With more and more people working, learning, and dating online, Paul Nixon predicts an explosion of online ministry. And rather than just broadcasting things meant primarily for people gathered in a church building, more worship and activities will be designed entirely for and with people on the web.
I was driving in Northern Virginia one Sunday morning a couple of years back to make a site visit to a church I was coaching. As I flipped through radio stations, I came to an NPR show on which Paul Rauschenbusch was interviewing Diana Butler Bass. The question I recall him asking is, “Diana, where is the church going to be in 50 years?” Her answer was succinct: “On the internet.” This is an important and prophetic word for us all to hear.
Now, a colleague and I are working with two different pastors in Northern Virginia where we were unable even to make a Sunday site visit. Both pastors are planting virtual communities. I can visit the local team; the best way to visit the church is to get a cup of coffee, open my laptop, and log on. Notably, a major denominational body put big money in the game for each of these churches, offering the full package of new church start-up funding, just as they would have done for a new church that was meeting in a high school gymnasium.
Time will tell whether these communities will take root as self-sustaining ventures. We assume that the per capita giving will not be as much per person as with a church physically gathered — and yet one of the two is, as of this writing, a year ahead of schedule on its benchmarks toward financial self-sustainability. In any case, welcome to the church where your small group leader is stationed in Iraq and the newest member of that group may live in Australia.
We are likely to see an explosion of online ministry bigger than the multisite revolution of 25 years ago. Some of the factors driving this:
- Big screen high-definition TVs with internet access. It makes a difference in one’s online experience when you are no longer working off a 13-inch computer screen, but on nearly the entire south wall of your living room, with surround sound.
- Online conferencing technology is rapidly advancing, so connections are more stable and dependable. Furthermore, it is hard to go to college or to work without having to engage such technology for online interaction and get accustomed to it.
- Almost everyone under the age of 60 today began adapting to computers before the age of 30 and, in so doing, entered the digital culture. Ironically, this is the same population that has dropped off the radar of most historic congregations.
- As for people under 30, most of them came to consciousness as children with digital devices in their hands. Their whole concept of virtuality is changing — in some cases disappearing. Experience is real — in all sorts of modes. This segment of the population finds itself profoundly disengaged and disconnected from their parents’ churches.
- Major personal relationships start online these days. Why not church relationships? I predict that the majority of today’s children may meet their future spouse via the internet. For increasing numbers of people, online is just another great way of meeting — as real as if people were physically in the same room.
It is perhaps too early to see the full contours of what is emerging. But online capabilities and ministry design will be more than simply a nuance on how we do church. Digital ministry is paradigm disruptive. I expect that as we live more fully into the digital age, there will be decreased emphasis on video presentation of the worship experiences created for a crowd gathered together physically, and more worship and interactive possibilities designed entirely for and with people on the web. Twenty-first century people are embracing relationships and interactivity with passion, even as they are becoming less engaged with passive and institutional expressions of art, education, and other cultural experiences.
First United Methodist Church of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has experimented with a biweekly “Kitchen Convo” video recording with two of their pastors on barstools in one of their kitchens, studying a Bible passage and sharing in a robust conversation about the scripture’s life implications. It provides an easy way for a person to share faith with a friend, simply to send the link to that person or several of their Facebook contacts. Moreover, because Kitchen Convo is broadcast via Facebook Live, it is possible for viewers to comment, ask questions, or follow up in a private conversation with a leader at the church. After just a couple of months, the piece was getting 600 views each week and rising — not bad attendance for a weekly Bible study in a church of 800 average worship attendees! Later they changed the format to include interviews, and the views spiked up over 1,000. The majority of the viewers were not physically present in a First UMC worship gathering the preceding Sunday. And it costs nothing other than the time to prepare for it each week.
This material is adapted from Multi: The Chemistry of Church Diversity (Pilgrim Press, 2019) by Paul Nixon, pages 86-90. Used with permission. The book is available Amazon.