Three Ways to Approach Church Online (a response to Dave Adamson)

Church online. It’s always seemed to be a bit of an oxymoron to me. Of course, my opinion on that matter doesn’t really matter because the facts are people want the ability to attend church online. What we’re just now starting to see is what are the effects of church online.

Recently, Dave Adamson wrote a post outlining a framework for a way forward. The post describes a omni-channel strategy that allows people to engage with church in various ways. Here’s Dave’s description:

An omni-channel approach to church would mean that people could fully connect and fully engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week—or possibly even at all. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the week after, and catch the message on-demand in an church app the week after that. Rather than a location-centric approach to church, this would be an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally AND physically, for 1 hour on Sunday AND throughout the other 167 hours of the week.

Dave couldn’t be more right. The digital revolution in the other parts of our lives is bound to bleed over to our church life. The question I want to ask is… how will the church respond and change?

First, let’s realize that the church will need to change. I think history will show us that when major technological shifts in society occur, the church is always effected. Here’s some quick examples:

  1. Printing Press– The invention of the printing press allowed for mass production of the bible, which moved it from the hands of the priests to the hands of the masses. This eventually gave way to a shift in which people consumed scripture. No longer was the priest the sole interepter of God’s word, instead everyone was able to do it for themselves.

  2. Automobiles– The invention of cars made it possible for people to have more choices in churches. People were no longer bound by their immediate geograpical concerns as they now could travel greater distances to attend a church that suited their tastes. (Side note: When I asked my grandfather why he grew up a Southern Baptist, he said it was because it was the closest church to their house.)

  3. Television – With TV came the arrival of the church television ministries. Now people weren’t bound by geography to enjoy the church of their choosing and those who where homebound had an option as well. Also, churches eventually felt the pressure to increase production values to match the quality of television worship services.

It’s also worth noting that the three examples listed above took about 50-60 years to have a dramatic effect on society as a whole (the printing press took even longer). The technological changes that Dave is referring to took less than 5-10 years to take hold, yet I believe they will have the same dramatic effect on the church.

So how will the church respond? Well I think we’re going to see the church respond in three different ways:

  1. Embrace the Change – There will be churches that fully embrace this change. They will have to be okay with lots of trial and error. Most of what they do will be in a constant “beta” phase. Tweaks and improvements that will never end. They will realize that there’s never a moment when you say “we’re done”, because technology never stops evolving.

  2. React to the Change – There will be churches who are going to be more inclined to pull back than embrace the change. They’ll almost be “anti-online”. They’ll proudly state that in order to experience community with them, you’ll need to be in the building. They may even bill themselves as places of digital sabbath, where phones and other technological devices are eschewed for a tactile experience (think hymn books). In some ways I like this approach, but I can see where it can lead to a false piety of feeling superior to others who embrace a digital experience.

  3. Create a Premium Experience – There will be churches that still like the idea of expanding the church’s digital presence, but only if it brings people to the physical location. The physical church is almost seen as premium experience in which you get the full benefit of church. This actually where a lot churches sit right now. I don’t think this is a sustainable model, because it gives people a half-hearted attempt at meeting them where they’re at. However, it will be the most popular becase it requires the least change, but in the long run it will eventually die out.

So let’s get personal for a second. To be frank, my church is clinging onto the third option. Why? Well, part of the reason is staff. We have a large amount of staff who rarely think digital first. In fact, we’ve led training sessions on how to move their ministries into digital spaces. Their reaction? Meh.

The other part is that for now we’re well resourced and attendance hasn’t fallen off a cliff. However, with every passing Sunday, we’re beginning to see the signs of change.

So what do we (my church) plan to do about it? Embrace the change. Yes, it will be painful. I’m sure at some point there will be new staffing models, changes to budgets, and a new metric for how we’re determining if this working or not. But regardless of what we think about the change, it’s coming whether we like it or not.