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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  • The online church has its place. For those who cannot make it to the building for whatever reason. But ultimately it should be feeder for the in house church for reasons of accountability and service. We need to ask ourselves these questions. Is the online church a way of avoiding the people? Or is it just an easy way to do church? If you answer yes to the above you need to move to an in-house church. If you consider yourself an actual active part of the church then keep doing it. Read the New Testament and see what it has to say about how to be accountable and involved in fellow believer’s lives and then determine if that matches what you are doing. Ask God for understanding as you do so.

  • Kevin Austin says on

    To me it has to do with the priorities of those who chose not to get up and get dressed to go to church to be with like people. We say we are too busy or don’t have time yet they can stay home and watch. There is the strength of surrounding ourselves with our brothers and sisters. The support we receive from having personal relationships that are built by meeting, praying, and loving each other that I do not think you are going to get staying at home watching on TV or the internet. I will say for those who are homebound and can’t get out, it is a great ministry but like our church even those who are homebound would rather be at church. To me there is no replacement for the hugs and love I get by being committed to God and His(my) church and being actively involved in the ministries of the church. Ok I have vented enough. God Bless you all.

  • The virtual church attenders do not think about when they need a pastor for a funeral, wedding, to write a letter of recommendation or be a sending church responsible for you overseas, for example. They then come to “brick and mortar” church for these services without any relationships expecting a pastor and body to serve them, without serving or giving themselves. A virtual church can be a great addition to your growth experience but cannot neglect the meeting together physically. Too many hide sin easily behind their virtual persona.
    What about this thought: as more move to virtual churches and giving decreases at local churches where will the pastors go? My virtual pastor of thousands is not going to come to my loved ones funeral. If the local churches die will we now have virtual funeral pastors present by internet availability only? How does a hug or a meal delivered work? Do I ask pastors to lie on those recommendations that I am a member and they know me? Yes I do have examples of virtual church listeners doing all of the above and then getting mad when told by the pastor I will not lie just so you can get the recommendation, or offended when being served by church member at a funeral and they treat you like a guest.
    Check yourselves virtual attenders that you aren’t treating the physically gathering body of Christ like a prostitute. Get involved in a local church along with your online church.

  • We began live streaming 5 years ago. Our goal was to keep members connected who were shut-in or temporarily ill at home while providing a means for unchurched people and prospects to hear the teaching. It was slow to grow at first but then began to pick up speed the last couple of years. As the online attendance grew our on-campus attendance declined. I don’t think the online option was the only reason our attendance went down but it very likely played a part especially with our young families. Their attendance declined the most. We stopped the live stream last summer but continue to archive our messages on our website. We decided it was wrong for us to make it easier for our members to stay home and miss the opportunity to experience community and serve on Sunday mornings. We also believed that children were probably the ones who were hurt the most since they were not likely engaged by the live stream of the head pastor. They just missed church all together.

  • Dennis King says on

    I, unfortunately, see that the digital church is going to lead to two of the great dangers of the last days: 1) the falling away from the church (an assembled group of called out believers) and 2) the open door for false teachers.

  • Most of the Bible was written to be shared with an audience that the written would not be present. I can’t help but to wonder if Paul had had the internet, would he not have shared the gospel from jail. … Colossian 2:5, Paul’s desire to be present with the people … would that be a modern day … DO THEY HAVE WIFI .. ?

  • David Viland says on

    Hebrews 10:25 “Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

    Paul calls us to come together, meet together, disciple together, share together, bear each other’s burdens . . . all the “one anothers.” That’s the church! If we are not regularly coming together as believers we are missing out on an essential ingredient/purpose of Christ’s church.

    Having digital church available for our occasional need, for further reference, for introducing people who might otherwise not enter a church is one thing, and a valuable thing, but to replace the “Coming together” of believers means everyone loses. We are not contributing to the fellowship of our believer community, nor are we gleaning from that community all that we could, that God intended.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That verse is indeed cited often in this discussion. Thanks, David.

      • Heartspeak says on

        Yup, always trotted out about this point in a discussion. It’s been one of the biggest cudgels in the quest for compelling people to ‘come to church’. Yet Jesus totally affirmed a simple gathering of 2 or 3. Gathering together as a local church body is simply a subset of what gathering together CAN be, yet we teach, imply and implore that it is required and we ignore and discount gathering in any other manner or size of gathering… Such selective use of scripture to achieve a preferred (by some) outcome is where many people stop tuning in. We are too often our own worst enemy.

      • Yes, numbers of people aren’t the point, 2 or 3 are sufficient to share and to minister to each other. But the “Sunday meeting” should be one to come together and hear stories of challenges and successes; sharing of concerns and intentions. Worship is, or should be, about praying together – not simply singing songs and hearing a message – praying and offering concerns and encouragement.

        So much of our communication is in the body not the words. How a person communicates says so much more than the words they choose.

      • Isn’t the “if 2 or 3” passage referring to church discipline?

  • My issues with the digital church has nothing to do with budget or attendance records. Most all churches have issues that need to be addressed. I totally agree that we need to go further than just songs and a talk. Church is not just about the worship service. It is about what we do between one worship service and the next. The worship service should be a celebration of what we have accomplished in the kingdom of God as individuals and a body. The worship service should be about the body coming together and truly worshiping as we sing those songs and give our money and listen with intention to the sermon. I do not believe that can be experienced to its fullest by watching or listening to church online. We cannot connect if we are not present. We cannot truly be one and united if we are not physically united.
    Online sermons and teachings are for growth as individuals, not a replacement for worshiping with your local congregation. True church, true religion is about working together for the kingdom of God. Merely watching or listening online just makes us lazy Christians that feel good about ourselves because we managed to listen to a church service while eating brunch (because we did not have to sacrifice sleep and slept in), watching something else on tv at the same time, or did housework while listening. There are too many distractions and temptations for one thing. For another, we are not sitting beside our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ … trying together to hear over the candy wrappers, the crying babies, and the elderly who think they are whispering to one another. This all needs to happen TOGETHER; not digitally.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Your perspective is shared by many, Eddie.

    • But whose to say those watching online aren’t going out and serving between Sunday’s in their communities? I guess it’s trying to figure out how to measure spiritual maturity and activity with a different barometer.

    • I think as the blog mentions, this issue is generational to some degree, but in my experience as a millennial, I have experienced real community and fellowship online, and this looks nothing like distractedly streaming a church service online. This kind of digital fellowship involves sharing authentic experiences with one another and truly “doing life” online. It is not only possible, but it can in many way offer a kind of healing and help to sufferers of mental health and chronic medical issues to be constantly engaged with a community that can pray for them and help them in their time of need. We put on our Sunday best, sing with loud voices, and nod understandingly to the preacher’s message, but we rarely engage in the kind of messy community that Christ calls us to. The early Christians met together in the temple every day. I’ve learned that people can be very shallow when they are only forced to interact once or even twice a week. I think experiencing authentic, real fellowship online is an answer to this. The greater our technology becomes, particularly with virtual reality, the more we’ll be able to meet the needs of the least reached that are living in our very communities who no one in the local church even knows exists.

  • Theological arguments against online church? I have never come across that. What would the arguments backed by scripture be?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Wait for it.

    • John Fischer says on

      Very simple. Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly means a physisical unifying assembly and presence of believers. Digital or online church is nothing more than spiritual laziness. Where is the commitment. The same holds true for reading a tablet or I-pad in Church. Do not allow technology to take that precious book out of your hands.

      • How is using a tablet spiritual laziness? Is it lazy to read only the Bible on a tablet or does this apply to everything?

      • Wow. “Digital or online church is nothing more than spiritual laziness.” That has a feeling of being somewhat presumptuous.

        So, for our church members who are deployed (domestically or internationally), for those who are balancing their life with kids’ event schedules (yes, some sports ONLY have their meets on weekends), for those who have relocated out of state but invite 20+ friends into their homes to watch our stream… they’re all spiritually lazy?

        My friend, I respectfully and whole-heartedly disagree.

        Those that sleep in and stream church out of convenience might fit your description, but even so, I’d much rather them watch a stream they spend time watching something illicit. I’d rather them hear the Word and see others worshiping… who knows, perhaps that’s what it takes for them to feel some conviction to make it to church next weekend. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing. And who knows, it might even work to The Church’s advantage in this case.

        Additionally, people search for their house of worship online… when they relocate, or have a change in status (marriage/divorce), etc. What an awesome opportunity to introduce your church to a new face.

        Far too long the The Church has treated the Web as a scourge… it’s not. It’s simply the way billions of people communicate (as we are right this very second). Where would the Church be without Gutenberg’s printing press? Is this not just the (not so) new press?

        We’re looking in to how we *CAN* foster community and discipleship through the Web.

        Spiritual laziness… obviously struck a nerve. I’d rather stand in front of the Lord and report that I used *EVERY* opportunity to spread His message.

      • John B. says on

        Hebrews 10:23:24
        23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) 24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

        At the time Paul wrote this there were no 501(C)3 corporate churches, most assemblies were small groups of believers in homes:

        1 Corinthians 16:19 The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
        I appears your assumption is that those who view online church services have no physical contact or assembly with other fellow believers. It also appears that meeting in your church building is the only place that satisfies Heb 10:25. This is completely false. I view many online sevices weekly and also fellowship with other Christian believers face to face. I also use both a physical KJV Bible as well as one on my tablet. You say, “where’s your commitment?”. Commitment to what? Church attendance and Sunday school rolls? Church car washes and Christmas cantatas? Our commitment should be believing in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, believing the Bible as God’s Holy word, reading it daily and witnessing to non-believers. If that is laziness then I’m guilty.

      • Now my wife and I will be using these comments as our next message on our “Internet Radio” Broadcast. Yeah my wife and I have been broadcasting Christian radio since August 2017 it is a lot of work. But the Holy Spirit led us to the walk we are on and so far over 55,000 people have heard the message across the world. Now that is not a big number compared to the population of earth but the majority of those people are from parts of the world that being a Christian is a big problem. From Iran to china to Iraq to Saudi Arabia. to mention a few. My wife and I are by no means wealthy. Actually we haven’t seen a paycheck in over a year and a half and do small jobs to pay the bills. Spreading the gospel isn’t just about a physical building but about fellowshipping with fellow believers. While also bringing unbelievers to Christ. Now how do people do that in a world where the digital footprint was created by the last generation? They utilize that same platform to the fullest extent. I do it not because I have means to, no the means come after obedience. an obedient steward will be taken care of. as my wife and I are. With that I will say, Internet Churches will definitely have a place. They also keep expenses down and bring the message to the entire world. I have been inspired to do so myself, knowing I will be taken care of by my heavenly Father. why limit yourself to a physical building when you could share the good news to the entire planet?
        Dylan Matthews
        Proud Steward For fruitfulradio.com
        God bless everyone.

  • Christianity was originally based on relationships between people more so than membership in a 501(c)(3) organization. That said, it morphed into a membership that conveyed certain privileges. From this, there grew a ruling group who called the shots and decided who was part of the “in crowd” and who was not, who received or did not receive forgiveness of sins, etc. Once litmus tests (attendance %, age, gender, parental status, political leaning, etc) were further used to protect the ruling group, classes of Christian began. This led to a large group of lower-class Christians who were allowed to come to the service, hear a sermon not written for them, and donate money but not wanted or listened to by the leadership or the powerful. Hence the need for a community for the rejects, which sounds awfully similar to the beginnings of Christianity. A virtual community is a real community. It serves a useful purpose. Its (younger) members likely understand each other’s problems more than older people in a congregation do. It can be supportive and come together when needed. When people frequently move, that virtual community will still be there. People who live in an area with only tightly-controlled churches can watch a service online that they can understand or listen to a sermon from clergy (who might be close to their age) who can relate to them.

    • I think this is a fascinating question, one I haven’t thought of before. I hope to learn much about this issue through this forum. Thank you for posting. I admit I’ve never been part of a solely internet community (only social media followers). My first reaction to this question is how do members of a virtual community serve one another? Do they ever meet physically to break bread? Do they participate on mission together? I look forward to reading responses.

  • Heartspeak says on

    There is a difference between an on-line community and providing digital/streaming access to a sermon. If the only thing that a church provides is 3 songs and a talk, then even better music and a good talker is available 24/7 at the click of a mouse. For the local church, Sunday morning cannot be the sole focus.

    So far, from what I’ve seen, despite the words we speak, our actions demonstrate that ‘it’ (our faith, our obligation, our actual priority) is all about showing up for the 3 songs and a talk, everything else appears to be an optional ‘add-on’. Most of your readers understand that this is not really true, but until our focus, budget, resources, staffing, etc reflect that the Sunday main event is not the main thing, the local church will continue to lose out in the 3 songs and a talk battle.

    The local church needs to actually be a place that provides genuine relationship and interactive spiritual growth through as a result of those relationships. The lecture hall with a ‘hip’ band is not the way to do it. As we are seeing, THAT aspect can be duplicated on line — but we know the Church is much more than this.

    Christian music – Check (been available elsewhere for 30+ years)
    Sermon – Check (now available freely everywhere)

    If that’s what you’re spending most of your time and money and staffing resources on as a local church– you’re going to pretty well ‘go out of business’. It’s cheaper and easier elsewhere.

    • Fascinating thoughts.

    • It is “butts in pews at the appointed hour” and volunteering at church events that demonstrate one’s faith. Sure we have all seen good Southerners take a casserole or a cake to the house of the deceased or the fellowship hall for a lunch after a funeral. However, that is for established people, and it is neat and pretty like the useless flowers at a funeral. That’s not the middle of the night call about something having occurred far away which isn’t pretty and rattles a person to the core and you realize you have no one to talk to.

  • Communication without being physically present is not a new thing – it happened in the first century church too. But John wrote: ‘I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete’ (2 John 12 NIV).

    Paul also communicates his desire to be with the churches he writes to. Therefore, it seems a lack of desire to be present when you could be is not a reflection of a biblical church. However, there are definitely legitimate uses for digital communication. We put our sermons on the internet at my church and I find them useful to listen to if I have been away but I would never see them as a substitute for being there.

    • Still apples to oranges. Communicating via letters is nothing like being in an online video conference.
      The only missing element is the touch. Virtual face to face is still face to face. It just can’t end with a hug or a hand shake.
      Add the Holy Spirit and I think online video relationships can be “as though face to face”.

    • David Toxey says on

      It’s good for people who can’t be there in person (health issues that prevent going to church, have to work at service times, etc. ), but real fellowship (koinonia) requires interaction in person when possible. This can be a great blessing to shut-ins; unfortunately, many of them don’t have access to
      computers, etc.

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