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

  • Donna Bkanknan says on

    Each church/parish should count the virtual attendees.
    It is still church: “whenever two or three are gathered in my name.”

  • Pastor Kelly says on

    With the possibility of a vaccine being viable in 1-10 years digital church is the new normal. Even if a vaccine is created in 3years the normal time frame for one, people will still not trust it initially. This is the uncomfortable new normal

  • My pastor is very much looking forward to everyone coming back so they can do away with online services. He’s never liked it and he hates that he has to use it now. His reasoning is that Christians should be physically meeting together and that online church gives people the excuse to stay home.

  • Good Morning:

    I read your latest post with interest as, like most of America, we were forced to stream our services in March literally within a week. The response has been truly amazing. God is blessing our efforts, Out main service has been a work in progress, but the congregation has shown grace. The have stayed with us and encouraged the weekly improvements. Some of the surprising things that we are finding:
    ~ We are reconnecting with past members of the congregations that now live all over the country.
    ~ Parents and relatives of our members are tuning in
    ~ Numbers are really difficult to calculate through this medium, but the number we do see are all good.
    ~ In March when we went virtual, we did the same with our Sunday School classes and with our small groups. Both have grown with this new way of meeting.

    Finally, God has blessed financially as well. The congregation understands the challenges we are facing and have stepped up their giving through this trying time.

    As we prepare to relaunch the physical church in early July. A significant number of our congregation will continue to engage virtually for at least the short term. We are excited about at least a small group of the congregation to gather in worship in person. We anticipate this will significantly add to the virtual service.

    The last 90 days have been a challenge, we are so encouraged that the core team from our church has risen to the challenge, and the entire congregation has rolled with it as necessary.

    David Spatz

  • Steven+ says on

    I see virtual services as a means to “keep in touch” (i.e., communicate) while we are lamentably scattered, but not as a real gathering. The church can’t be credibly seen as a real alternative community like it was meant to be if it can exist solely online. Platforms like Zoom are richer than email or a phone calls, but no substitute for holistic, body and soul gathering. Real gatherings are a picture of renewal in Jesus and the final state, e.g., Deut. 30:3; Neh. 8:1; Psa. 50:5; Isa. 43:5; Jer. 23:3; Joel 2:16; Matt. 13:47; 18:20; Mark 13:27; Luke 11:23; John 11:52; 1 Cor. 11:33; Eph. 1:10; Heb. 10:25; 12:23. I worry that the coronavirus pandemic will make people who wouldn’t have considered digital church “real church” change their minds, and I don’t think that’s a positive change. The church I lead gathered online for 16 straight-weeks just now during the pandemic. There were big adjustments, but we tried to recreate a service as much has we could. If we have to go into another quarantine-type situation, I will be thinking through how to make even more changes in what we do there vs. what we do in-person.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Steven!

    • Why are you scared of people changing their minds? Does it have something to do with the monetary collection? Or does it have to do with gold stars next to names in the heavenly attendance log?

  • Our Sunday School class has meeting via Zoom every week since late March when our church shut down. We are one of the largest classes in our Buckhead Atlanta church & we are all over 60. Our class participation seems even better over Zoom.

    Our church is reopening on July 12th. Yesterday we took a poll & not a single one of us will be attending in person that day. We will continue to hold SS via Zoom, starting a little earlier, just in case someone needs travel time to go to church in person some day in the future.

    Also, yesterday, our church’s Comcast network was down as was a lot of north Atlanta due to a massive storm on Saturday night.

    Our broadcast team was very clever & used someone’s phone as a hot spot so we could stream our services. I logged on to Facebook Live to view the service on my tablet & then used Chromecast to stream the service from my tablet to my 65″ tv. I worshipped from my recliner with a dog in my lap. #ChurchAtHome

    Online church may not be traditional, but it is real & serves my needs during this time of pandemic. I give online so why not worship online too?

    In fact, I really wonder if I will ever feel the need to go back to church in person.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    I believe that the time may have come and now is here to recognize digital or internet church as an expression of the Body of Christ. It may not be a perfect expression of the Body of Christ but it is an expression of the Body of Christ as is the incarnational church. The incarnational church has its imperfections too.

    The Body of Christ is not just warm bodies in the same room or warm bodies in separate rooms. It is a spiritual entity. It exists in the spiritual realm as well as in the physical realm. What makes it the Body of Christ is that those forming it have the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit unites them to each other and to God.

    A group of people can gather in the same room and hang out a shingle with “Church of whatever…” on the shingle but not be the Body of Christ. They may profess to believe in Jesus Christ. However, if they do not have the Holy Spirit, if God is not indwelling them, they are not the Body of Christ.

    It is not our belief that makes us the Body of Christ. It is our belief AND the Holy Spirit.

    I believe that we face a real danger in creating a dichotomy between digital or internet church and incarnational church. In fac,t I would discontinue making a distinction between the two and simply refer to both as “church.”

    The danger is insisting that being together in the same room trumps all the other things that make up being the Body of Christ—believing, having the Holy Spirit, doing what the Body of Christ does, manifesting the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In other words, saying that believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit and are doing what the Body of Christ does are not the Body of Christ because they are not sharing the same physical space. Consider the implications of such a claim. You are saying that God is finite. He is limited by space.

    I suspect what people are really wrestling with is change. Intellectually they may see a need for change and recognize the benefits of the change but emotionally they do not welcome the change and resist it. I suspect that this is what underlies all the difficulties that people report with digital services and the like.

    I also sense a lack of trust in God. God will preserve his church no matter what happens and he will cause it to grow and flourish whatever we do. While we may give lip service to this truth, we really do not believe it. We rely on our own strength. We do not trust God to sort things out.

    What worries me is we are becoming so obsessed with the idea that we must gather in person and if we do not, the church will disappear, that we are taking all kinds of risks in the midst of a pandemic. COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are on the increase. In a number of states they are surging. At the same time we are reopening our church buildings and publishing articles and podcasts about the importance of returning to the building. That does not make sense.

    The Church will survive. It will do more than survive. But it will not do so through our efforts. It will do so because it is God’s will, God’s doing.

    • The church survived during the plague, it will survive through this too. Now the 501(c)(3) organisation might be in financial difficulty, but the church will be ok. That said, pastoral care is done all hours of the day and night, on weekends, and holidays. If a family member or friend dies on Sunday night, it is a long time till the Sunday morning gathering. I have been at many Sunday morning services with many people in attendance and been as lonely there as I have ever been in my life.

  • 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.

    As Gen X has been and is always ignored since they were run off from churches, we consider virtual communities to be real as well. The few of our members who entered the inner circle may not understand the need for virtual community.

  • The true and real church of GOD is not virtual., Never has been and never will be.
    I,M TALKING ABOUT THE CHURCH THAT JESUS CHRIST BUILT. A virtual church is leaning towards apostasy.

  • Since we are really close to the end, does it really matter? Digital is one of the best ways of reaching the lost for Jesus. It was television until the explosion of the Internet. But, many people work on Sundays and can’t go. I can’t. I also run an online church for Transgender Christians, and few are reaching out to Transgenders period. But, God accepted me as Transgender where the church most likely never would’ve. Then, he called me to be a minister. I started Transgender Church online, listen to the Holy Spirit in crafting sermons specifically talking about God and Transgenders and buy advertising to reach anyone. I hope to educate fellow Christians to reach out to Transgender people and reach Transgenders that never would be invited by any church. The website is free, no signups, no advertising, you can be totally anonymous. I’m encouraged that almost 700 have read the sinners prayer (and it is included in most sermons). If I listen to the Holy Spirit and write the sermons He directs me to, I have no doubt it will make an impact. With Coronavirus, digital is the way to go for building bridges with marginalize groups and reaching millennials.

  • I prefer online services, but I love my small family groups. I am an introvert who works overnights. Being around so many people is tiring and causes some anxiety. I still hell with events and needs. I helped with the food drive recently, I take part in mission trips, tithe, and help wherever it’s needed. I just hate being around large groups of people. We also have small family groups where we meet weekly, it’s us and four other families. I live those smaller gatherings and find those refreshing and resting.

  • In our church we currently go to church and watch a digital sermon there over live stream as our pastor is gone for 5 months out of the year (every year now) to do ministry elsewhere. So he livestreams to our church. It is a great idea but for some reason I don’t really like that. Impersonable, It seems broken to me. Maybe it works for the other church goers. I don’t mind watching it from home though. He does come every so often to visit the church though. We do have an hour of dinner with fellowship before service and desert afterwards for more fellowship. I am more of a loner though even though I made friends there. And often i struggle with anxiety in church. So online church would seem better for me. The midweek service though is lead in the curch by the associate pastor or someone else from the church. The people are awesome there. But i think i will skip saturdays now, and worship and watch it at home. Seems so depersonalized to watch a sermon online while being in a church building. I think i grow closer to God being alone with Him and reading the Bible. I wonder why I still go to church. Want to find my purpose and don’t seem to find it at church. I want to keep growing in Christ. Sorry i got a little bit off topic.