Online Missionaries in a Digital World

I really don’t like the idea of “online church.”

The thought of staying at home and watching a church service on a TV, computer, tablet, or phone goes against all of my theological convictions concerning what church is. I’m a disciple of Eugene Peterson who consistently drew upon the incarnation of Jesus to describe the church in its local expression.

Church is an embodied, enfleshed, real-time, life-on-life gathering meeting in a common space at a given time. We are the relational body of Christ, and we are only as strong as the relational bonds that hold us together. We are the relational body of Christ and we are only as strong as the relational bonds that hold us together. Click To Tweet

The months of online-only worship gatherings were strange for me. I explained early on during this pandemic that online church didn’t feel right: “Instead of hugs and handshakes, congregational singing and serving communion to our congregation, I sat during the online service in my recliner wearing my Kansas City Chiefs hoodie watching people worship, listening to a sermon, and chatting online. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this digitally-infused experience I was having was not worship as it was meant to be.”

My (Short) List of Concerns

Digital forms of communication and engagement only supplement community; they cannot replace it. I have held on to this value for a long time. I have serious concerns about the long-term effects of reliance on digital forms of engagement, because it is too easy to hide our true selves when we are online. It is too easy to fall into the trap of consumerism such as falling into a Facebook video hole where the social media provider dispenses video after video after video for our watching pleasure. I have my suspicions about online church.

I have concerns that…

  • an online church will make it too easy for people to watch at home and not make the short drive to a particular church building.
  • an online church will further embolden the #Exvangelical and #EmptyThePews crowd.
  • the longevity of online engagement for some will result in their finding a more attractive church to engage with online, creating virtual church hopping.
  • an online church experience deepens the “worshipper as spectator” mentality among Christians.
  • more people will experience the potential increase of loneliness and disconnection worshipping in front of a screen.
  • the lurking specter of consumerism built into social media platforms will fight against the Spirit of Jesus.
  • online church will become more homogenaic, less multicultural, and less socio-economically diverse.

I have concerns with developing online church, but then again I always have concerns about the church. I’m a pastor after all. After Paul details all the physical trials and tribulations he has endured, he adds, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). I have anxiety about our in-person congregation just as much as I do about the thought of an online congregation.

Pastor Kris Beckert recently asked how digital tools and digital forms of engagement are shaping who we are becoming. I share her concerns that we are facing the temptation to fall into the trap of creating cool content for the clicks, likes, and shares and lose sight of our mission to make disciples by being salt and light. I also agree with her that our missional effectiveness requires “immersion, not separation.”

With our concerns clearly stated, is it possible that God is creating an opportunity for us online?

Contextual Theology in the Digital Age

Within the academy, we find various branches of theology: systematic theology, biblical theology, spiritual theology, historical theology, practical theology, and so on. And these branches often find themselves in conflict with one another.

Missiologists talk about another kind of theological practice. They talk about contextual theology.

Conversations surrounding contextual theology arise particularly when describing how the gospel is communicated in a cross-cultural setting. Contextual theology is how we take what we believe (systematic theology), based in our interpretation of Scripture (biblical theology) and understanding of church tradition (historical theology), to help make sense of the Christian faith in the cultural context in which we always find ourselves. The focus for contextual theology is, as one would assume, context.

Catholic theologian Steve Bevans explains, “Doing theology contextually is to do theology in dialogue with two realities: the experience of the past recorded in Scripture and the church’s tradition(s) and the experience of the present or the context in which Christian theologians live.”  This “experience of the present” includes either present experiences, social status, cultural identity, or a change within a context.

We can all feel that we are in the midst of change within our present context. We are living in a time of rapid cultural change in how we view social interaction, communication, and community engagement. We can thank social media for this change.

Currently, I’m finding my systematic theological understanding of the church is in conflict with what is becoming a contextual theological understanding of how we do church in the digital age. I’m convinced that we will never go back to church the way we knew it before livestreaming and social media. Perhaps our experience of church was always going to change, but the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the shape of the church as a community. I have accepted this fact. Moreover, the context of the church in the 21st century has changed, and so I acknowledge the reality that our ministry needs to change as well. I’m convinced that we will never go back to church the way we knew it before livestreaming and social media. Click To Tweet

A Way Forward in Online Engagement

The pitfalls that I’m concerned about with online church will always be present, but they are not inevitable for everyone. I know of people who are watching our livestream worship services, who participate in our online small groups, and who interact in the comments. They are neither consumers, online church hoppers, nor angry ex-church members. Many of them are fellow sojourners who have  discovered a more beautiful gospel and have found themselves without a church home. Many of them would attend our in-person worship services, but they live in California, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, and Western Europe.

Over the last six months, we have had a number of people who watch our services ask if they can make our church their home church even though they only engage with us online. As a pastor, I didn’t always have the best response, but now I do.

Recently we have opened up online membership, as a way to relationally connect with people who track with us online and are looking to participate in what God is doing in and through our local church. We certainly do not have all the answers or have mastered online engagement, but we are taking a step of faith.

People have been engaging with us online; the question is do I want to step into the digital world and likewise engage with them? Through a time of prayer and conversation with some other church leaders, I came to the conclusion that to shepherd them in the ways of Jesus is an opportunity I cannot ignore. To pastor people through online engagement may not be the best way to do church, but it’s a concession I am willing to make in our current cultural context. People have been engaging with us online, the question is do I want to step into the digital world and engage with them? Click To Tweet

As my friend Brad Jersak reminded me, “If concessions are acts of grace, then maybe they are not mere compromise of values but mercy that transcends the law.” To this bit of wisdom, I add my “Amen.”

Click to read more about Word of Life Church’s Online Membership.

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