Health professionals and the media call the COVID-19 virus a “novel virus.” This new virus for humans has generated many novel responses around the world -- new tests being created, new restrictions being imposed, new vaccines being developed.
Amid all this newness, congregations have sought new ways to do ministry in a time of quarantines, cancellations and social distancing. Many congregations have been pushed to explore new ways to do ministry online. And while that may be difficult, online gatherings can be a rich way of serving our congregations’ needs in this global crisis.
Online church is not entirely new. While it may be novel to a particular congregation, the notion of online church has been around for a long time. The history of online church goes back at least to the Challenger explosion in 1986.
According to digital religion scholar Heidi Campbell, an online memorial service organized by a Christian network discussion group was held after the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff.
Other variations of online church arose in the late 1980s as virtual communities formed within multiplayer computer games and bulletin board software systems. More online churches emerged with the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. These virtual congregations utilized chatrooms, discussion forums, online worship services, music and other digital multimedia.
Since its inception more than 30 years ago, online church has taken radically different shapes. A prevalent form of online church involves a local congregation creating an internet campus. This variation of online church typically includes livestreaming a worship service by means of Facebook, YouTube or the congregation’s own website. Tim Hutchings, in his book “Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media,” argues that internet campuses have steadily moved from being “a niche curiosity to something much closer to becoming a mainstream religious practice.”
The growth and development of online church also includes the myriad ways in which local churches are using the internet to facilitate ministry. Websites, social media pages and teaching videos posted to YouTube are all online church resources used by local congregations. Similarly, pastors often use internet-based communication tools such as email, video calls and social media messaging to do ministry. This suggests a steady integration of the local church and the online church.
Over the past 30 years, online church has generated many debates and disagreements. Several church bodies have issued statements against certain online church practices. Well before COVID-19, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod all issued statements against celebrating the Lord’s Supper online, for example.
Some pastors and congregants might resist the notion of online church because of their own unfamiliarity with the available technology. Other debates surrounding online church deal with the legitimacy of online communities and the relationship between the online church and the local church.
Like the internet itself, the topic of online church is diverse and divergent. Rather than creating a sharp distinction between the online and offline forms of church, it is better to think in terms of “church in a digital age.” The church today is unavoidably part of the church in a digital age. And with the recent spread of the coronavirus, many are exploring what it means to be church without being physically present with one another.
In this time of quarantine and social distancing, how can the church continue to be the church? How might a congregation not neglect “to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) while still being careful and responsible? I suggest three guiding principles for being church in a digital age.
Online church should be personalized. Every Christian tradition and theological perspective will come to different conclusions about what is good, right and salutary regarding ministry and the internet. Thankfully, modern technology offers many different options from which to choose while still honoring theological positions.
Congregations should personalize their online practices so as to respect the convictions of their particular traditions. Being the church in a digital age does not require compromising one’s theological convictions.
Online church should be personal. A common critique of digital technology is that it is impersonal. Yet with many hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities under quarantine, it is not always possible for congregants to connect physically. Likewise, it may be difficult for small groups, leadership boards and Bible studies to gather in person. The church in a digital age uses digital technology well when it makes online practices as personal as possible.
While video chats and virtual meetings cannot replace face-to-face gatherings, these are better than not meeting at all. Increasing the frequency of these more personal practices can help offset the impersonal aspects of digital technology. Less personal forms of communication such as mass emails and social media posts should be used to give information, not foster personal connection.
Online church should be participatory. Paul encouraged the churches in Galatia to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Certainly, many people are burdened by the coronavirus. However, togetherness is a powerful antidote to fear, loneliness and anxiety.
Congregations can connect people and provide opportunities for participation through digital technology. Participating in a phone tree, email thread or video call fosters a sense of personal connection. Priority should be given to real-time versus prerecorded forms of participation -- livestreaming versus video posting, for example -- because synchronous experience fosters a greater sense of togetherness.
The new coronavirus has brought tremendous discontinuity to our world. With so much discontinuity, it is vital to maintain whatever continuity we can. Congregations have always met in personalized, personal and participatory ways. These are not novel principles. Rather, the novel coronavirus has presented the church with an opportunity to live into these ancient principles for being church in novel ways.