It wasn’t that long ago you actually had to work hard to access anything you missed at the church you attended.
You had to show up in person to pick up a CD (or cassette…remember those??) or ask someone to mail you a copy. Or you simply missed out.
Fast forward to now, and almost every church has their messages available online.
It’s always good to ask some questions when things are changing quickly.
What are the rapid rise of messages online and experiences online doing to the church and to people’s faith?
Are they acting as a front door to ministry and attracting people, or are they acting as a back door for people slowly leaving the church?
In other words, is the option of church online moving people closer to Christ, or further away?
It’s a great question every church leader should think through.
So What’s Happening, Exactly?
When the option of churches podcasting and launching online campuses became real 6-8 years ago, it looked like it was all upside for the local church
A chance to reach more people.
An opportunity to get the Word out.
A chance to reach people who are scared of walking through a church door.
And, in many ways, all that upside is still there and amazing.
But another trend has emerged that no one really saw coming. Or at least I didn’t.
A growing number of Christians seem to be watching the local church rather than being engaged in the local church.
It’s not usually a huge number, but talk to even the mega-church people behind the scenes and they’ll tell you that as many as several thousand who used to attend in person aren’t any more. They’re watching from the comfort of a bed or beach instead.
While this hasn’t killed attendance by any stretch, it has dented it. The churches that offer numerous online gateways are still growing, but they are also seeing a smaller exodus of Christians no one is sure what to do with.
And it’s alarming for many more reasons than it being downward pressure on a growth curve.
4 Questions About Church Online For Christians
If you’re a Christian and your primary experience of church is online, my question is “why”?
Here are 4 questions I would ask:
1. When did faith become something to be consumed or watched rather than lived?
In many ways, the explosion of online ministry is simply a new extension of the TV and radio ministries pioneered in the 20th century.
But authentic Christianity was never intended to be consumed or watched.
Following Jesus is something to be lived. And not just as an individualized experience.
Being the church is something we are and something we do together.
We’re a community on mission together for a cause far greater than ourselves and for a Saviour who is reconciling the word to Himself.
2. Are you going to invite your friends into your living room (or bedroom)?
If you’re watching church in bed because you don’t want to get up, I mean I get that…from time to time we all get tired.
But we come from a tradition in which first century Christians would rise before the sun came up to gather in prayer. They got up early because their work started first thing in the morning and often lasted until the sun went down…or later.
But Jesus had so radically transformed their lives that it revolutionized their time, their finances and their priorities.
I think online church has the potential to creates new communities where people gather in homes as a starting point (see below). But the movement of these gatherings, like the church at its best, should be outward, not inward.
I can see inviting friends to your living room to watch and discuss together, but with a view to becoming part of something bigger than just you or what your living room can contain (even if that means it has to spread to multiple homes).
But if church online or the latest podcast is about staying in bed because you just don’t want to get up week after week…well, I’m not sure I get that.
3. How do you serve?
If church is entirely experienced online—and you’re a Christian—how will you serve?
Sure, you can serve in the community, and many do.
But there’s something radical when Christians come together and serve in the name of a Saviour and reshape the world through outrageous generosity.
If it’s all about you and your convenience…well, how is that really about being transformed?
I believe our spiritual gifts have maximum impact when used in pursuit of a common mission and strategy.
Together, we are far greater than we ever would be doing random, individualized acts of insular kindness (not that we should stop living out our faith personally, but you get the point).
I think it has something to do with being the body of Christ.
4. What about your kids?
I’ve said this before, but I think the kids are the biggest losers when the parents stay home.
Most kids have their greatest relational connections when the church gathers together.
Plus they have teaching and groups tailored to bring the message of Christianity to their exact age and stage.
And every kid needs a wider circle of influence than just mom and dad.
When the parents stay home, the kids lose most.
My own view is that church online makes an amazing supplement to the mission of the local church, but not a replacement for it.
3 Opportunities for Every Church in the Online World.
All that said, should churches vacate the online world?
These are the early days and we’re still figuring things out. No one has cracked the code and experimenting is fun.
I believe the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen. Suddenly, we’re all connected.
I would encourage every church to get online as quickly as you can. Here’s why:
1. Almost everyone you want to reach is online
That person you’re praying for?
They may have never been to church, but they’re almost certainly on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or online.
The dream about reaching your neighbours should stop being a dream and start being a strategy.
And no, you don’t want to spam them constantly. But you can reach them with authenticity.
2. Sharing is easy…and authentic
There’s your church social media account, which is awesome. But then there’s your personal account. And the personal accounts of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people who attend your church.
If you make your ministry and faith shareable and people start to share messages, quotes and helpful articles you post, sharing your faith becomes something natural and integrated into the lives of all your attenders.
Which also means it shows up in the feeds of all their friends.
Which also means it makes conversation easier.
Which also means the front door is bigger than it’s ever been.
That’s no excuse to be a goof or socially inept person online. I wrote this post about 6 ways people lose influence online, and this post about 7 ways to become a person people like and respect online.
But it does mean if you authentically live out your faith, you will inspire people, some of whom will in turn want to follow the One you follow.
3. Small can be big
A few months ago I spoke to the staff at the Cove Church in North Carolina, a great church of about 5000.
They’re unveiling a plan to reach 40,000 people and add micro-campuses—basically home gatherings with a view to outreach. Because you can share the messages and experiences on a flatscreen or tablet, they want to reach people in neighbourhoods who might not drive or come to church, but would go to a friend’s house.
But notice the motive in this is outward, not inward. I love that.
There’s a world of difference between not wanting to get out of bed and doing church online and waking up the neighbourhood to authentically share Christ.
Even the kids can be drawn together and grow in their faith in this scenario.
Overall, the front door potential of the church online is far greater than the back door reality.
I just wish the people who see it as a back door would get passionate enough about faith to invite their friends through the front door.
What are you learning about church online?
Leave a comment!