Little did I know what was coming. A few years ago, I introduced my congregation to cloud-based web conferencing using Zoom. This platform allows participants to interact simultaneously online. Church members can use this tool to conduct Bible study remotely, and they can connect without leaving their homes. Small groups can meet online. Meeting online allows people to spend less time driving and more time with their families, especially in those churches where members live farther away. It also reduces operational expenses because when the building is not in use, utilities such as gas or electricity do not have to be used.
When schools and universities closed their campuses and moved classes online, students in our church were already familiar with online learning because we had been using Zoom for Bible study well before COVID-19 started. In fact, I have been teaching online for the past 10 years, and I have seen the value that the online experience provides.1 Simply put, by using online tools, we have been able to reach and share the gospel with more people than we would have otherwise been able to.
Slow off the mark
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many churches have been forced to transition to presenting their worship services online using Facebook Live and other streaming platforms. For local pastors, it represents a new normal as crowds have dissipated and the worship experience has begun to cater more to the online viewer. Moreover, it reflects a generational shift, particularly for older parishioners used to driving to church. Unfortunately, some churches and pastoral leaders have been slow to adapt to such changes and embrace new technology to build and sustain their congregations online.
However, the influence of technology on the church is not a recent phenomenon. Since Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in the early 1500s, technology has shaped the methods the church has used to advance the gospel. Martin Luther’s criticism of papal authority could have faded away as just irrelevant rhetoric if it were not for Gutenberg’s printing press. It allowed Martin Luther’s work to be copied and disseminated to a wider audience that served to further the Protestant Reformation. Furthermore, the telephone (1876), the automobile (1893), and commercial aviation (1920s) also facilitated the spread of the gospel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The advent of motion pictures opened biblical narratives such as the giving of the Ten Commandments and the passion of the Christ to vast audiences.
Adapting to change
Nonetheless, the church still has some ambivalence toward the overuse of technology in the church, and justifiably so. When the apostle Paul encouraged his followers to greet one another with a holy kiss, scarcely would anyone have imagined a kissing emoji instead. The church is more than the building—it enables meaningful social interactions and provides spiritual and emotional connections difficult to replicate online. However, as a pastor, I believe the church, more than any other institution, must adapt to the changing times in order to reach those already online.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans say they go online daily, and roughly 3 in 10 Americans acknowledge that they do so constantly. Among them, 48 percent of Americans ages 18–29 say they spend extensive time online.2 Moreover, nearly 40 percent of parents report that their child owns a smartphone.3 Undoubtedly, people employ such devices to access the internet; stream media; and, in some cases, create and upload content. The online and digital space is reshaping how people interact and engage with one another outside of the church walls.
If such trends continue, some worry that the church could see further declines in membership and participation. However, that does not mean that values such as community and fellowship will necessarily suffer as more virtual churches and online communities of faith emerge. Through social-media platforms such as Facebook, Google Hangouts, and Twitter, the church can organize, meet, and create shared spaces where online worshipers can gather and interact. In addition, social-media platforms such as YouTube provide opportunities for churches to operate on demand and share content 24-7 as opposed to once a week during the 11:00 A.M. worship hour.
One of the pleasant surprises during our transition to online church is that it has brought our seniors and millennials closer together. We have created a space where members across generations can interact and build community, which is consistent with our mission. Moreover, our youth, who are native to the technology, have helped our seniors learn how to join the Facebook Livestream, upload our church app on their phones, and give online using Cash App and our online giving platform.
Andrew Careaga, author of E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace, explains that online, the church is not hindered by time or space. Through the internet, Careaga says, two or more people can gather and have church whenever they desire.4 Sandra Herndon notes that “networked organizations have the potential for fostering communication across social categories—leveling status difference, and enhancing openness, and free expression of ideas.”5
Dave Mullin further explains that “internet information sharing mediums . . . have certain advantages over face-to-face communication in the process of spiritual dialogue. Spiritual topics that have been ‘taboo’ are talked about in lively and open ways by users of differing views and mindsets that are hard if not impossible to recreate in a group setting at a particular time and place.”6
Messaging apps such as WhatsApp allow members to communicate with the pastor directly as opposed to leaving a message with the church secretary. The future may necessitate that churches pioneer their own private social media platforms or apps as a means of staying connected and sustaining relationships across geographic boundaries. Group texts can also be used to disseminate church announcements, provide updates, and share Bible-study notes and other information to increase connections among members.
During this economic downturn, many churches are concerned about how to keep their tithes and offerings from falling if people are not coming to church. The ability to give online has allowed us to sustain our giving and connect with new followers who want to sow financially into our ministry. We have also seen an increase in the number of likes on our Facebook page. Members are hosting their own watch parties, which has introduced our church to an entirely new ministry demographic.
The internet and virtual technology offer new and unlimited opportunities to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. As younger generations mature, they will undoubtedly be more technologically savvy, which will place new demands on churches to increase their online footprint. In many ways, the coronavirus has flattened the growth curve by closing the gap between large and small churches. Large churches could once tout the size of their sanctuaries, educational wings, family-life centers, and onsite childcare facilities. But online technologies can provide some of the same advantages to smaller churches.
In the age of social distancing, a large church building no longer gives its congregation a competitive advantage over smaller neighboring congregations. Small and micro-sized churches may be the new normal now and well into the foreseeable future as congregants become more concerned about their health and well-being. I believe that the church must embrace change and work to transform the technology rather than fear being changed by it. Given the internet and new digital applications available, the church online may become one of the most common means by which future generations will come to know and experience Christ.
- See Jimmy Arthur Atkins, Leading Strategic Community Change: A Primer for Pastors, Church Boards, and Executive Ministry Teams (Hayesville, NC: The American Journal of Biblical Theology, 2020).
- Andrew Perrin and Madhu Kumar, “Almost Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Say They Are Almost Constantly Online,” Pew Research Center, July 25, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/25/americans-going-online-almost-constantly/.
- Amy Watson, “Children and Media in the U.S.—Statistics and Facts,” Statista, March 8, 2019, https://www.statista.com/topics/3980/children-and-media-in-the-us/.
- Andrew Careaga, E-vangelism: Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace (Lafayette, LA: Vital Issues Press, 1999).
- Sandra L. Herndon, “Theory and Practice: Implications for the Implementation of Communication Technology in Organizations,” The Journal of Business Communication 34, no.1 (January 1997): 121–129.
- Dave Mullin, “The Internet and Its Potential and Use for Ministry With Young People,” http://youthministry.org.nz/?sid=8&id=19 (site may no longer be available).