Carey Nieuwhof says that online church was once a back door for lazy or disengaged Christians, but it is rapidly evolving into the primary entry point for new people interested in a church. But to reach people who live on the internet, churches need to devote more resources and staff to online engagement.
There’s an ongoing debate about how much church you can do online. Laura Turner wrote a helpful piece recently for The New York Times, Internet Church Isn’t Really Church, in which she argued that online church isn’t the same as in-person church. Largely, I agree with Laura and, as a local church leader, I really appreciate her viewpoint.
But discussion about the online church is too often binary. Church online is good or bad. Wise or dumb. A cop-out or great. Here’s what I think the future holds for online church. In the near future, online church will become almost exclusively a front door and side door, not a back door.
Online church as a back door
In the early days of online church, the internet functioned as a back door. Consumer-oriented, disengaged, or lazy Christians headed for the back door and traded the drive and the traffic for the comfort of a warm bed or the convenience of a treadmill or commute. If your primary disposition toward church was to consume content, online just gave you a far easier way.
But those Christians are an endangered species. After more than a decade into church online, they’ve drifted off into the background and honestly, for the most part, into Kingdom-irrelevance. You can’t change the world if your only connection with the Kingdom is through your earbuds.
That group has become consumers, not contributors. You can’t build the future of the church on them. Mission requires engagement movement. So, the backdoor people are history. Ditto with the casual observers who consume and never contribute. There’s no future there, so move along, people. The future of the church is the internet as a front door and side door.
Online church as a front door
Church online will become a front door for the curious, the skeptic and the interested. It will be the first stop for almost everyone, and a temporary resting place for people who are a little too afraid to jump in until they muster the courage to jump in through physical attendance.
What we’re seeing at Connexus where I serve is that almost everyone who attends for the first time has engaged online for weeks, months or upward of a year. They see online as the new front door, which it is.
Online church as a side door
It’s also a side door to Christians who travel or who can’t be there on a given Sunday. In that respect, it boosts engagement because it keeps people connected. They never miss a Sunday or a moment because of the seamless slip between digital and analog that our lives have become.
But wait, you say, what if they don’t come back as much in person? Well, then that’s not a side door or front door issue, that’s a consumer who’s using online as a back door. As we’ve already seen, there’s no future in that.
Do you staff your church to cultivate online presence?
For the reasons outlined above, most churches are beginning to realize that online church is a very real thing. But you probably don’t staff your church as though it is, unless you’re a very large, multi-site megachurch. Until now, most churches (even churches over 1,000) cultivate their online presence by tacking it onto the job description of someone in the creative department. As in “Here. You go run social, please. And, oh, can you get these sermons uploaded?” And then once every five years, the church allocates X number of dollars to hire someone to redo their website hoping that will fix the problem for another half decade.
The vast majority of churches spend 99 percent of their staffing dollars on in-person gatherings. But you can’t have a massive impact online when you spend 1 percent of your staffing resources on it. And we wonder why we don’t see more direct results from online outreach.
Why does this matter? The internet is the venue in which the entire community you are trying to reach lives. If you want to reach them there, spending 1 percent of your resources on it is likely not the smartest strategy.
This article is adapted from a blog post by Carey Nieuwhof, 5 Disruptive Church Trends that Will Rule 2019. Used by permission.
- Does Your Church Need an Online Campus? by Jim Tomberlin
- Key Questions When Starting a Live Stream of Worship Online by Andrew Conard