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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92 Comments

  • Digital church???
    I think in these modern times, there is a great need to redefine what a church – body of Christ is. Church is not even a building or a place we go to. Having said that the church – believers, met regularly for real fellowship. Church is not for us just to hear sermons. If that is the only purpose then what is so called digital church is ok. But as I understand church, it is more than that. It is both a vertical connection with God and also a horizontal relationship with fellow believers. It is not only loving God but loving one another. For me to love God, I can do it wherever I am. But for genuine community, sharing, fellowship, exchange of life by ministering to one another is necessary. I don’t know how practically this is possible in so called digital church. There is something real about being with people, touching them, shaking their hands, wiping their tears, holding their hands and praying together and having a meal together. Oh that is real fellowship. I am not sure if digital church can fulfill this.

  • Dennis Gannon says on

    The internet is like the printing press on steroids. The Reformers, Luther, Calvin et al, could not continue to be in the Roman Catholic Church because of all the truth they had learned due to the availability of books. We are now repeating that same age. The somewhat shallow pep talks prior to the internet will not cut it with this new generation of believers. Some the creeds the pre internet churches are married to, have errors in them and need to be updated. In 100 years, the churches will be completely different than they are today. The churches that have not feed the sheep and instead were entertaining the goats will gradually die off, mostly. Smaller hard core groups will emerge, and money for buildings instead of people will be reversed.

  • The internet is loaded with commentaries and bibles for one to learn and choose for themselves where the spirit leads them. It is a safe haven to freedom, without the bells and whistles. I consider there has been many turning to Christ over the internet. And those who try to take the wind out of their sails.

    However with the right guidance, the teachers will be the Apostles, and Christ himself. People will be making the bible their own. It’s a good idea if not controlled by a person or a group of people in some sort of way. There are so many denominations, and each one thinking theirs is the true one.

    It reminds me of what Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” So the only peace that will count in the end is peace with God. Romans 5:1
    Larry

  • Pastor James Muga says on

    The meaning and duty of the church is mentioned in Acts 2 verse 42;
    praying together, fellowship together, teaching the word and breaking of the bread. this cant be done online!

    • If Acts 2 verse 42 is the criteria then according to vs 45 (you need to sell your possessions and property for all), and this needs to be done day by day (vs 46). After being a devoted 501c3 attendees for 40+ years (even serving on staff locally at numerous churches and serving in foreign countries as missionaries), my wife and I ditched commercial Christianity 10 years ago and replaced it with home groups (nonaffiliated with a denomination) and when we can’t make those home groups we watch our own youtube sermons. There are plenty of local home churches in the New Testament (a building is a building). Dig for it; you’ll find it. Those in our group come from Baptist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Catholic, UPC, Charismatic, Reformed, you name it. Do we disagree on some things? Yes. However, we are adults and mature enough to work through issues together with Scripture and be Bereans and draw our own conclusions. You know what? My wife and I have become more devoted to Scripture and have a deeper understanding and are true students of the Bible now that we got outside the walls of commercial Christianity. The church isn’t the building, it is the people / believers in Christ. Even when we meet every week we use Youtube as the pastor / teacher and have our own music / singing, and we’ve done this for years. What is so unique about our groups is that (unlike 501c3’s) you can openly discuss questions / issues that you might or might not understand in the Bible and not be labeled a “heretic” just because you don’t agree with those “paid staff members of commercial Christianity”. The current setup of the traditional church dumbs down the average believer and stifles growth. Everything must be “blessed” by the denomination (even “cell churches” that were popular several decades ago when they were being pushed by the megachurches must tote the party line) or else they get the boot. One thing my family for sure has learned the past decade, commercial Christianity (501c3) and all it’s various denominations (everyone of them stating they have the truth and everyone else is a heretic) is nothing more than a tax free business, and even some pastors (who are members of our groups) admit they don’t believe some of the stuff their denomination teaches yet they must “tote the party line” in order to get a paycheck. Some of these pastors have received the boot and become part of our groups because they are more committed to the Bible and truth than they are commercial Christianity. Having said all of this, my point is that we still use the internet for our sermon / study criteria including Youtube / virtual sermons, we have instant online access to bible gateway and other valuable resources (especially various translations like Youngs Literal to get the real truth of the original text and not some biased translator’s version, and we all are free of denominational garbage that we used to have.

  • This is just an old excuse with new technology. Before the advent of the internet, many people said watching preachers on TV was the same as attending church. I disagreed then, and I disagee now. There’s just no substitute for being among God’s people. Church is about more than singing songs and listening to a sermon once a week. It’s about God’s people working together to minister to the community and spread the good news of Jesus. You cant do that effectively through the internet.

    • P.S. I’m not talking about people who are homebound or otherwise unable to attend church. In their case, online ministry can be the next best thing.

  • Tom Wilson says on

    It seems to me that the term”church” is being used rather loosely. The activities described are more reminiscent of a theater or a library than they are a church.

    Ultimately, the pastor of this so-called “church” is the individual. This is the person who decides what to view and what to skip, what to listen to and what to ignore. It is a flock with only one sheep, and that sheep is the shepherd as well.

    I just don’t see any scriptural basis for such a church. I can see the utility of many aspects of the digital/internet “church”. But, these are tools. They are not the church. And, I think we need to stop trying to re-define words to suit personal taste instead of the Word of God. I would have thought we should have learned our lesson when we re-defined “marriage”. But, then, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

  • Hi Thom, thanks for your article. I agree it is going to be VERY interesting.

    Here is a 90sec promo vid about an online church I am starting down under in New Zealand. https://youtu.be/rLCc6sedhU0

  • As a millenial, I understand my generation’s thought (and some of Gen Z as well) of virtual communities as real, authentic communities. (I myself attend some very active and supportive Facebook groups)

    That being said, I still believe in physical location for church.

    Online is great, but it can’t fully replace physical buildings.

  • Josh Harris says on

    I’ve noticed some pastors counting their Facebook views in their attendance records. But my understanding is that if the video feed is viewed for only 1 second it counts as a “Facebook view.” It seems this would greatly alter the true attendance record.

  • One thing I’m noticing about younger people who prefer online church: they are not always without the hugs and face to face time with other Christians. I’m seeing many of them choosing music and sermons online, but spending fellowship and sometimes Bible study time, and often doing works of service together in person. That means they might watch a livestream service but meet a couple of days later with 4 or 5 other believers and discuss what they learned and how they are applying it, holding each other accountable and doing service projects together.

    I love my hymns and my 3 songs and apparently so do a lot of people. Works for us and yes, we get together and strive to live it all week. But is it so wrong for others to do it differently?

    Maybe it isn’t a choice we have to make but rather another tool to use?

    Thought provoking article!

  • Thank you for bringing up this topic and for all of the thoughtful responses. I am a pastor, as a matter of fact an Online Campus pastor. I have been in this role for 2.5 years. And during that time I have heard every reason for & against online church. My personal favorite was a board member who said to me on Easter, after having someone accept Jesus as their Savior in the online service, that Online Church breeds complacency.
    I have wrestled with how to have true community in an online setting… something our team is still working on and trying various things.
    I know that while Online Church is not for everyone, it is extremely important for those who do attend. I have learned that it is vital for me to know and share the stories of how God is using this way to reach & minister to people for Him.
    So, when I’m discouraged and wondering if this ministry is really worth it, I remember that we do this…
    For the home bound senior adult that we helped set up her computer and make sure to help stay connected.
    For the missionary who joins in and is part of a community in her language.
    For the college student away at school who is having a hard time finding a church community so they join in online.
    For the family who spent a year in a hospital with their daughter fighting leukemia.
    For the police officer that works the desk on Sundays who joins in so he can still be a part of his church.
    For the mom whose child deals with severe anxiety and is so disruptive that she gave up coming to church because she wasn’t able to attend a service.
    For my brother who hasn’t stepped foot in a church in years that will attend a service on his terms.
    These are just a few of the many lives God is allowing us to minister to through an extremely unconventional method.
    So, is it perfect? Nope.
    Is it the same as getting to hug a neck as they walk in through the doors? Nope.
    Is this type of service for everyone? Nope
    Do I get discouraged and frustrated. You bet.
    BUT, I believe that it is an important additional ministry for the church to reach those who, for whatever reason, are not walking through our church doors.

  • I personally believe that providing a live stream is detrimental in the long run for many of the reasons listed above. Our church has found a good balance I believe, the sermons are recorded each weekend and posted on Monday for those out of town, or unable to attend for various reasons. In addition, the sermons are archived on the website by current series first and then by recent, and we also have the ability to search by subject or guest speaker. This is great for members looking for older sermons, people searching online, and for members to share with others in need. Services on Saturday and Sunday are still very well attended and so far this set-up seems to be a great solution for us!