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Online Church is a Tool, Not the Goal— Embodied Community is the Goal

church online

In the 2010s, we witnessed the emergence of life and community in digital spaces. The advent of the smartphone brought online community to our fingertips and, with it, a new set of questions for churches about how (or if) they would engage.  

As with most innovations, different churches responded in different ways. Some aggressively entered social media spaces and began streaming church services online. Others resisted the idea altogether.

But when COVID-19 hit us in 2020, much of the debate about whether church online could rightly even be called “church” was set aside. Churches had to shift online to remain connected during prolonged periods where they were unable to meet.

I believed every church should be online before 2020, but now I can honestly say that it is essential for every church in developed countries to have an online presence going forward, if they want to engage where people are. Your church people and your community are in digital spaces, so you should be as well.

Having an online presence is one thing. But it still begs the question: Can an online gathering of Christians be classified as a church?

Let’s think through this by asking five questions.

1. Should Churches be Online?

If a church is not online, then it is not actually engaging a significant part of the culture. A church needs to be where the people gather. Where people are is online and, specifically, on social media. So, the answer to whether churches should be online is a resounding “yes!” In fact, that was a question every church should have resolved several years ago. The question for today is, “Where should churches be online?”

Social media is a vital ministry of the church. Online community can enhance the physical community. Pew Research found that roughly seven in 10 Americans used social media in 2021. Most used social daily, on a variety of platforms (Twitter, TikTok, etc.). 

So, it is not only critical for church leaders to understand the need to engage their church and local community on social media, but also to understand where different demographic groups are gathering online. 

Pew’s research reveals several trends that are worth paying attention to:

  • The younger a person is, the more likely they are to use YouTube.
  • Hispanic and Black Americans are more likely to use Instagram than white Americans.
  • Women are more likely to use Pinterest than men.
  • Senior adults overwhelmingly use Facebook over other platforms.

I recognize that each of these new platforms represents an entirely new sort of world that church leaders must learn. But this trend of emerging social media spaces isn’t going away, and it is mission critical for churches to understand these trends and engage our communities appropriately. 

2. What is “Church Online”?

There’s a difference between a church having a presence online and “Church Online.”