A Post-Quarantine Assessment: Is the Digital or Internet Church Really the Church?

June 28, 2020

It has received a lot of attention during the pandemic. It will receive more attention in the post-quarantine era.

Some call it the digital church.

Others call it the internet church.

In either case, it refers to people joining worship services, and even groups, virtually or digitally. They are not physically present.

I am watching this trend closely via hundreds of churches, and I am seeing more and more chatter and a lot more disagreements about the nature of the digital church. Let me share with you some of the major shifts taking place, especially since the pandemic hit.

  • Any church can have digital worship services with technology today. There are many options for churches today, most of them free. Facebook Live is the most common option, and it is free for the churches that use it. Just a few years ago, only the large churches with greater resources could live stream their services. Now any church with an Internet connection can do so.
  • More church leaders are asking if the virtual or internet attendance should be counted. The question they are really asking is: Is a virtual attender the same as a physically present attender?
  • The theological debates about the digital church are increasing. There are some really strong opinions being articulated. And since we Christians tend to love a good theological debate (fight?), I anticipate the discussion will grow more heated.
  • Some churches are reporting a decline in physical attendance as they provide virtual attendance venues. There are church members who are beginning to view attending church virtually as just another option, much like they can choose among multiple worship services where they would be physically present.
  • Churches are reporting mixed results about giving among virtual attenders. Though the information is anecdotal for now, church leaders report some pretty decent offerings among the virtual attenders if they give them the opportunity to give. But they are also reporting a decline in per capita giving when a member shifts from physical attendance to virtual.
  • This issue will be generational to some degree. Millennials and, even more so, Gen Z, see virtual communities as real communities. Some of them can’t understand why churches can’t have vibrant virtual communities in lieu of being physically present.

Though this issue is not new, it seems to be approaching a tipping point in the post-quarantine era. I will continue to keep you updated on developments regarding the virtual church.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I suspect some of you have a strong opinion or two.

This post originally appeared in January 2018. It has been updated to reflect changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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98 Comments

  • I’ve started going to church online now because I can watch mass any day and time of the week.I can even watch mass in different churches from all around the world online.I live in the UK and I’ve seen sunday mass sessions in America and Australia without leaving my house.

  • Jolene Flippo says on

    I’m personally looking for an online church and I’m in such disbelief and heartbroken over how a pandemic has become so politicized to the point of no longer caring for others needs of well-being, and making it a matter of face-to-face interactions despite what happens to anyone, just to prove or show our faith. How about we show our faith by loving one another no matter how we have to do that, even if it’s online for a little while. Before the pandemic, if someone was sick, they’d stay home and the church would pray for them. But now that millions are sick and dying, church leaders are making it a political point to be in church, with the risk of killing many. It’s more honoring to God to serve one another by first keeping them safe. I’d love to see many more people encouraged to attend church, even though it’s online. God knows what He’s doing, so seize the opportunity to reach as many people as you can digitally, reaching more people than you ever would otherwise.

  • “Digital attendance” has been a big area of concern for me as a pastor. The necessity of human interaction and physical touch is so crucial to our growth spiritually and emotionally. But physical presence is so central in what our Savior showed us in the incarnation. Jesus did not appear as a hologram or via video. His personal interaction, eating of meals, weeping tears, washing feet, touching the “untouchables”, etc. all took place in the flesh. The obvious admonition of the author of Hebrews to not forsake the gathering together is the coup détat. But this is of great concern to me as I hear (even from leaders) “you know, I really like this, I can worship in my pajamas.” As humorous as that is, we NEED one another in the flesh!

    We are having conversations about a true end date to streaming or posting of videos. But that doesn’t seem to be a viable answer due to those who are truly incapable of being present due to health or age.

  • Millennial Lead Pastor here. I serve in a church of about 125-145. Probably 40% of our church is Gen X and lower, so tech savvy. We have very few 21-30-year-olds in the congregation, like many, but live in a tech-driven, affluent, highly educated area.

    While providing the obvious caveats that many people have very real reasons to stay home and watch online, and that it is an acceptable option right now, I preached on Sunday about the importance of in-person community. Our most recent series (Lessons from Quarantine) was all about one-anothering each other, sharing each other’s burdens, and the dangers that lurk in isolation. We did not livestream before Covid, but do now. We will keep it going for Covid purposes for now (we are just starting to re-gather, outside, this week. Illinois, so yeah).

    We haven’t decided whether or not to keep doing it afterward. As a millennial, I of course understand the draw and the outreach possibilities, but we are starting to ask ourselves if the risk of losing attendees to online services is worth the reward of potential ease of access to people that wish to check us out.

    We don’t necessarily have an answer yet, but there is a good chance that we intentionally don’t put extra effort into our livestreams, if they do continue, for the sole reason that we want to put our time investments into the in-person environments of weekend services and our small groups. I just don’t believe that we can be as effective in carrying each other’s burdens online as we can in person. So even though we have quite a few young families, we are kind of pushing ourselves away from digital offerings because we think, in our specific community (which is sports crazy and super busy oriented), it may actually hinder our very hands on, authentic and transparent focused, discipleship efforts.

    In a way, we are hoping to capitalize on how much we have all missed one another in person, and trying to ask people that even though it’s more uncomfortable and requires more of us, that coming to church in person is the far superior option. One of our slogans is “All spiritual growth starts at a place of discomfort” and I think for us living room church has the optics of going against that particular grain.

    • Betty Lu says on

      Hi Kyle,

      I enjoyed reading your post, and I completely agree with you. Nothing can replace in-person meetings as those are precious moments of connection that can’t be replicated through a screen. Just wondering in your experience with the “digital church” or digital offerings as you mentioned, what way could they be improved so that instead of hindering the experience, it could actually add to it?

      Thanks!
      Betty

  • With all the excellent comments, I’m reluctant to add another. But y’all got me thinking! As tragic as the pandemic is, one of the most valuable lessons for the church is that The Church is not a building but a body of redeemed believers. Many churches that pre-pandemic had not invested in technology for livestreaming now see the value in advancing their gospel presentation outside the walls of their building. Others who had previously invested in the technology began to realize the value of online venues and platforms and have refined that presence, developing a regular listening audience and even garnering new listeners. All good! We’re discovering that “whosoever will” may range from the reluctant watcher who is trying to decide whether he/she is ready to respond…to the employee who is so desirous of Sunday morning church but never able to attend…to those shut-in because of age or illness.

    Having said that, there is no substitute for believers gathering together, whether under a roof or a sky is irrelevant. The “group” matters. Koinonia is important. The word “together” is replete throughout the book of Acts. Things happened in The Upper Room that couldn’t have happened otherwise. There is the power of “critical mass” when “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Singing or praying with a computer screen just isn’t the same as being in a chorus of voices together. Not to mention the fellowship of handshakes and hugs (which may not show up for a while) or the laying on of hands to pray for the sick. Faith has no walls, and there is no distance in prayer. But the power of an energized, participating, engaged congregation cannot be duplicated online.

    Body-life…outreach…we need it all!

    • Digital is not “the church” just as a building is not “the church”. It is people, relationship, discipling. Digital does not require giving our best to God. Too easy to be distracted, watch when convenient. Give God last place. He will not honor that in our lives.
      That said we are going to be more intentional in using digital for evangelism, instruction, and encouragement toward personal discipline, but it is not a substitute for face to face.

      • Jolene Flippo says on

        Who says people will put Him last by having digital church? Like you said, that’s not what makes the church, and when we have to argue about this, you’ve missed the point of church and worship altogether. I’m personally looking for an online church and I’m in such disbelief and heartbroken over how a pandemic has become so politicized to the point of no longer caring for others needs of well-being, and making it a matter of face-to-face interactions despite what happens to anyone, just to prove or show our faith. How about we show our faith by loving one another no matter how we have to do that, even if it’s online for a little while. Before the pandemic, if someone was sick, they’d stay home and the church would pray for them. But now that millions are sick and dying, church leaders are making it a political point to be in church, with the risk of killing many. It’s more honoring to God to serve one another by first keeping them safe.

  • I have physically been unable to attend our church since it has reopened. In fact the last Sunday before the pandemic began I was at home and watched the service on TV. I must admit that I enjoy the digital service, but I miss so much the interaction of other people and seeing the smiles and seeing the way that God moves in their lives. I’m an old guy with a heart condition and diabetes but I still love the Lord and I still love his people.

  • Pastor Thom (and I consider a pastor to pastors),

    I am a pastor of a small (25-30) independent Baptist church in southwest Ohio, with my congregation probably 90 percent at age 60 or over with underlying medical issues (translation, we won’t be back to inside live church any time soon). Also, with a fundamental bent, they have been resistant to much (technological) change. But although this terrible virus has ravaged our country, and our world, and our hearts are heavied by the mass suffering, our small silver lining is our attendance through Zoom Sunday services and Wednesday Bible study is up about 20-25 percent on a given service vs. pre-COVID. So while we fit your model of a dying church demographically to a tee, this newfound acceptance of 21st century (actually 20th century, to an extent) technologies and methods has breathed life into their pastor of 14 years, and into them. I now have a clearer vision and focus from God on how to save our little church. And thanks to your timely teaching and guidance and research (which due to the stay at home of the virus I have been able to access), I feel armed to tackle it. Thank you to you and your entire team for your continued efforts. May God bless you all richly as you seek to equip the 21st century church further, according to His will.

    Yours In Christ,

    PK

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Kermit –

      Your words encourage me and humble me. Pastors like you are on the front lines of ministry. You deserve all the encouragement and praise.

      I am thankful to see how God is working in your church, especially in a pandemic. My prayer is that He has even greater work ahead!

  • We had this debate back in the 1980’s, when the advent of cable television created a surge in TV evangelists. TV preachers are fine if someone is not able to attend church because of health issues or other reasons beyond their control. As a rule, though, they are no substitute for actual in-person worship. I feel the same way about online worship. A preacher acquaintance of mine said online worship is like trying to kiss your wife through a computer screen: it’s better than nothing, but it’s just not the same! Many people were separated from their loved ones because of Covid-19. They still got to talk to them on the telephone or through Skype, but that’s not the same as seeing them in person. The same holds true for the church. There is simply no substitute for worshiping together in person.

  • I think the end solution is a hybrid. Most of my Parish wants to meet in person. But there are a number of people who have difficulties getting to church for physical reasons and the physical building we worship in, while charming and 280 years old, is not the most accessible for people with mobility issues (and we can’t change the entrance enough to make a difference – the National Register of Historic Places puts a damper on that).

    I think, given their druthers, most people want to gather with people for worship (which is wholly interactive). Maybe it is worth considering how to use a digital presentation of worship as a evangelism tool. I know that people listen to posted sermons before attending our church – partly to get a flavor for our theology and practice. Why not use a digital (streaming or recorded) as something which gives a look into the worship for someone who is searching? Most people will let the internet do the initial search before physically visiting places – why not for a church?

  • the artist says on

    REMEMBER …the physical building shut down…but NOT the Church. There is no better time to (“Go Ye…”) as it is than during this current pandemic.

    BUT, I believe God put a STOP button on HIS BRIDE for this reason:

    So we can examine ourselves as a body.

    Churches have gone from being the tail and not the head.

    Our praise preaching and worship have become concerts and musicals, annd performances-and “programs” have taken over.

    Ministry has become complicated-The clear blueprint of ministry our Saviour left behind-has been LEFT BEHIND.

    Prayer, Evangelism, Discipleship are relegated “to the back of the pew” (LIKE VISITORS AND GUESTS) so to speak, and
    seemingly no longer considered relevant nor necessary.

    Our pastors’s are worshipped and not our God.

    Too many of God’s Houses of Worship are now introverted “Members Only” Social Clubs.

    The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are ours to Praise, Worship, Follow-and OBEY-How many of our Houses of Worship are actually doing this?

    The children of Israel wandered for 40 years through a dry and desolate place-on a journey what should have only taken THREE days.

    Father, lead your body of believers out of the wilderness. Bring us back together (Physically)-knowing you ultimately may press the STOP button-if you know many of us we will be returning to “business as usual.”

    I am not a Pastor-I work with Administrative support at a House of Worship.

  • Bob Myers says on

    You’re right, Thom! This debate will linger long after churches have reopened.

    My question/concern is whether or not we are unconsciously drifting into modern Gnosticism – a disembodied form of Christianity. It’s a bit in the theological weeds, I know, but physicality goes to the heart of Christianity. In the resurrection, we will have bodies. God so loved the world that he didn’t send an avatar; he sent his Son who became flesh and blood. From the beginning, the Church has recognized the incarnational nature of the faith.
    I do affirm, however, the tremendous opportunities that are possible with online venues. As with other churches that have dipped their toe into streaming, we have found a larger “congregation” through our efforts. I have also found a certain level of unavoidable intimacy with Zoom Bible studies or devotional gatherings that is sometimes absent when we gather in-person.
    There are opportunities, to be sure. But I am cautious. Just as a phone call is not the same as an in-person visit, online gatherings are limited. We were designed to be together with people.

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