Over the past few years I’ve put a lot of work into providing online teaching and training content. It arises out of a concern to see greater provision for people who want to be equipped for in context Gospel service but for all sorts of reasons are unable to access the kind of provision made available through theological colleges like Union and Oak Hill.
The result is that if you have access to Faithroots.com you’ll be able to read articles, watch videos and listen to audio. You’ll get Bible studies, seminars and the occasional sermon too. Now it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many people are engaging with online content. I suspect there are multiple clicks and many people download an MP3 with all kinds of good but unfulfilled intentions to listen to it later. I do get some feedback though and I interact further with people through discussion on Twitter and Facebook, emails, phone-calls and zoom chats.
However, I would never dream of calling myself an online pastor and certainly would not call Faithroots an online church. This might not be something that you would expect to need saying but increasingly I am seeing references to virtual church and online pastors.
One reason for this has been the pandemic. Necessity forced many of us onto zoom, YouTube and Facebook. And as we moved online, it became clear that there is an ongoing need and ongoing opportunities that many of us have perhaps missed or ignored and a faithful few have been persisting with for some time. You see, there are a lot of people who have been unable to access in person church long before the pandemic and will be long after. Reasons may include physical health and vulnerability, emotional health such as anxiety and the complexities of work and family life. There are opportunities to witness too including to many people who don’t have day to day contact with believers and/or would be very reluctant to set foot in one of our buildings.
So, I’m positive about encouraging churches to continue with online provision and indeed I’d like to see it expanded. However, I don’t believe that this is the same as saying that you can become part of an online/virtual church.
The other day, I picked up on this tweet.
From the context it became clear that the author was arguing that churches were not declining in attendance but rather patterns of where and when people were “attending” had already been changing because people are increasingly accessing online content and this pre-dates the pandemic. The person posting was encouraging churches to respond to this by developing more online provision. Whilst I’m pro social media and digital engagement, I cannot agree with his reasoning and here’s why.
First, because I fear that his justification is based in some naïve optimism. There have been attempts over the past 20 years to sugar coat the harsh reality that church attendance in the West is declining. So, we would be told that people are simply changing their attendance habits. They are attending less often on Sunday mornings, perhaps coming along once a month instead of once a week and they are popping into Cathedrals or mid-week lunchtime services to pray and hear a talk. The reality though is that even if some people have changed their habits that this goes no-where towards closing explaining all of the decline and further more (including for reasons I’ll go into later), the decline in regularity whilst meaning that you might still have the same number of people attending overall means that there is a loss of depth both to their Christian walk (if they are believers) and to the life of the church.
Whilst, particularly through the pandemic we have been encouraged by the number of views, hits and downloads, I suspect that if you were to check on how much those stats related to specific people engaging fully with the online content then numbers would be a lot less. Furthermore, we have to consider the possibility that they don’t give us a true picture of unique visitors to church. I remember a church that used to boast of it’s 2000 attendees but it wasn’t clear if they were counting the same people twice if they went to more than one service.
Similarly, I suspect that someone downloading one of #TheDailyDose talks has also clicked on two or three other podcasts this morning. Indeed, I suspect that whilst some people engaging online are unable to attend an in person service this week, that in most cases, you are more likely to be looking for additional spiritual content in the week if you are fully engaged already at a Sunday congregation as well. Twenty years ago, these would have been the people who bought books, CDs and Evangelicals Now. They would have listened to Premier Radio and watched the God Channel. Now they download podcasts, read blogs and watch worship playlists of YouTube.
Then, my other concern is about what we mean when we talk about people attending church. You see, church is not a building or an event that we attend. Church is not about consumption and nor is it about simply downloading and uploading information in the most efficient manner possible. WE don’t attend church, we become part of a local church. We are meant to be part of the body and that means we all have gifts to bring. We are meant to address one another as well as God with our Psalms and hymns. We are meant to break bread together, encourage each other and correct one another. That isn’t happening when I’m watching a service on YouTube or listening to a sermon on Spotify.
Its for that reason that I preferred using Zoom to Facebook during the pandemic. It required people to be present at the same time and to get involved. It meant we couldn’t become passive observers who joined in when it was convenient for us on a Tuesday evening or a Saturday morning.
This is also why I don’t think that online church offers the complete answer for those who are long term housebound. To be sure, a downloaded talk, watching songs of praise or getting involved in a zoom call is better than nothing. Yet, we need more than that. So, whilst I’d encourage you to keep giving links to online services out don’t let that be at the expense of finding ways to meet with those who are housebound in person. Go visit them, have a life group round their house, get a few people together with them to share communion. Don’t leave it for them to dial in and think that will suffice.
I may be a pastor who produces online content but I’m not an online pastor. I would suggest the latter is impossible.