The importance of asserting online presence
In March 2020, almost every church on the planet rushed to not only be online, but also to create as much online presence as possible and to encourage all online engagement.
You would think the vast majority of churches were already online. They weren’t. I don’t mean to say they didn’t have a website, most did. I mean they had no line presence. Prior to the pandemic, even the streaming of a service on Facebook had been pursued by a relatively small fraction of the technologically advanced America’s 45,000 or so Christian churches, let alone the rest of the world.
But then, practically overnight, the vast majority of churches do have an online presence. In other words, churches were finally going to where the majority of the world “lived”.
People then expected a strong and ongoing online presence for churches. And, even further, that the participation and engagement that was so greatly increased would continue to be affirmed, even after the resumption of in-person services. That participating online would be just as legitimate, just as affirmed, just as encouraged, as coming in person. In the minds of many (if not most), this kind of virtual engagement was simply the church’s entry into the digital world.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, what many churches have done once they reopened has been cracking down on online attendance, even going so far as to shame people for not attending in person.
This is a huge tactical mistake that ignores what has happened in our world. There is no looking back on the online consumption that accelerated during the pandemic involving the church. People will naturally oscillate between online and in-person offerings – between the virtual and the physical – from that point on, believing that either of the two options is not only acceptable, but equal in terms of account as. having assisted. People will choose based on the desired experience, the willingness to physically surface and, even among your hearts, the life circumstances of that week.
Rather than fight this change, embrace it. It won’t be helpful to elevate in-person participation over online participation, let alone shame online participants. The best and most strategic path is to make any commitment.
Your church must embrace the new reality: you have two campuses. One is physical and the other digital. Fully embrace this dual campus mindset in terms of your church identity and strategy.
And do it for no other reason than what it will mean to your evangelistic efforts. The reality is, unbelievers will check you online first if they check you at all. Your people will intuitively invite friends to visit your church online. The more you embrace this, the easier it will be to engage and grow. The more you resist this, the more you will close the front door of your church instead of opening it.
I know, you think it’s not really the church when it’s online. It is not an authentic community. It is not as good; it is not better. And the Scripture says in Hebrews not to give up meeting!
I just don’t agree.
First, let’s examine the Scriptures, especially the Hebrews passage that says, “And see how we can spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up on coming together, as some have.” used to do it, but by encouraging one another – and more so as you see the Day approaching (10:24-25, NLT).
The author was not talking about physically assembling for corporate worship or physically assembling for a religious event. Instead, the author speaks directly about not giving up on relationships, about not giving up on people. It was a bugle call for the need for strategic relations. Corporate worship was neither the context nor the subject. It was about the importance for Christians to encourage one another, not to give up doing so in the context of a world that demands perseverance.
Even in the expression “not to give up meeting”, the Greek word translated “to give up” speaks of desertion and abandonment. In other words, don’t let go on a relationship level, you need the other’s support.
Second, let’s challenge ourselves that not everything we do in person doesn’t have to be done in person. As the author of the Hebrews called it. I can support and encourage someone virtually as well as physically, unless their need is physical.
For those of you who are not digital natives, I know this is difficult. (It was nicer than saying those of you who are older.) We have to be careful not to take the way we did things, how we understood to do things, and make it prescriptive. This includes what we have traditionally done in person.
Here’s the truth: Younger generations have most of their community, their communication, online. We can say, “You can’t create a community that way,” but they can say, “Well, sorry to tell you, but you can, and we do. “
Reflect on everything you’ve done in person, gathered in a physical location – often on a weekend – and ruthlessly assess whether it might just have a digital counterpart or a digital manifestation.
Nine times out of 10, this is the case.
Right now, most of our church remains online. Our in-person services work well below our online numbers. Instead of fighting it, we embrace it. Lean into it. Do all we can to serve him. Because we don’t see it going anywhere. We don’t just think of it as a virus. There are just a lot of people who prefer it.
And our response to that?
We are happy that they are joining us.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.