In the rush to offer online worship, many churches have focused primarily on technical and programmatic concerns. Heidi Campbell says it’s more important to consider what people need from church now and how digital technology can meet those needs.
I find most pastors and churches focus their attention on the pragmatic aspects of doing church online. This includes asking what platform is best to use and easiest to learn, what technology resource is most cost-effective, and what aspect of a church service needs some modification in its livestreaming format. Yet these are not the key questions people ask when seeking out a religious community online.
As priests and pastors have rushed to find new ways to provide church service experiences for their members, the internet has become the go-to alternative for replacing traditional face-to-face worship. The result has been a wide range of how-to guides and articles being circulated to pastors via social media with advice on how to livestream their sermons or create a makeshift online gathering. However, I believe few people are asking the most important question: What do people need from churches right now? And how might digital technology be best used to meet those needs?
Over the past two decades, I have done multiple studies looking at different manifestations of church online. Over and over, I hear these same traits echoed in interviews of what people value most about the relationships and communities they are invested in, both online and offline. I found that people most valued six traits about their online communities.
First, they are looking for a sense of relationship — not simply a place to share information, but a space that allowed them to form a network of social relations and friendships. As a woman from Illinois I interviewed said, “What I am experiencing on the internet is a true Christian relationship.… It makes the whole thing of the Bride of Christ more feasible, a reality, … not just something to read about.”
2. Support and encouragement
Second, they are looking for care, a space where they can give and receive support and encouragement. As a lawyer from Michigan I spoke to reported, “I’ve had communication online where I’ve really felt ‘hugged’ when I really need it.”
3. A sense of being appreciated
Third, they are looking for value, to be appreciated for their contributions and presence online. A man from the UK involved in an online Anglican community described this saying, “I’ve tried to leave the group three times, but I’ve always rejoined because I miss the people, I miss the banter, and I miss how they encourage me.”
4. Trusted connections
Fourth, people are longing for connection, the ability to have 24/7 contact with others that internet technology easily facilitates. An accountant from Missouri involved in a prophetic learning community explained, “I know on the [group] when someone says they’ll pray for me, they will. That’s a trust because I have seen it happen. Whereas at church someone can say, ‘Oh, I’ll pray for you,’ but I don’t know that they will.”
5. A safe place for intimate communication
Fifth, people online are looking for intimate communication — a safe place where they can be themselves and communicate openly with others. “We have been absolutely amazed at how the Holy Spirit can use something like email to touch the hearts of folks halfway around the world, even to the point that they weep,” said a vision-impaired woman from the UK who described the online Christian group as her church.
6. Shared beliefs and purpose
The sixth and final component is that people in online communities long for fellowship with others of a shared faith, like-minded believers who share their beliefs and sense of purpose. As a man from Toronto reported, “The [group] is just another expression of Jesus Christ and His Church and His calling of us to be ministers of the gospel.”
Whether people called their group an online Christian community or an online church, their answers were the same. They were looking for a faith-based social network where they could build relationships, share their faith, and find meaning and value in their interactions and place in the groups.
This material is excerpted from “What Religious Groups Need to Consider When Trying to Do Church Online” in the free ebook The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online, Heidi A. Campbell, Editor.
- Leading Ideas Talks Podcast Episode 56: “Online Worshipers: Moving from Viewers to Participants” featuring Orlando Evans
- Digital Church Is Here to Stay by Carey Nieuwhof
- Get Ready for the New Normal by Doug Powe