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The Importance of Affirming Online Engagement

online engagement

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the just-released book by James Emery “White, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church in a Post-Christian Digital Age” (Zondervan). It’s available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, The Grounds Bookstore and Café, and bookstores nationwide. Get more information here.

In March 2020, most churches rushed not only to be online but also to create as much of an online presence as possible and to encourage any and all online engagement. Lifeway Research found that 45% of Americans say they watched a church service online during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many who said they didn’t normally attend in person. As Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, noted, “A form of communication that was not even used by most churches before the pandemic has now reached almost half of Americans.”

After that, people expected churches to have an ongoing, robust online presence. They even expected to be able to attend church online after in-person services resumed.

Why wouldn’t they?

In the minds of many, if not most, people, the church had finally embraced the digital world. Sadly, not all churches seized the cultural moment. Instead, once they reopened, some churches greatly diminished, if not ended, their online presence, discouraged anything digital as not being real church, and even shamed people for not attending in person.

That was a tactical mistake that willfully ignored what had happened in our world.

There’s no going back from the necessary online engagement that was accelerated during the pandemic. As a cable news report proclaimed:

Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.

As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting, and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems, and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most attended churches.

But that way of doing church is dead.

While that model is not truly dead (yet), people will naturally vacillate between online and in-person offerings—between the virtual and physical—from this point on, feeling that both options are not only acceptable but also count as having attended. This hybrid model is the model all churches must embrace. Let’s not have cyber wars the way we had worship wars.

It’s not about whether churches should be in person or online; they should be both.