with raised eyebrows as some openly asked, “online church – is that even a thing?” My, how times have changed! After more than a year of pandemic with closed church buildings, so many congregations have played catch-up with their digital presence, and the theologically fraught questions of how to live out an incarnational faith like Christianity in an “ex-carnate” online space. My colleagues Jason Byassee and Andria Irwin have just published a new book entitled Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age. In it they ask out loud a question many have been wondering, “how can the church use technology with hope, rather than being used by it?”
If fear of technology kept many churches from engaging digital opportunities prior to the pandemic, now, out of necessity, many are asking what a post-pandemic church with a digital ministry will look like. As Carey Nieuwhof recently observed, if the question following the pandemic is, “Should ministry be digital or physical?” then the answer is, “yes.”
Will churches continue to build upon the gains made during the pandemic with relational connections online? The Angus Reid Institute’s recent poll of faith-based Canadians this spring seems to think so. The survey revealed that more than three times as many people say that they would maintain the availability of online services rather than discontinue them post-pandemic (56 percent versus 17 percent respectively). Recently, I was working with a Reformed congregation that has seen such an increase in online worship attendance during the pandemic, the leadership decided to name one of the elders specifically as the “online Elder” for pastoral care and support, especially for those not living locally. How is your congregation preparing now for the post-pandemic world that is fast approaching?
In resourcing local congregations these days, I ask, “What is one thing you have started as a church during the pandemic that you hope will continue?” and “What is one thing you have let go of as a church that you hope to never pick up again?” As you might imagine, the majority of responses to the first question involve technology, and the positive impact it has had on church life. For example, many have said that small group ministry is easier to access from home (no travel time) and breakout rooms provide a more intimate space where more introverted people can find their voice. Others have noted that hosting evangelistic outreach programs like Alpha online connects with a wider group of people than before, and the barrier of having to enter a church building to explore Christian faith has been removed. And of course, there are many who comment on how online worship enables those who were previously unable to attend in person (due to mobility, health, transportation or weather concerns) can now participate more fully in worship of Father, Son and Spirit.
But what about the things we have stopped doing as congregations during the pandemic? Will we leave those behind? Many of our “church traditions” involving fundraising have paused, such as flea markets or rummage sales as well as social gatherings. Looking to a non-pandemic world again, technology comes into play. Church leaders have told me they are wondering how many committee meetings they really need, and whether they could have them online. Really important conversations are already underway in many churches about the use of their buildings and how they might better leverage their physical assets for Kingdom work in light of what COVID-19 and technology have taught them.
In their book Following, Byassee and Irwin argue that the digital space does not replace the need for in-person gathering. Instead, the digital relationship should lead to the incarnational. Indeed, we all live hybrid lives these days – partly online and partly in person. As many Christians long to return to the personal connections lost during the pandemic, the question remains: Has this extended experience of digital community life changed our patterns of behaviour and gathering for good?
This feature was published in print alongside A church of every tribe: online services fall short on accessibility by Christina Van Starkenburg.