Regional President & District Executive Minister, Converge MidAtlantic
Church planting & multiplication
Culture & society
The Pandamic Pivot
A pastor in Maryland had an encounter with a man almost 3,000 miles away. “He lives in Washington state,” Pastor Nathaniel Yates told me. “Someone invited him to watch Bethany Church’s worship service online. He searched for a church on the west coast with the same name and found our livestream instead. He really connected with us, and he’s been watching every week.”
A few months ago, this might have been an unusual occurrence. Not anymore. The pandemic forced congregations around the world to conduct ministries almost exclusively online. It is truly amazing to see how churches have adapted to the moment.
The Unstuck Group recently surveyed more than 500 churches, both large and small, to see how ministry has changed during the crisis. Only half of churches that were surveyed had online services before the pandemic. Among small churches, the number was only 27%. Now almost all churches (95%) are conducting weekend worship services on the internet. The change happened in less than a month.
Not only have congregations learned to post videos, but they have also added camera angles, sub-titles, and picture-in-picture window frames. Small groups and Bible studies have continued remotely via video conferences and chat rooms. Four out of five churches have made the shift to online groups, and 87% are offering online programs for children and parents. We’ve all heard stories about weddings, funerals, youth meetings and women’s retreats. The health crisis has not slowed down ministry. The church has historically thrived during seasons of adversity, and perhaps we are witnessing one of those times.
A stunning phenomenon has been the dramatic increase of participation in online gatherings. According to the Unstuck Group survey, two-thirds of churches indicate that online engagement has been higher than previous in-person worship attendance. The average change is 115% increase.
Admittedly there are a lot of questions about what these numbers really mean. For example, Facebook will count someone as a viewer if they watch a video for merely three seconds. It is 30 seconds on YouTube. Nonetheless, there could be dozens—or hundreds—of new people connecting to your church for the first time. They may live far away from your physical location, or other circumstances might prevent them from attending your church in-person. So, as churches move forward into phases of re-opening, what is our spiritual obligation to these new people? Perhaps it is time for your church to permanently launch your online campus.
The Digital Frontier
Nona Jones is a Christian author and speaker who helped build and lead Facebook’s global Faith-Based Partnerships strategy. She was interviewed by Carey Nieuwhof on a podcast in May 2019, which has proven to be more relevant than ever. Jones thinks the digital space is the new vehicle that God wants to use to fulfill the Great Commission. There is a great population of people who connect socially with one another online. The internet is the place where they find community and a sense of belonging.
“There are eight billion people in the world today and a quarter of those people are using Facebook” says Jones. “Many of them don’t know who Jesus is. They’ve never been to a church. There is a great need for digital faith communities.”
What does it mean to have a digital congregation? Many churches have been broadcasting their worship services online for years. However, this alone is not a church. It is merely a program or ministry. A first-year seminary student can tell you that a church is not a building or a program. There is much more required to have an authentic, Christian congregation as described in the Bible.
The theologians during the Protestant Reformation spent much time debating the nature of the local church. In the sixteenth century, Christian communities were forming in western Europe separately from the authority of the Pope. It was an entirely new paradigm. Pastors in those days needed to explain to the people why their new churches were obedient to the Scriptures. Eventually three marks of a true church were identified: the faithful preaching of the gospel, the regular practice of the ordinances, and spiritual leadership that exercises accountability and discipline.
“The Reformers were not saying that all a good church needs to have are the marks of the church,” writes Dr. Robert Godfrey of Ligonier Ministries. “The church of Christ has many more characteristics than the three marks. The marks are important because they display the faithfulness of the church.”
The pandemic has caused churches to wrestle again with these fundamental issues. Pastors have said many times in the last few weeks that the church has not closed. We have simply moved to a different format. The Word of God continues to be preached. Christians faithfully practice the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Spiritual formation and accountability are still happening through online small groups and pastoral counseling. Many churches have genuinely made the transition toward becoming online congregations. All the while, we are reaching more people with the gospel than ever before.
Six Marks of an Online Congregation
Now, much attention is appropriately going toward strategies to relaunch in-person gatherings. However, every church should consider continuing their online ministries at the same time. For some churches, the most appropriate next step will be to permanently launch your digital campus. Yet, we need to do this well. Churches should be wise and thoughtful that the ministries we conduct online are obedient to biblical principles. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples in the context of spiritual community. This means we cannot be satisfied with merely broadcasting religious services. Thus, borrowing from the tradition of the Reformers, here are six marks of an online congregation.
1. Leadership. There is a pastor or minister who is responsible for the spiritual leadership and growth of the online congregation.
This is a fundamental component of churches in the New Testament. The Lord provides leaders to build up the congregation in unity, to mature believers in the faith, and to equip them for works for service (Eph. 4:11-12).
“When you start to get into online ministry, it is not just about having a social media coordinator,” explains Nona Jones. “The way that I’ve said it is, if you wouldn’t appoint that person to launch a new physical location, or if you wouldn’t be comfortable with that person leading a Bible study or ministry in your church, they are probably not the best person to lead your online campus, because it is not just about content. It is really about conversation.”
It is important to identify someone to serve as the campus pastor or minister for your online congregation. It should be someone who is qualified to lead and shepherd that community. Some churches may choose to hire a full-time pastor, or as Jones advises, “It may just be a lay leader who has a heart for people and also knows how to use the tools.”
2. Contextual Model. There is a philosophy of ministry for evangelism and discipleship for an online congregation.
When the Apostle Paul launched churches in the first century, he used different methods to connect with diverse cultures. In cities with Jewish populations, he started by visiting the synagogues. In Greek cities, like Philippi, he went to the marketplace, and he spoke with the philosophers in Athens. All the while, Paul worked toward the same goals in each city. He preached the gospel, he strengthened the believers, and he developed leaders (Acts 14:21-23). In a similar way, the challenge today is to create effective strategies to make disciples in the context of an online community.
This starts with understanding your target audience. Jim Walton is a Christian author and speaker who launched an evangelistic ministry online called the3rdchoice.org. Walton observed that people are eager to have spiritual conversations, and the internet provides a context where people feel safe to engage. He posts thought provoking questions and videos on his Facebook and YouTube pages, and he asks people to respond. Walton averages 50 conversations a week through email and chat rooms with people who are searching. “People want to talk, and we just need to engage them,” Walton writes. “It’s through personal conversation that we break down the walls that are keeping people from Jesus.” The3rdchoice.org is an example of an outreach strategy designed for an online community.
First Baptist Church of Glenarden launched an online discipleship ministry in 2018 using Facebook groups. It is designed to be an interactive community for members to meet new people, discuss real life issues, and grow in their relationship with God together. Members participate by responding to discussion topics and each other’s posts. They can also submit questions and other topics for discussion. The idea is to continue spiritual conversations beyond Sunday morning worship by fostering ongoing spiritual formation, whenever people are using their computers or cellphones. Churches that launch online campuses can have strategies for discipleship and outreach that can engage people all week long.
3. Membership. The church bylaws allow for the membership of people who belong primarily to the online congregation.
The Bible clearly describes local churches as a spiritual family and community of believers (Col. 4:15). In the course of history, local churches have created processes to welcome believers as members and to participate in the governance of the church. Your digital campus will develop environments, such as online groups, where people can care for one another and become a spiritual family. You will also need to consider how people can become members.
Many churches have experimented with this already during the pandemic. Moody Church in Chicago was searching for a new senior pastor. They felt like the situation in the country was too critical not to continue the process, so they completed their final interviews with a candidate via Zoom. They introduced the candidate to the congregation online, and they took an electronic vote to call him to be their new pastor. Examples like this help us imagine how church governance can be practiced in an online congregation.
Certainly, church membership means more than participating in business meetings. Many churches expect their members to regularly engage in worship, pray for the church, faithfully give tithes and offerings, and volunteer on ministry teams. Churches launching digital campuses will need to determine what expectations they have for members and how these apply to an online context. Local churches are unique communities of believers. As more people connect with your online campus as their spiritual family, you will need to consider how to welcome them as members.
4. Gathering Place. There is an online space, such as a website, where people can regularly gather for worship, prayer, and teaching from the Bible.
The author of Hebrews clearly instructs Christians to make every effort to come together for spiritual encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25). There is debate about how this text applies to the current context. “That passage was written to an immobile culture in a house church environment,” says Pastor Larry Osbourne of North Coast Church in a recent video blog. “It wasn’t talking about going to a building on a weekend to see people who are merely acquaintances.” Osbourne points out that this passage has been applied differently throughout church history. Sometimes it is practiced by small house churches, especially in countries that are hostile to Christianity. In other contexts, churches have large gatherings in big buildings for Sunday worship. The biblical principle is that personal relationships with other Christians are critical to our spiritual health and growth.
For a digital congregation, therefore, it is important to have a defined, online space where people can go to find regular, interpersonal interaction with other believers. It can be a website, social media pages, groups and chat rooms. Some churches may encourage members in the same geographic area to form in-person small groups in a hybrid model. The critical factor is that you are not merely broadcasting content. Online churches must provide environments where people can build relationships and “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”
5. Observing the Ordinances. There is a strategy for the regular practice of the Lord’s Supper and believer’s baptism by immersion that is applicable to an online congregation.
The regular practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is a distinctive of every local church. Online congregations must develop a strategy to continue these habits in obedience to Scripture. During the pandemic crisis, many churches have experimented with different ideas.
The practice of the Lord’s Supper is easier to conceive. During most online worship services, the pastor and worship team lead communion just like they would do during an in-person gathering. They simply invite people to partake using elements, typically bread and juice, from their own homes.
The Well is a small congregation in Greenwood, DE, that takes a slightly different approach. Pastor Kevin Trivits invites a couple to lead communion with their own family as the congregation watches online. “Watching parents lead their children in the Lord’s table is a special moment for everyone,” says Trivits. “There are often a lot of tears.”
Baptisms for online congregations has taken different forms. One approach is to schedule baptism services in-person, perhaps using a local church or beach nearby to where members live. The baptism is videoed and shared during the next, online worship service. Some churches have created instructions to teach families to do baptisms in their own bathtub or pool, like a house church. Again, the moment is livestreamed or recorded for the next, online church gathering. Sometimes pastors travel to homes for what might be a rare, personal visit. Online churches should consider having a travel budget for pastors to participate in baptisms, weddings and funerals.
6. Committed Volunteers. There is a core team of members who are committed alongside the pastor to serve the online congregation.
Leading a church is too big a task for any pastor to do by himself. In fact, the New Testament describes early Christians like a group of adventurers, working together to glorify God in often hostile circumstances. The Apostle Paul teaches that the Lord equips people with different strengths and talents for local congregations to thrive (1 Cor. 12). It takes a group effort to have a vibrant church. The same is true for online campuses.
Converge is a movement that has been planting new churches for over a hundred years. A critical step in process is recruiting a team who will be the first members of the church. Depending on the context, launch teams can vary in size between 25 and 75 adults. Some churches even start with more. This is a committed group of volunteers, working alongside the pastor to reach more people with the gospel. They are faithful to persevere through the rough patches of a startup church.
Online congregations will also need teams in order to launch successfully. Worship teams will require video personnel to record or livestream weekend services. Small group leaders will conduct Bible studies and nurture online communities. Greeters might engage with visitors to the website through chat rooms. Outreach teams will seek to engage new people on social media. Children’s ministry teams will develop creative tools to support parents and teach kids to grow in their faith. There are many opportunities for volunteers to serve digital campuses, and it is important to have a team from the very beginning.
Determine Your Next Step
There is a one frame cartoon that I saw posted in a Tweet. God and the devil are having a conversation with the planet Earth in the foreground. The devil gloats about the chaos on earth and says, “With COVID-19, I closed your churches!”
“On the contrary,” God replies. “I just opened one in every home!”
The pandemic crisis and social distancing regulations have created a door of opportunity for churches. Congregations are engaging in the frontier of cyberspace more than ever before. Millions of people are connecting with churches from their homes, and they are sharing links to online messages with friends and neighbors. We found an immense population of people who are eager to engage with the gospel.
Pastors must now consider whether to deepen their commitment to online ministry for the future. This is not a decision to take lightly. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower,” Jesus warns us in Luke 14:28. “Won’t you first sit down and estimate the costs?” Launching an online campus may not produce positive outcomes for every church.
“All technical progress has a price,” says Steve Johnson, who teaches a course on ethics and technology at the College of New Jersey. Whenever a new technology is introduced to an environment it can both solve and create problems. The harmful effects are inseparable from the benefits. As social media is embraced by churches as a new means for doing ministry, it may have a great number of unforeseen effects. “Remember what the ends of church are,” Johnson continues. “If it is to get more people to participate in your means, it is falling short.”
For many churches, it will not make sense to develop digital campuses. Some pastors and theologians have concluded that online community is not the biblical ideal. They prefer to invest their effort and resources into solely physical, in-person contexts. That is a completely valid and appropriate decision for many churches.
Other churches will see the great opportunity to reach people with the gospel through the internet. In the last thirty years, the number of people who engage with one another online has increased exponentially. People are almost continually interacting with friends and building new relationships on their computers and cell phones. It is a space where churches can conceivably exist and thrive. But if we proceed, we must do so thoughtfully. The Christians in church history have passed down to us certain marks of a true church to guide us. As many churches now launch permanent, online campuses, we must remember the biblical principles and goals for leading gospel-centered churches and wholeheartedly pursue them.
Brian Weber, Regional President & District Executive Minister, Converge MidAtlantic
Brian served as a pastor in the Converge MidAtlantic district for more than 15 years. Originally from the Philadelphia area, he mobilized efforts to start new churches in the Greater Delaware Valley and to send missionaries around the world. Brian is a graduate of Wheaton College and earned his Master of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary of the East. Before his appointment as district executive minister in 2018, Brian worked for three years with Compassion International.