This is the question that has sparked conversation and debate throughout the church world. While this is not a new topic of discussion, the internet is abuzz with discourse.
What’s the Deal with Online Church?
For a long time, the concept of online church was either a novelty or an option.
While it was not uncommon to see churches live stream their services for archival purposes, having a church operate solely online seemed futuristic and to some people, unbiblical.
The popularity of online church began in the early 2000s and continued to grow in popularity as another vehicle to attending church. It was the backup plan on the back-burner; always in the back of everyone’s minds as an option.
As more churches began to offer online services, people began to question the validity of having church online. Soon various articles, stories, and thought pieces explored the question with titles like There is NO Virtual Church and In Defense of Virtual Church. There was no clear answer to whether this new way of worship was right.
In 2018, a New York Times article by Laura Turner, argued against online church stating that while the intention to make worship and prayer more available is good, “it presumes that God is primarily present to us one on one, as individuals, rather than as a community of believers.”
Turner’s article was well written and brought up very valid and solid arguments. However, Turner’s piece was published before the pandemic; before the culture shift, and before the church world propelled into the future.
Solace in the Pandemic
In 2020, online church went from being a novelty to a necessity. The narrative completely changed and the same outlets arguing against online services published articles like When God Closes a Church Door, He Opens a Browser Window, and No pew? No problem. Online church is revitalizing congregations.
Digital services were no longer merely an option, they were the answer.
Online church was the steadfast constant in the uncertainty.
At the height of the pandemic, people were only able to communicate, gather, and worship online. For most people, online community was the only way to maintain meaningful relationships.
In 2020 and 2021 we saw churches' creativity as they sought to keep their community alive by providing online services, hosting virtual events, and intentionally fostering community while being together apart.
I had the opportunity to talk with pastors and hear how their church held online events and services specifically to foster and strengthen their church community. Crossway’s South East Campus in Berwick, Australia hosted midweek evening services on Altar Live while other churches held virtual movie nights, prayer sessions, and more.
Amidst the isolation, churches were able to come together through online resources.
Should We still have Online Services?
Now, as we move forward in 2022, we are entering a transitional period. Churches are starting to open and online church is beginning to revert back to being the option or the afterthought.
When Christian author and Anglican Priest, Tish Harrison Warren, published an article in the New York Times last month, it ignited the online church debate once again.
In her article titled, Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services, Warren made a similar argument to Turner, claiming that churches should stop offering online services for the same reason we began offering them in 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors.
While Warren believes that online church was necessary during the pandemic, she expressed her concern about online church diminishing worship:
“We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind, and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.”
Why not have both? Why not keep offering online services as well as meeting in person?
Warren addresses this question and explains that she sees “Offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt-in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference…”
So, from Turner and Warren’s perspective, the answer is no. The church should stop offering online services
However, let us not forget about the impact online church had in revitalizing church communities and completely dismiss this way of gathering in fellowship.
After Warren’s piece was published, many people responded with varying opinions while also digging deeper into the already prevalent online church conversation. Some were in agreement with Warren and expressed their concern about becoming “spiritually lazy” or losing the intentionality behind the embodiment of the church.
Others disagreed and expressed their support for online church. In a New York Times opinion response piece to Warren’s article, Susan Addelston stated, “At a time when religious attendance is at an all-time low, suggesting that a wonderful technological innovation that actually brings people to a faith setting should stop is more than counterproductive; it’s bizarre.”
No matter where you stand in the online church debate, it is clear that online services make an impact. Even if you may not agree with the idea of online church, you have to admit that making worship services accessible to people who cannot physically be there is powerful.
Warren’s article sparked many other responses that tackle the embodiment argument. An essay by Melissa Florer-Bixler began to address the kinds of audiences online church was serving while tying in personal stories about how online services helped her church community flourish.
Who is the audience? Who are the kinds of people that need online church?
Online church is for those who physically cannot be in-person. Online church is for those who mentally cannot be in-person. Online Church is how we can minister to the one who left the ninety-nine.
When talking about embodiment, Florer-Bixler stated “I care deeply about the embodied experience of people physically distant from the place where some of us gather for in-person worship. The people who utilize Zoom worship do, too.”
Florer-Bixler went on to explain that some people viewing online wished they could join in person, but disability, disease, and other hindrances permitted them. Online church was a way to include the homebound.
Towards the end of her piece, Florer-Bixler eloquently writes “I have come to see Zoom church as its own sacrament, the heartache of separation present with us as we work to find the good news with the bodies we have.”
So, Is Online Church Real Church?
Online church is certainly a different form of worship. While there is no doubt some people do use it as an excuse to passively consume content, online church makes the word of God accessible to everyone.
When Jesus gives His disciples the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, he says:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We are in a technological age. The internet is how we learn, communicate, and connect. Through the internet, we can engage with people all over the world and have meaningful connections. By holding online church services, we are leaning into the communication tools of our age and going out into the world to preach the Good News.
The disciples used the tools they had to spread the word of Christ, it is time for us to use ours.
Benefits of Online Church
So, we have talked about the impact of online church, but have not really given a clear list of benefits.
When it comes to the benefits of online church, there are two categories: the logistical and the relational. The logistical side is more about the technical aspects of the services while the relational side focuses on the people on the other side of the screen deserving the meaningful connections online church can provide.
Here are a few benefits:
1. Low-Cost and Low-Resource:
Live-streaming an online church service is incredibly inexpensive and requires very little resources. To have a successful service, all you need is a few basic technical devices like a computer, camera, and maybe a microphone. Also, most streaming providers are now very affordable.
2. Archive Past Services:
One of the most beautiful things about having an online church is the ability to record and save each service. Even if someone misses the live stream, they still have the opportunity to watch the recording on-demand. Certain platforms allow you to categorize the recordings into playlists for easier access and organization.
3. Expanded Reach:
Online church has the power to create personal connections and community. Having an online church service has the potential to reach people all over the world and show them the love of God. The idea that an online church could minister to people on the other side of the world is incredibly moving.
4. Serve the Homebound:
When church members cannot physically attend church on Sundays, having an online church service allows them to participate and be a part of the community.
5. Expand The Community:
Having an online church service will allow you to expand your church community and welcome people who might not normally attend your church. On a logistical side, there won’t be any restrictions when it comes to seating, and newcomers can feel at ease about joining a new community.
Online church might not be for everyone. While it might be a life-saver to one person, it may make another feel isolated, and that’s okay. Knowing what works best for you is important, but do not completely write off another form of worship that is unfamiliar.
For those who are not able to attend a physical church service, God is able to work in their lives online.
To join in the conversation, check out The Altar Live Show:
How We Are Transforming Online Church Services
Altar Live is an online church platform designed for faith communities to stream and host interactive and engaging events and services. Our simple, intuitive platform gathers your people together online where they can worship together in watch parties, freely socialize at virtual tables together, and find private places to pray with each other.
With a church platform like Altar Live, anyone can easily create an engaging online church service that has the ability to bring people together regardless of location. The Altar Live team is honored to be able to provide video conferencing software, consulting & training for churches, reach every person on the other side of the screen, and create a community online.