Considering Digital Church Planting or Starting a Church Online?

Jeff Reed is Director of Digital Church Planting at Stadia Church Planting. This article is adapted from a Stadia ebook, Planting a Digital Church: Understanding Today’s Opportunity to Reimagine the Biblical Church, Digitally. It is available for download in its entirety here.

Anytime there’s an innovative shift in culture, one must pause and ask questions. Is this innovation correct? Is it ethical? Biblical? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.  Why do we feel called to help plant digital-only churches?

Because digital churches reach a different person.

Existing digital churches report an extremely high ratio of “lost” people attending their services online (85% unchurched, 70% de-churched). Digital churches have an opportunity to reach the people that physical churches have not reached.

Because people mid/post-COVID connect to community before they connect to Christ.

We see this often online. People today are looking for relationships. Community. People don’t trust organizations. They trust friendships. A digital church has an opportunity to create and invite people to engage in digital communities, allowing people to safely build relationships and ask questions. 

Because we need to get out of the “church service” business.

Event-based evangelism is losing effectiveness quickly in today’s culture and the relational model is gaining ground quickly. Digital churches thrive off of equipping, mobilizing and releasing, making the scalability of a digital church unrivaled.

Because we’re ready to help start movements.

Alan Hirsch says it’s better to start a movement with 12 disciples than 1200 religious consumers. Seth Godin says if you want to reach a billion people, you really want to start with the smallest group possible. We see these philosophies on full display in the ministry of Jesus. He equipped and sent out His followers to reach the many that He would never physically connect with. Digital-only churches are based on these same philosophies.

Because culture has redefined community.

Community used to only be defined by physical area. You are in community together because you know where the stop lights are and where the closest Burger King is. Today, community is defined in many different ways: affinity groups, social media networks, an individual’s circle of influence, or even video games. (For example; 22 million people regularly play a video game called Final Fantasy XIV.) These platforms are prime examples of where the new generation finds community. Why are we not being the church there? We see digital community as a community worthy of a church.

Because the pendulum is shifting culturally.

COVID didn’t change culture. COVID accelerated culture. Culture was already moving in the digital direction - now, culture is moving there faster. By 2030, 90% of the world’s population will have access to high speed Internet via mobile phones running 5G technology. The next two billion people to get Internet access will be lower-economical, under-resourced individuals. Digital churches, even from a global perspective, have an opportunity to reach people we may not otherwise reach.

Is a Digital, Online Church Really a Church?

Lots of churches use digital communication tools to drive people to physical locations for discipleship. This is not uncommon, even before COVID. There’s nothing wrong with this idea of utilizing digital to drive people to physical locations. But it’s important to notice that physical churches most often use digital tools for communication, not for digital mission. 

How do you know if you’re using digital for communication or mission? The litmus test is simple: do you have a plan in place to disciple someone in digital space? 

There are outliers, but most physical churches would say no, mostly because they do not believe a digital discipleship strategy is as effective as a physical discipleship strategy!

But can we really disciple people online? Many churches have struggled with the idea of doing online discipleship, as they view digital as a platform not capable of creating true disciples. Some would go even farther and say that digital is only capable of creating consumers. Is it worth doing digital church if we can only create consumers through that effort?

The clear answer is no. But the problem here is not with digital church itself. Instead, the issue actually lies in our low expectations of a digital platform. 

As in the physical church, our digital standard is not to create consumers, but to create disciple-makers. 

We can set and live up to a higher standard for digital church than we as a church have been known to do. And that higher standard is this: the Gospel that we learn in our online world has to influence our offline relationships.

A simple example of this idea: if someone identifies as a Christian on Facebook, but is physically abusive to their spouse, verbally abusive to their kids and steals regularly from their workplace, then what kind of relationship with Jesus are they truly experiencing?

Because the undeniable truth is, we are both physical and digital beings. We exist in both spaces, and our presence in both digital and physical spaces needs to be consistent. The fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control) must show up in our digital life as well as our physical life - consistently. 

Jay Kranda of Saddleback Church presents an idea of how the Online-to-Offline gap is bridged: In a modern paraphrase of James 1:22 -- Don’t just be hearers of the Word [online] and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says [in the real world.]  

Digital ≠ Physical Replicated

It’s important, when designing a digital-only expression of church, to not go to the typical American physical church experience as the blueprint or foundation. It’s very easy to say, “Whatever we did physically, do that digitally!” But the physical model of the church is just that: a model of church. Rather than copying a model, it’s time for us to reimagine a digital expression, not grounded on tradition, but on Biblical principles. 

A digital church is not a virtual building where people gather. It’s a distribution network for the Gospel. Just as Paul wrote letters to churches, sending them by courier along the Roman roads, a digital church has an opportunity to extend beyond physical locations, allowing true disciple-making practices to happen digitally, in an effort to create disciples who make disciples. Applying the Online to Offline standard here, a digital-only church has the opportunity to create disciples digitally that create other disciples digitally or physically, as the Spirit directs.

It’s important to realize a digital church is not about gathering, but about equipping, sending, multiplying. It’s not about technology, but about relationships. It’s not about reach, but engagement. It’s not about content, but about disciple-making. It’s not getting people on-brand, but on-mission. It’s not about an institution, but about individuals.

Technology left to itself is cold, distant. Digital churches have to work very hard to overcome that coldness with relationships. If a digital church desires to enact Matthew 28’s Great Commission digitally, it will happen not only as a result of a powerful sermon preached, but as a result of a disciple-making movement grounded in relationships.

We’ve really just started to scratch the surface here on what a digital church really is, and isn’t. Ultimately, here in mid/post-COVID, a digital-only expression of church- a church with no physical footprint- is not going to be for everyone. Everyone is not going to opt into this digital-only expression. Some people will need the physical approach. Maybe even the majority will need the physical approach. The lesson for today, though, is that enough people are ready to find value in a digital-only church to make it worthwhile. The lessons that we learn today will pay off greatly tomorrow.