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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91 Comments

  • Good question today.
    I think of 1 Corinthians 8: “Knowledge puffs up while Love builds up”.

    I remember reading an article about Millennials reason for attending church. It mentioned that Millennials would go to church if there were members there who would connect with them and walk with them. The article mentioned they could view sermons online (in comfort) – if they just wanted some inspiration and Bible knowledge. They really were seeking connection with other members – including older members. They wanted to be built up by the Body of Christ.

    I’m sure this applies to many people who visit a church these days – not just Millenials. The better we are at inviting people into our activities and groups, and forming relationships with them – the more people will want to attend our churches.

  • Thanks, Thom for this post. I’ve enjoyed reading the many thoughtful responses and excellent points made by the commenters. I spent more than 20 years serving as a full-time Minister of Music in SBC churches and have spent the last 13 years helping churches leverage streaming technology in their ministries. I have always emphasized that the online church will never be a replacement for being there in person, but to not offer it because some might choose to stay home and watch penalizes those who can and should be reached by streaming. We’ve found that 3 basic types of people watch a live stream of a church service: First, people who are a part of the church but circumstances prevent them from being there in person: Shut-ins, people who are sick or have sick kids, people who are traveling, those deployed in the military, etc. Live streaming allows these people to “come to church when they can not go to church.” Second, people who live in the area and are looking for a church home. Most often they will “check you out” online before they decide to visit in person. And third, people who don’t live in your area who happen to find you on the Internet and watch. Again, a digital church can never replicate the experience of being a part of corporate worship surrounded by your friends and family, but it is an important way for the church to reach beyond the four walls to the community and the world. And last time I checked, the command is for us to go, not for them to come.

  • While I think physical presence with the body of Christ and the pastor, and being able to participate fully is essential, I am recently reminded of one good use for streaming services. My parents are both approaching 90, my mom has been laid up at home, and being able to at least watch the service is a lot better than nothing!

  • The command in Hebrews 10 is not a command to assemble. Specifically, it is:

    “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving 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.”

    We’re told to prompt one another to love and good works, and in the process, not to fail to assemble together. I’m thinking those verses may have been written specifically for a time such as this.

  • Robert H Wright Jr says on

    While electronic communications may be the wave of the future, it is better to come together in person as the Body of Christ. We have very important tasks ahead of us: 1. Worship 2. Nurturing the Body 3. Teaching the Body 4. Giving cups of cold water to others on a local, national, and a global basis 5. Utilizing our time, talents, and treasurer for God’s Kingdom 6. Sharing the exciting good news of the Gospel with others 7. Being a spiritual beacon in the communities where we are located 8. Dream dreams and see visions of where God is calling us to go in the future.

    There is a hurting world out there who needs to hear the comforting Word of God.

  • If the worship experience were supposed to be a show, online church fits the bill. But, if worship is supposed to be corporate, then the body must assemble together. If the congregation members are simply an audience, this is a perfect medium. (It stops that conversations taking place in the back during the first song, for instance. You all know who you are.) But, if the church is to be the functioning body of Christ, the church must meet together. How do you build relationships with people you never actually see? How do you participate in an activity (like worship) with others if they cannot see or hear you?

    When a nonbeliever asks his Christian friend how often he attends church, the “virtual member” will either be seen as a liar or a hypocrite. If he says that he attends every Sunday (or even frequently) and the nonbeliever finds out that he is never in the building, he will be thought a liar. If he tells the truth about his physical attendance, he will be considered a hypocrite. Even people outside the church know how people inside the church are supposed to act.

    And, with all due respect to those who are physically able to attend church but cannot fit it into their schedules, you need to stop looking to excuse your behavior. Unless you live in an extremely isolated area, there will be more than enough churches that are open at a time when you can attend. You need to find such a church and become active there. God is not supposed to be your afterthought. He is supposed to be your priority.

  • We facebook live mainly for shut-ins, however receive many views. The element of Scriptural Fellowship is missing. As our shut-ins say, it is nice to watch the service but what I miss is the fellowship of believers. I am trying to figure out virtual fellowship and how that can happen. It is not so much who is in the pew as why you are in the pew.

  • We’ve been streaming via Facebook Live for just over a year. We have a person who interacts online with the folks who join us during the live broadcast. We seek out prayer requests from folks on line. We always emphasize the need to be in a local church and help them find a church in their area “like ours” when they ask. From our spot in Virginia, we have reached people as far away as Tonga and Bora Bora, and have regular viewers in England, France and Germany. We hear from our congregation that they are glad we do this when they are travelling, or are home with sick kids. We had a mother and a son deployed to Iraq able to both participate in our Christmas Eve service together. It’s not perfect, and obviously doesn’t replace coming together in the same place to worship and build relationships, but I’d have to say our experience has been mostly positive. We are now streaming some of our Wednesday night Bible study classes as well. We are getting positive feedback from our congregation for this as well – not everyone likes to be out driving in the dark but they want to participate in the class.

  • This is a fascinating conversation. Wish I had time to thoroughly read all of the replies.

    The tradition of most of the people on this blog (including myself) is non-sacramental. Though I am a Baptist, however, my thinking and practice has become much more sacramental. That is – physicality means something.

    If that weren’t so, God would have worked salvation through the Scriptures alone. But God didn’t do that.

    THE WORD BECAME FLESH.

    That incarnational principle informs my thinking on this. There may be a place for virtual worship services. But they’ll never replace the flesh-and-blood experience of being together.

  • If “church” is about the transfer of information, there are multiple ways to do that other than face to face. We can use written texts (letters, books, magazines, blogs, etc.), audio (tapes, CDs, MP3s, podcasts, etc.), and video in multiple formats.

    Each of these non-face to face methods is cheaper (at least lower marginal cost) than face to face. Each varies in the degree to which it gains and keeps attention – and this varies from person to person as well. While my mind can wander from a message delivered in a traditional church setting, the fact that in a congregation the “I” that hears and responds becomes a “we” that hears and responds draws my attention more readily. Except for the very shortest, videos don’t work for me. Audios work well, though only if I am doing something else at the same time – driving or exercising mostly.

    When I was college teaching I sometimes used videos in my classes. The only way these worked as teaching tools was forcing engagement with the video by stopping the video every couple of minutes to talk about the content. If streaming video is put out by a church, does anything like this happen?

    But what if church is more than informational? If it’s transformational, my own Methodist tradition teaches (though it has mostly forgotten) that transformation happens in conversation with other people, in the context of dialog. I think that in small groups – maybe up to 6 or 7 – this works best face to face. Going back to my college teaching experience again, I found online classes enabled more engagement between students and teacher than most face to face. Because of the structure of the online class, responding and engaging was required in a way that pushed past the easy passivity of a larger “live” class.

    Church is also more than informational and more than transformational. We can pray for and offer support to others through many media, some of which have no personal touch involved. Humans seems to thrive, however, on personal presence, however much we shy away from it. I think here also of Jean Twenge’s work in iGen. This post 1995 generation has trended away from face to face contact with peers to electronic communication. Her assessment is that this has led to an increase in loneliness and social dysfunction for the generation. If the younger generation suffers from a lack of bodily presence, I can believe the rest of us do also.

  • I think the online format is pretty convenient as a lot of us have to work most weekends with our jobs. So ita nice to have that option as a well to get caught up. As far as giving, my church utilizes text to give and the Tithley app to give virtually.

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    As a social worker and as a Christian small group leader I have worked with small groups over a period of more than 30 years. There are dynamics that are operative in a small group consisting of people together in the same room that cannot be replicated in an online group. You cannot hug someone over the internet when he or she needs the physical reassurance of a hug. You cannot lay hands on someone when you pray for him or her. You cannot see the unspoken message that body posture,gestures, and the like convey. You also cannot maintain the kind of accountability for interactions that you can when a group of people are together in the same room. In a virtual gathering an individual can say something untoward or irresponsible and with a click of a mouse he or she is gone. Nor can you, I would add, sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in quite the way that you can when group of people are together in the same room. Virtual gatherings have a place in the life of the church but I do not believe that they are a substitute for the kind of community that you can experience when a group are together in the same room, in each other;s physical presence. One of the dangers of virtual gatherings is that they may create a false sense of community among individuals who actually live relatively isolated lives. I may chat with friends and acquaintances who live a considerable distance from where I live and we may enjoy a good rapport. But it is the members of my small group whom I see face to face not only one evening a week but at other times throughout the week, to whom I can turn for help and support me when I need it, even if it just the kind of encouragement that comes from being there with me at a difficult time in my life, what some call the ministry of presence. It is also the members of my small group with whom I can tangibly in many different ways show my love for my neighbor.