Online church is here to stay, says Chris Bright, as he suggests...
Dr Andrew Ollerton says its time to reimagine the future of outreach and discipleship
On a recent Zoom call with our small group, my wife and I were interrupted by one of our sons running into the room laughing, quickly followed by our other son shouting. Fortunately, my microphone was muted but the video captured the sibling rivalry. Out of politeness no-one said anything. But I imagine I’m not the only one who has been humbled by real life domestic scenes becoming the new backdrop for discipleship.
Lockdown has compressed a digital revolution that would otherwise have taken decades into just a few months. If I had told you I was holding a Bible study over zoom in January, you’d have assumed I was part of a global organisation or hipster church. Now everyone is streaming Sunday services and hanging out in online chat rooms – who would have thought that could sound respectable? We’re all digital natives now.
The transition has not been seamless however. Heroic efforts have been made to respond innovatively, yet it can still feel frustrating and inadequate. So, while acknowledging the challenges, let’s also consider how we can grasp the emerging opportunities and reimagine the future of outreach and discipleship.
- Cultivate the right posture
Amidst the tragedy of Covid-19, the resurrection of Christ assures us that all will be well in the end. While avoiding triumphalism, we posture ourselves to live and lead with confidence and gratitude. As Paul wrote: "Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Ten years ago, we would not have had the online platforms available today. As Roman roads carried the Gospel in the first century, so digital infrastructure is a missional opportunity now. Let’s give thanks for what we have and consider how best to use it.
When Paul was locked down in prison he adopted a posture of expectancy, based on conviction that God would work for good, declaring: "I want you to know that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel" (Philippians 1:12). Like Paul, we must move forward with courage, becoming, as Nicholas Wolterstoff said, "aching visionaries." As Paul urged in one of his other lockdown letters: "make the most of every opportunity" (Ephesians 5:16).
- Welcome new faces
Many churches are reporting a boost in digital numbers. Some of this is practicality: as parents, my wife and I are able to attend small groups online without needing babysitters. For many, tuning in online is less intimidating than attending in real life. Some reports have suggested that one in four adults tried an online service during lockdown. It seems that audiences who are warm to faith but not regular at Church are searching online to find spiritual confidence during a time of uncertainty. Bible Society research (lumino.bible) provides valuable insights into who these people may be and ways we can relate to them.
How can we do this?
Most churches have adapted to taking Sunday services and mid-week meetings online, but outreach and evangelism in a digital world brings its own set of challenges. Many churches do not have the skills, confidence or equipment to produce material of the quality level that a media-savvy generation demands. Recognising this, Christian festival Creation Fest is creating six TV-style shows specifically designed to both encourage Christians and be easily shared. Airing live every week from 20 July and containing music, thought-provoking talks, life stories and celebrity special guests, On Air is specifically designed to help churches do digital evangelism well.
But what do we then do when people looking for Jesus online find him? Courses like Bible Society’s The Bible Course or Alpha are relevant to regular attendees and those looking in, presuming no prior knowledge and providing an accessible introduction. Both have been adapted for online use and are being successfully used across the globe.
As churches throw open the digital front door, they tap into a desire for deeper meaning and hope that resonates with audiences outside the faithful. Some Christian retailers reported increased sales of Bibles during lockdown - perhaps only inflatable hot tubs and puppies are in greater demand! Just as Philip discovered an Ethiopian Eunuch reading the Jewish scriptures, we may also be surprised at who is reading our book right now. It’s a timely reminder that the Bible is public truth for the whole world. Like Philip, may we also have the confidence to lead many to Christ through the Scriptures.
- Encourage a culture of self-feeding
During lockdown, we’ve all had to do things for the first time: haircutting, home-schooling, zooming… How many of us have taken communion in our homes, led family devotionals and discovered new ways of worshipping during this time? If we believe in the Priesthood of believers, this is long overdue. Imagine if the outcomes of lockdown are a body empowered to feed itself, parents confident to nurture faith. My wife and I decided to journey through the Bible with our kids during lockdown. Through 40 bitesize sessions we ended up creating a simple resource that other families are now using (thegreateststoryever.org). It was something we’d always wanted to try but never had the confidence or found the time. Let’s pray that this enforced digital revolution will produce believers who are confident self-feeders, equipped to share their faith with others.
In Tolkein’s, Lord of the Rings, a poignant conversation takes place. Frodo says, "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." Gandalf replies, "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."
We may not choose these times, but we can’t change them. So instead, let’s make the most of the opportunity it presents.
Dr Andrew Ollerton is a theologian and pastor and author of a new book The Bible: a Story that Makes Sense of Life (Hodder & Stoughton).
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