By Brian Richard
For pastors, the last decade has presented a perfect storm of cultural upheaval, societal trends, and accelerated change. Pastors constantly face difficult and pressing questions about how to “do church” in the twenty-first century. Since the internet has fundamentally changed almost every aspect of our lives, many ask, “Why shouldn’t the church change too?”
With a trial by fire, COVID-19 accelerated churches’ need to embrace technology and adapt to the changing culture, and there is no indication that things will ever be the same. Some churches, anticipating that circumstances would quickly get back to normal, resisted moving online altogether. Others established a temporary online presence and then discontinued once the initial panic subsided. Yet others soon recognized the value of developing a hybrid church model that offers various ministries both in-person and online. No playbook exists for ministering in a pandemic, but by God’s grace and through His empowerment, churches forged ahead.
In the weeks and months that followed, the technological hurdles became slightly easier to overcome. But unanticipated ecclesiological questions surfaced, proving to be the most challenging of all: What aspects of a worship service can be replicated online, and what is best omitted? Various aspects of a worship service can be attempted online with various degrees of success, but what about fellowship, community, discipleship, and evangelism? Is social media a viable alternative to meeting face-to-face? What about those in the congregation who are not tech savvy or have no way of accessing the online content? Are they just left out?
John Dyer comments,
People may be initially attracted to a church for its preaching, music, or building, but they stay because of the relationships they form and the community they experience. (The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online by Heidi Campbell, ed.)
Undeniably, communication in the twenty-first century is vastly different from that of any previous time in history. On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at the Macworld Expo, and as they say, the rest is history.
Consider the music evolution from 45s, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now access to any music of any genre through apps and online streaming services. Technology changes so fast that we can only imagine what the next couple of decades will bring. Virtual reality, gene editing, artificial intelligence, 3D food printing, quantum computing, trans-humanism, and DNA storage are a few technologies that have the potential to change our world while sparking spirited cultural debate.
For better or worse, technology is changing us. It is therefore our responsibility to understand the impact these changes are having on us as followers of Christ.
Young Adults Desire a Hybrid Option
We are ministering in a day in which most people are living a significant portion of their lives online. The internet is not just a place people go to; it’s the place where people live, especially young adults.
Author and speaker Nona Jones remarks,
When people are hungry, they tend to look for food, and many people order their food online. If you and your local church are not online, you are missing a vast sea of fish whom Jesus sent you out for. (From Social Media to Social Ministry: A Guide to Digital Discipleship)
During the height of the pandemic, a Barna/Stadia survey revealed that only 41 percent of churched participants born in 1999 to 2015 said that they would eventually return to primarily in-person worship. In addition, only 42 percent of churched participants born in 1984 to 1998 said they prefer primarily in-person worship. This means most participants in these segments of the population want an online option.
Young people desiring to build digital relationships should not come as a surprise. They have come to adulthood during the era of online dating and gaming.
Digital evangelism is yet another ministry opportunity that Christians and churches have in their toolbox to reach the masses of people around them. Social media has revolutionized the way people communicate.
“A whopping 2.7 billion people, more than a third of the earth’s population, are active on Facebook every month,” Nona Jones points out in her book. She comments,
This is the exact inverse of the percentage of people attending a church service on the weekend: two in ten. If you knew that 80 percent of your community gathered every day in one place, wouldn’t you strongly consider building a church there? (From Social Media to Social Ministry: A Guide to Digital Discipleship)
Social media has become a massive mission field and, quite honestly, one in which the church needs to engage. It is an opportunity to reach out beyond the walls of the church with the love of Christ in a way that is intentional and inspiring.
As a result of churches’ unprecedented move to online worship services, new opportunities to share the gospel have opened around the world. Many people who had never darkened the door of a church were able to view a church service from the comfort of their homes, and as a result, God has been transforming lives.
Hybrid Church Can Increase Connection
Hybrid church—offering ministries both in-person and online—should not be seen as a one-hit wonder that worked in a pinch but is relegated to the category of “been there, done that.” The hybrid church model not only has provided a platform to operate in unprecedented times, but it has opened the door to increased participation and connection. It has allowed a continuity of ministry that has never been possible before. Those who are sick, handicapped, homebound, or in another part of the country or world can stay engaged with their home churches either in real time or when they are able.
The hybrid model has also paved the way for discipleship, counseling, and evangelism. With most people living their lives connected to the internet, and with the ease of videoconferencing, online interaction is more accessible than ever before.
A variety of digital platforms exist to help church leaders engage in teaching, discipleship, giving, prayer, and even fellowship in this new context. Facebook Live, Zoom, and RightNow Media, among many others, can bring people together to have meaningful interaction and community in ways previous generations would never have thought possible. Social media posts can be part of a broader digital strategy to interact with people: posting birthday and anniversary greetings, sharing meaningful posts, and posting daily encouragement.
In northern states, like my home state of Wisconsin, snowbirds migrate to the southern states like Florida and Arizona over the winter months to escape the cold and snow. If their churches use a hybrid model, these church members can view worship services online and participate in small group Bible studies online. Such opportunities allow for community and continuity of study. People are excited to share life from different areas of the country through a medium that provides face-to-face contact.
In this rapidly changing culture, churches must be characterized by their passion for the lost, Christ-centered worship in praise and glory, clear teaching and preaching of the Scriptures with the goal of spiritual growth, commitment to prayer, personal discipleship, emphasis on building community, and an intentional, strategic, creative plan to reach a changing culture with the never-changing Word of God.
In two of his books, pastor and church researcher Thom Rainer comments,
Change is absolutely necessary in our churches. Major change is needed in most of them. But change is very difficult in most churches. (Who Moved My Pulpit? Leading Change in the Church).
We can’t continue to ‘do church’ the way we’ve always done it and expect Great Commission results. (The Post-Quarantine Church)
The reality of our present situation is this: not offering an online church option is not a strategy for success.
Objections to Online Church
Despite the undeniable values that technology has brought to our modern world, negative consequences have adversely impacted us as individuals and corporately as the church. Pastor and author Jay Kim states that while digital technologies have contributed to the improvement of the human experience and have influenced the church, they have also resulted in our undoing:
The speed of the digital age has made us impatient. The choices of the digital age have made us shallow. The individualism of the digital age has made us isolated. (Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age)
A primary objection to online church is a belief that when given the option to come to church or to stay home on a beautiful summer day or a cold winter day, people will choose to stay home. My own research has shown that 95 percent of people who regularly attend services in-person do so whenever they’re able. They prefer to attend in-person whenever possible but appreciate the opportunity to stay connected to their churches online when circumstances change.
The last several years have uniquely demonstrated the need for churches to exercise adaptability. Though the message in God’s Word remains constant, the method of presenting it should not. The church has the challenge of communicating the life-changing message of the gospel in the context of an ever-changing world. It’s vital that we capitalize on the use of technology in ministry in ways that glorify God and that communicate the timeless truths of His message of salvation to this digital culture.
That’s not to say that everything in culture should be embraced. We need a discerning, balanced approach to leave a strong gospel witness for future generations.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 Baptist Bulletin. © Regular Baptist Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Used by permission.
Brian Richard is pastor of Brookridge Baptist Church, Plover, Wis.