By Chris Moon
Is online church really church?
That question has bounced around church circles for years as more of American life takes place over the internet. Churches and pastors have been all over the spectrum—from all-in to logged out.
The conversation persisted right up to the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple of Christian magazine covers from March 2020 help tell the story.
The central theme of Christian Standard’s March print edition featured a robust discussion about the benefits of online church. The cover featured Rusty George of Real Life Church in Valencia, California, who said, “Church is engagement . . . with the music, with the teaching, with Communion and offering, and with other people. An online campus can provide all of these things. In fact, in some ways it can be an even better experience.”
Meanwhile, Outreach Magazine’s cover story featured Jay Y. Kim, pastor of teaching and leadership at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. Instead of a digital church, he advanced the merits of an “analog” one. “For information, digital is great. Use it,” he said. “But for transformation? That is the business of the church, and trading it for scaled-up efficiency is a poor bargain.”
And then the shutdown came.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the church out of the sanctuary and onto the web as stay-at-home orders and bans on even small public gatherings became the norm.
Churches suddenly found that “online church” was pretty much the only game in town—along with such related features as online Bible studies, giving, youth ministry, prayer meetings, and pastoral care. Zoom meetings became everyday occurrences.
This online revolution of necessity has served as a gut check for pastors and their views of online ministry. And as one might imagine, the response remains mixed.
‘LIKE NEVER BEFORE’
“There is still something [special] that happens in a gathering physically,” said Ashley Wooldridge, senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, which averaged more than 34,000 weekly last year.
But ministry methods aren’t a zero-sum game, he said, “It’s not an ‘either-or.’ It’s a ‘both-and.’”
Wooldridge said the COVID-19 lockdown presented “an amazing opportunity.”
“It’s gotten us back to a very pure form of ministry,” he said.
Instead of asking people to come to a church building, believers had to reach them on their own. Christians frequently claim “church is not a building,” Wooldridge noted. Without the building, they have to put their ministry where their mouths are.
“I’m not sure it sinks into people’s minds until the building is taken away,” he said.
Fortunately, in the 21st century, the church has other ways to share the gospel.
“Sometimes I think, What would the church have done 50 years ago if put in this situation?” Wooldridge said.
The positive effects of online ministry are apparent to Wooldridge. Christ’s Church of the Valley saw 775 people sign up to be baptized at Easter.
Because of social distancing, there was no mass baptism session. Instead, individuals and families streamed into CCV’s campuses almost every day for weeks after Easter, ready to be baptized.
“We’re seeing people come to Christ like never before,” Wooldridge said.
NOT AS RIGHT AS THEY THOUGHT
The benefits of online church have even started to move some skeptics.
Vince Antonucci, lead pastor of Verve Church in Las Vegas—a congregation that averages 285 attendees and bills itself as “a church for people who don’t like church”—said he hadn’t been a fan of online church. But after seeing the effect of his church’s online platform during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “I wasn’t as right as I thought I was.”
Previously, Verve Church had posted its services online, but they were available to watch only after the fact. When the shutdown came, that quickly changed.
“I was nervous,” Antonucci said. “When we weren’t able to meet, I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to work?’”
He found it worked quite well.
The church conducted a teaching series each night of Holy Week and reached two-thirds of the audience the church typically would see on a Sunday morning. The church also operated a chat room, and people used it to share their concerns and connect with each other. They even offered simple “miss you” messages that Antonucci found valuable.
Meanwhile, all of the church’s small groups moved online—to Zoom or other platforms. And some of those groups even began meeting twice a week because it was so easy—and, Antonucci admits, “probably also because people were bored. They were looking for things to do.”
Rick Wheeler, lead pastor of South Rock Christian Church in Derby, Kansas, also has had reservations about online church. South Rock averages 1,400 to 1,500 people in its services each Sunday. The church started offering fully online services during the pandemic.
Wheeler said there’s no question online church works well for those who are reluctant to return to in-person services—and for those who perhaps shouldn’t. Wheeler said his 88-year-old mother is in an assisted-living facility and loved his church’s online services.
“I think there will be certain people that need that,” Wheeler said.
HOW MANY AND FOR HOW LONG?
And yet, some concerns surrounding online church weren’t swept away.
One key question that arises for an online church gathering is this: How many people actually are gathered? One “device” that links to a service may equal several people watching. At the same time, a person who clicks onto a service for only a couple of minutes before leaving isn’t exactly engaged. So how does a pastor count them all?
Some churches use multipliers to calculate the audience size.
Antonucci said Verve Church is simply trying to increase the number of viewers and the average “watch time” for those viewers. After a month of holding online services, people were hanging around for an average of 27 minutes.
“It’s gotten longer and longer. We had more curiosity seekers early on,” Antonucci said.
Still, questions like that need answering, said Barry Cameron, senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.
His church typically drew about 8,000 people to its weekend services before the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. But for its online services during the pandemic, 60,000 to 70,000 individual devices were connected.
You can count Cameron among those skeptical that so many people are actually engaged in those services.
STILL NOT ‘REAL CHURCH’
Cameron has argued for years that online church isn’t “real church.”
He described it as like takeout food from a restaurant. The food’s good, but the experience can’t compare with actually going to a restaurant and eating there.
During the pandemic, online church was the only game in town. “You have a captive audience, and that’s why it’s powerful,” Cameron said.
But online church audiences are fluid—especially so when normal churchgoers are locked out of their regular church services. A person may watch multiple church services a week, and it could be out of boredom or curiosity as much as devotion. That may not necessarily count as a win for any single church.
For example, Cameron said he and his wife watched three different church services on Easter, and he’s sure they were counted as “attending” all three of those churches. But he said he’s not going to do that every Sunday.
The only way to do “real” church, Cameron contends, is to do it in person.
“Online marriage doesn’t work,” he said. “Online church doesn’t work. You can’t have a relationship without touch.”
THE POWER OF ZOOM AND SOCIAL MEDIA
But that’s not to say some vestiges of the physical-distancing era won’t carry forward. Even Cameron admits that.
He said his staff did a good job creating midweek online content to drive people toward the weekend experience. He said he wants that to continue.
And Cameron said Zoom and FaceTime have been wonderful ways to keep small groups connected. He said he noticed people sending fewer text messages and making more phone calls.
“People are sharing their heart a lot more now. I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think people won’t be so reticent [to connect].”
COVID-19 has caused churches to consider new ways to connect with their people.
Chris Bacus, senior minister of Anchor Christian Church in Rochester, New York, a church that averages about 200, said he’d always considered online church to be “church lite.” But during the closures, Bacus learned a lot more about the use of Instagram and Twitter—something he’d wanted to do for some time—and he’ll continue to minister through those platforms.
And Bacus said his church’s women’s group will continue using Zoom to engage moms who have small children and those who otherwise can’t attend in person.
Bacus admitted his reflex is to promote in-person gatherings whenever possible. But he said his daughter teaches English to international students over the internet daily, and if a language can be taught through a screen, so can the tenets of the faith.
“Discipleship could be done that way effectively,” he said.
EFFORT AND AUTHENTICITY
Bobby Wallace, lead minister of Movement Christian Church in Knightdale, North Carolina, said his two-year-old church plant had shied away from offering online services because of quality-control concerns. His worry was the culture and care of his church would “not be represented very well online.”
The church is a mobile congregation that sets up and tears down each Sunday in a local school. Adding a livestream, especially with the somewhat sketchy internet access at the school, just seemed a recipe for a digital disaster—or at least embarrassment.
“We wanted to do it well,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we could put out a high-quality production online.”
Of course, the church’s hand was forced by COVID-19. With no Sunday gathering to prepare for, the church has been prerecording its worship and sermons and putting them online each week. The quality, Wallace said, has been good.
And Wallace said he’s discovered his people weren’t as concerned with a slick, online production as they were with seeing their church in action when they otherwise couldn’t.
“A lot of [our] people . . . appreciate the effort and the authenticity of it,” he said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.