John Willison pastors an evangelical church in Shanghai, China....
Online church is here to stay, says Chris Bright, as he suggests church leaders need to think now about a post-lockdown world
In Lewis Carol’s classic novel, Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice climbs up on the mantlepiece, goes through the mirror and emerges into a new world where everything is reversed.
Having followed much of the rest of the world and gone into lockdown, the UK - including the UK Church - has gone through the looking-glass, and entered a world that feels almost as opposite to what Alice encountered.
Pastors across the country stopped being pastors as they knew it and immediately became online ministers. Churches that didn’t have an online presence went online overnight. Pastors who didn’t believe in livestreaming their services got their mobile phones out and joined the rest of us. Small group leaders who believed you need to be physically present in the room for real discipleship to take place suddenly started holding Zoom meetings.
It’s not as though the Church hasn’t gone through previous looking-glasses. When the early Church met together in Jerusalem (Acts 15) they went into the new land of Gentiles being welcomed into the church. Once they went through, they couldn’t go back. When Constantine became a Christian, the Church went through another looking-glass, albeit not necessarily a positive one, but it couldn’t go back. When the printing press was invented, and William Tyndale started translating the Bible into the common tongue, the Church went through another looking-glass. It could never go back.
Covid-19 is the Church’s looking-glass of our generation, and we can’t go back.
One day, hopefully very soon, life will return to some kind of normality. Shops will re-open, social distancing will end, and we will all be able to leave our houses more than once a day. However, for the Church, things cannot go back to what they were. Yes, church buildings will re-open and services with live congregations will resume (now starting to be known as 'Analogue Church'). Small groups will return to homes. However, there are 3 ways in which I believe the UK Church must change permanently:
1. Online services will become an expected minimum
It only took one Sunday for the UK Church to realise that livestreaming works. Not only can you feel engaged, but it’s naturally evangelistic too. Friends on Facebook are checking out the service, even if only for a few minutes. People who promised they’d never set foot in a church are taking a look at the church again. Now we’ve seen how powerful livestreaming can be, we cannot go back to running our churches without it. For people who are interested in attending church for the first time, your livestream will become an expected minimum, not a nice-to-have.
2. How we staff our churches will change
Recently, Canadian speaker and church influencer, Carey Nieuwhof, stated that he now encourages churches to spend 50 per cent of their staffing budget on online services. At the outset, this sounds absurd, until you realise that at this moment, 100 per cent of all church staff are now online pastors or producers. When lockdown ends, most church staff will go back to their day-jobs, but the demand for online will still be there. So how are you going to fill the online need when all of the other church activities start back up again? For churches where there is one part-time or full-time staff member, half of your job will need to be running your church’s online services and presence. Your next hire will probably need to be in the area of online church.
3. Minimum-Viable-Church must become the norm
Churches are used to a smorgasbord approach to ministry. A bit of this, a bit of that, something for everyone. But through the looking-glass simplicity will be key. I call this Minimum-Viable-Church. That is, keeping the church as lean as possible, while reaching the most amount of people, as best as you can. To achieve this, local churches must go back to the basics of their calling – discipleship. Not discipleship as a programme, but discipleship as the entire aim of the church. In the new world, every programme must be scrutinised as to how it is helping to disciple people, and we must be courageous enough to trim the excess.
No turning back
When the UK lifts lockdown and goes back to some semblance of normality, the Church will be tempted to do so as well. As church staff and volunteers go back to their old roles, there's a danger that their hard work and investment in online services, discipleship and community will be lost; not because of a lack of desire for it, but because leaders didn’t prepare for the post-Covid world. The time for the Church to prepare for that moment is now, so that our local churches are prepared for a future which is both analogue and digital.
Chris Bright is the co-founder of thinking.church
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