The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major shift in the ways churches conducted their ministries. Congregations that had been doing some form of online ministry (such as any congregation I’ve been appointed to – every single one has been engaged online in some form or another) suddenly had to increase their activity out of necessity. Likewise, churches that had never done online outreach were left scrambling because their physical doors were shut. The biggest misconception was that the churches were closed during the pandemic. The churches were never closed, they simply changed locations from a physical one to one in the digital realm. These ministries – even ones done with the pastor’s smartphone from their living room – had tremendous impact because, not only did the people of the church remain plugged in, new people were reached and were offered Jesus in ways that were barely thought of previously. Since that time, many congregations have even increased their online ministries with the realization that online ministry is no longer optional, it is essential.
Since physical doors have reopened and people began returning to their pews, many congregations have, unfortunately, scaled back or even eliminated their online presences. I believe this is a major mistake and is actually antithetical to the Great Commission. The crux of Jesus’ message was for the church to go to where people are and make them disciples. Reality is, people are found online and that’s where the harvest is ripest. So, imagine my dismay when a church from my own annual conference shared this on their Facebook page last night:
I want to be clear that I do not share this to shame them, but to illustrate that congregations really are taking this stance. This is often in a misguided attempt to “get people back in church.” Many laity I’ve talked to about online ministry have the notion that streaming and other forms of online ministry are keeping people away from church, as in the physical location, and that people who worship digitally are not “really in church.” This is a myth. They miss out on the fact that online ministry and streaming (streaming is but one aspect of online ministry) are connecting people to churches like never before and in ways that have been impossible for the church to do previously. They also miss out on who is engaging (no, it’s not just “kids”).
If a church is not engaging with people online, then it is being ineffective. This is 2022 and we must stop fighting technology – and reality – and instead embrace the fact that we have an amazing tool that allows us to spread the gospel to more people than our buildings can even hold. The reality is that online ministry today is not optional, it is essential. I have all sorts of data and studies that I could quote on why online ministry is vital but, instead, I’d like to present some things that I have witnessed personally as I have led my churches to engage online.
Homebound People Engage!
Assumptions are often made that only young people are interested in streaming the worship service but I’ve found this to be far from the truth. What is true now and has been true for the entire time that I’ve been live streaming is that our homebound parishioners are the largest group of people who tune in. I hear from homebound parishioners nearly weekly and they are so grateful for being able to remain plugged in to what their church is doing and they enjoy getting to sing along, hear the prayers, and the sermons every week from wherever they are. When I was a youth, I can remember making recordings of the sermon at my church and making copies of the tapes(!) to send to our homebound people. Now, streaming enables these dear saints to simply log in and hit play without having to wait for a disc. Facebook groups can also enable them to share in prayer requests, congregational happenings, etc. Obviously, this does not replace face time with the pastor and friends from church visiting, but streaming and other forms of online ministry do enable one to be more fully plugged in.
Online Attendance is Attendance. Online Giving is Giving.
In spite of my own use of the terms, I wish we would get away from adding the qualifier “online” when we talk about those who worship and give digitally. The fact is, these spaces are just as valid and real as the brick and mortar buildings where we worship. There are a variety of reasons one would choose to worship online. Sickness is a major contributor, with many people having conditions that will not allow them to be in many public spaces due to the risk of exposure of COVID and other illnesses that could actually kill them. Perhaps it’s a family on vacation, traveling on Sunday who choose to listen to the audio portion of the service while they drive to or from their vacation destination. The reasons why do not really matter; what does matter is that they are still hearing the gospel and are still singing the hymns, praying the prayers, saying the liturgy. God still honors this and receives it. as a blessing to himself from those who are striving to grow closer to him. Remember this too: Assuming you have an online giving portal available for your church (and if you don’t, you’re truly missing a major opportunity), they are still giving their offering even if they aren’t putting a physical check or cash into a plate. The faithful are still being faithful. I even have someone who, to my knowledge, has never had. a connection to one of my churches but who faithfully watches the live stream and even contributes monthly through our online giving site. This is God at work!
Here’s more food for thought: Before I began writing this article, I looked up the stats for the videos of last Sunday’s worship services at my two churches. By best estimates, an extra 10 people joined one of my churches for worship and an extra 20 joined the other last Sunday. People are being reached for Jesus who may not otherwise have been! And why? Because we live stream our services.
Online Often Leads to Analog
Studies show that when people are seeking a new church, one of the first places they turn to is Google and Facebook. People will preview a church and its ministries through the websites and social media pages before stepping foot into a building. They will typically watch a recording of a service to get a feel for how the church worships so that they know what to expect. In every congregation that I have served and where we have streamed, nearly all of the people who have visited in-person have told me they first found us online and watched playbacks of the worship services before deciding to come for a visit. In almost every case, these folks became some of the most involved parishioners I ever had. Recently, I had a family begin attending physically because of our online ministries. The wife had previously been connected with the church, been away, and came back when she found the church’s Facebook page. Yes, some people will choose to only participate online (the reasons why are varied), but most often worshipping online leads to occupying a seat in the physical sanctuary. Any church not streaming and engaging online is missing opportunities to invite people to worship who they likely would not have the opportunity to find otherwise.
Let’s Bring It Home!
I want to be clear that, not once, have I ever advocated for the physical church to be replaced with a digital one. I do not believe that churches should go fully online and stay there. With that said, we need to rethink what church is and what participation actually means. To be frank, what most church call “outreach” is ineffective and only serves the congregation that’s already there. Outreach in 2022 must include digital outreach and ministry in order to meet people where they are today. Church is not becoming a mixture of physical and virtual spaces, church has already become that. The church must embrace online ministry instead of fighting it. History has proven time and again that when the church resists new ways of ministry, the end is not good.
The church must go to where the people are. In the days of Jesus and John Wesley, the people were in the town squares and the fields. In our day, the people are online. Let’s do as Jesus instructed: “Go.”