Online Church: Part Of Our Future?

Welcome Church has been meeting online for a year now, and this week I’m publishing some blog posts to talk about where we’ve been and our thoughts for our future. The first one can be found by clicking here. This is part 3.

Online church has been a blessing during the pandemic

Throughout this time, despite many limitations, online church has enabled us to stay together as a church – to worship, to pray, to preach the Bible and to maintain a sense of community. New people have joined us during this time too, which is great.

Of course there’s been much more to our online church than just Sunday mornings. There have been Alpha Courses, life groups, prayer meetings, training meetings, pastoral care, a leadership development course, communion, Encounter, the marriage course and much more.

So what about the future? What’s our direction of travel for online church?

Some things are really obvious

We’ve learnt many lessons about what’s possible online during this time. Some ministries have worked surprisingly well online, others less so. Beyond the pandemic we want to hold on to the good things we’ve learnt, so some things that work well online might stay online, or at least retain an online option going forwards – what we might call a ‘hybrid’ approach.

Alpha is a good example of this. We will undoubtedly run Alpha courses in person, but an online option could serve some people well, so we may want to offer this. Most Life Groups will want to meet in person again, but there may be some who choose to use an online option sometimes, or even regularly. Some of our courses could run well online and save the need for baby sitters and travel, especially on dark, wet evenings. And our morning prayer meetings have seen more people attending online than attended in person, and that number has grown again recently too.

Equally some things have worked less well online, and we’ve got no plans to continue them online once we can meet in person. Some examples would be Encounter, Welcome Kids, Welcome Youth and Communion. There are other things too.

What about Sunday meetings online?

By talking to other churches and through the Learning Community we attended we’ve discovered that there are some wildly differing views about this question in the wider Christian world, for example:

Some are certain that the future of the church is now online: they argue that we should spend our budget building online church and hiring online pastors. Buildings should be given over mainly to community use and meeting in person would become a rarity – something left over from a previous generation who had yet to discover the wonder of the internet. The Great Commission to ‘Go and make disciples …‘ gets reshaped as ‘Go online and make disciples …

Some are pushing for more of a mix: they see the need for an in person congregation for those who want that, but also want to create the option of a fully online congregation where people access their whole church life online, from anywhere in the world, never expecting to meet in person at all. This has been called ‘brick and click’.

Some are wanting to prioritise in person meetings, whilst maintaining an online Sunday presence: the online meeting would serve people within the church when they are unable to attend in person, and would also create an online ‘shop window’ for people looking in. This could be done using either live streamed or pre-recorded content. This is different to having a fully online congregation, in that the goal is to draw people towards in person meetings.

Some are convinced that online church isn’t church at all: they argue that we need to be together physically in real time to exist as a church. Most of these would agree that online technology was a huge blessing during the pandemic, but there are a few who have held out against it all the way through, and haven’t met as churches at all during this time.

There are many different nuances and versions of each of these viewpoints, but the categories above give an idea of the broad spread of thinking that exists. Some of it may surprise you. Some of these options certainly provoke theological questions … and I didn’t even mention the churches that now offer an online, virtual baptism (with no actual water involved 🙂)

We should of course remember that context matters. For example someone might have theological concerns about a fully online congregation, but still be able to see how it could be used to reach and serve people in a nation where the church is not allowed to meet in public, or where there is no church at all. An online Sunday meeting might not tick every box we want it to, but in some situations it could serve the housebound or create an opportunity for people to ‘visit’ a church before attending in person.

Where do we sit on this issue?

As a church our future plans come down to a combination of Biblical conviction, our vision, values and culture as a church, and our sense of God’s leading. Online meetings have served us during the pandemic, but our ability to do many things we value has been restricted. Worship would be top of a long list for me and fellowship would be second. Baptism would be high on my list too.

Biblical conviction tells us that the church is God’s family; his household (1 Tim 3v15). Church is the people, and people need to be together, in person, to build deep relationships. As an illustration, Jo and I have spent time with some of our wider family ‘online’ during the pandemic, but we’re longing to be together in person again; meeting online has just not been the same – and the ones who feel it most in our family are the younger ones who are more tech savvy that I’ll ever be. I also have a friend who’s grandchild was born in Canada during the pandemic. They’ve seen the baby online, but are absolutely desperate to go and visit in person as soon as they’re allowed.

The presence of God is also promised when we gather. We heard from a couple who joined us during the year before the pandemic hit, and who recently got baptised. They said that when they first walked into our building on a Sunday they experienced a powerful feeling they’d never encountered before. They now know that it was God’s presence amongst His people. In one way God is present everywhere (He is omnipresent). In another way He is present in the life of every individual Christian too. Both of these things are true when we gather online. But there is a powerful sense of God’s presence that only occurs in real physical places when we gather together, in person, in His name, to worship Him and lift Him up. That sense of God’s powerful presence that we experience together in person can never be replaced or replicated by an online meeting.

Of course there are things we can do well online but there’s so much we’re called to do together as God’s family that requires us to be together physically. We deeply value the sense of God’s presence when we gather in person. We value being able to minister to one another, to lay hands on one another, to pray over one another, to share communion together, to greet one another with love and affection, to baptise people, to serve together, to disciple one another, to share life together, to invite guests to join us, to eat together, to use spiritual gifts together, to teach our children and youth in a context where they are together with their friends in person, to worship together, to share life together and much more besides. All of these things will be done best in person.

Think about discipleship: we can impart information and run courses online, but discipleship is about more than information and courses. Discipleship includes sharing life together, walking alongside one another, being known, seeing how things are done in real life. There’s nothing like serving side by side to enable rapid discipleship, and that happens in person.

To use an illustration, people may choose to engage in online dating, but the goal is to meet in person. In the same way, people have connected with us online during the pandemic – which is great – but the vast majority have done so with a clear view to attending in person meetings when they restart.

Our culture as a church matters too: we use phrases such as ‘come as you are’ and ‘it matters that you’re here’ and ‘with you, for you’. All of this points us towards being together in person and not just online. Welcome Church culture includes a wide open front door, great coffee and a warm embrace; it needs to feel like coming home.

Finally on this point, God cares about the physical world; the physical matters as much to God as the spiritual. Jesus entered the world in flesh and blood in order to be GOD WITH US, he didn’t just send a message or wave from a window in heaven. His earthly ministry was spent travelling together with his disciples, eating with them, talking with them and being with them – God with us in person. And then He died for us physically. A real event in real time. Touchable. Personal. Painful. Costly. Done in person and not virtually or at a distance.

Our goals

With all this in mind we have some clear priorities regarding our Welcome Church Sunday meetings as we come out of the pandemic:

  1. We will prioritise restarting physical meetings, in person, where we can do all the things God is calling us to do as a church together and where we can enjoy and experience His powerful presence – this is priority one
  2. We will aim to use online technology to help serve people who are part of our church and who CANNOT attend in person on a Sunday, and we’ll also aim to use it to help new people connect to us, but these two things don’t necessarily have to be done as a live streamed meeting on a Sunday morning.

For clarity: we do not believe God is leading us to build an online congregation of Welcome Church after the pandemic; that’s not our goal at this time, even though some other churches may be led by God to do that; if they are we wish them nothing but success.

This year we want to focus on being back together in person, in our new building, and working through our Welcome Church Recovery Plan. If we were going to put our energy into building something new, a higher priority for us would be a church plant or a multisite (meeting in person) … though a multisite is one of several places where the live streaming we’ve learnt to do might come into its own again.

What does this mean practically?

Decision vs Discovery

Because the situation we face is so complex at the moment (see yesterday’s blog) we need to see our next steps as more like a journey of discovery, than the implementation of a set of decisions. Nothing we will do is set in concrete at this stage. We will take steps, review them, and adjust as we go along to discover the best way forward for our church, and some of that discovery will only happen as we actually attempt some things together. I’m confident that we’ll work out fairly fast what works and what doesn’t, what’s sustainable and what isn’t, what has life in it and what hasn’t.

At the moment almost everything we do is online. When we start in person Sunday meetings again, most people will still be at home, being served by the live-streamed meeting. The live-stream has created a great runway for our return to in person meetings and is going to serve us so well during this time.

At some point we will find ourselves in a situation where most people are with us in person and less people are at home. Eventually we will reach the place where we have capacity for anyone who wants to attend in person to do so, with children’s work in operation as well.

When this last stage is reached, online Sunday meetings won’t be necessary in the same way they are now, although we will probably always want our preaching to be available for people to watch, perhaps because they’ve been away or were serving during the meeting, or are not able to attend a Sunday meeting in person. This doesn’t necessarily mean live-streaming the meeting it as it happens, but it could do. We would also want to keep on connecting to new people and give them a chance to see something of what our Sunday meetings are like before they attend in person; we want a wide front door. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean live streaming the meeting it as it happens, but it could do. As we go forward we will discover the best solutions.

As we undertake this journey of discovery and change together, moving back towards full in person meetings again, let’s trust God to make the future clear and let’s stay flexible and wide open to His leading.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3v5-6

Unlocking: The Future Is Complex

We mark one year of online church meetings this week, so I’m publishing some blog posts to talk about where we’ve been and our thoughts for the future. Yesterday I talked about ‘one year of online church’; today I want to start looking forwards.

Recently a group of us were part of an online ‘Learning Community’, with churches from across the UK and Europe, looking at the future of church life as we emerge from the pandemic. We quickly learnt that this wasn’t a simple or straightforward topic, and we encountered some wildly differing views about the future and even about the nature of the church itself! I’m so glad God is with us on this unlocking journey (and He left us an amazing book called the Bible that has a lot to say about the nature of the church …)

Complicated vs Complex

Some situations we face in life are complicated. For example, Jo and I recently purchased something requiring self assembly. When we got the pieces out of the box it was more complicated than we’d expected, but it came with good instructions. We followed these and the result was a success.

Complicated situations can be tackled by consulting experts and following best practice; if we do this we can usually manage complicated situations fairly well. Another recent example was setting up our Livestream for Sundays; it was technically complicated, but a combination of expertise and hard work delivered a great result – my personal thanks to all involved.

But some situations are more than complicated, they are COMPLEX. When something is complex it means there is no clear and established solution, and no certainty around best practice. We are walking an unmarked path, and the circumstances around us may be changing as we go. The end goal may even be a little unclear and there are no genuine experts available (though there will always be people who claim to be experts offering to sell their services 🙂).

When things are complex we have to work out the way forward step by step, adapting as we go, using the best wisdom and advice available, consulting with others along the way. We have to stop along the way to assess our progress and direction of travel. We will probably make mistakes and have to learn from them. We may have to backtrack sometimes. It’s a case of “plan, do, review” or “act, assess, adapt” or “build, measure, learn” (pick your preferred phrase).

As we start to unlock from coronavirus let’s be aware that we are in a COMPLEX situation as a church, not just a complicated one. Circumstances around us keep changing and it doesn’t take long to find out there are wildly differing views available about the process of unlocking, the pace we go at and even the end goal, especially when it comes to the topic of online church .

Time and again we’ve been told that after the pandemic ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ and ‘things won’t go back to how they used to be‘ and ‘we need to find a new normal’. I find myself asking: Is that really true? Is it true for our church? If so, what does it mean? Even if things largely do go back to how they used to be, how long will it take? What stages will we face along the way? Who will actually come on the journey with us?

Although some of the specific challenges we’ll face along the way will be complicated, the bigger picture is complex. Please pray that we have great wisdom as a team.

It’s easy to plan when you have certainty about the future; far harder when the goals posts keep moving, as has been the case all the way through the pandemic.

Staying Flexible

Today is the anniversary of the first lockdown being announced. It’s possible that all restrictions will lift by the end of June never to return. It’s also possible that this will be delayed. Or that some restrictions will stay. Or that there will be a fourth lockdown as we go into the winter. Or that a dangerous new variant will emerge. Or that the vaccination programme will be delayed. Or that guidance for churches will change. Or that any other number of unexpected things may happen.

If there’s one thing we need to remember as we head back towards in person meetings as a church it’s this:

we need to be flexible

Let’s remember: when the pandemic began none of us honestly expected to still be in Lockdown today, but here we are.

In person meetings

Our first in person meeting is planned for Sunday 18th April

(Assuming step 2 of the national plan goes ahead on April 12th as scheduled. If it doesn’t we will take a view and make a decision; none of us want to delay, but it’s complex and the situation is changing. Government advice to churches may also be updated along the way, as could general advice. Watch this space. Stay flexible.)

… and during the online Sunday meetings running up to that date we’ll let you know how you can book a place to attend; be ready to book in for that week and for the weeks ahead. I want to reassure everyone that we will follow the guidance for churches to make things Covid secure, so you can feel confident about returning in person; personally I can’t wait.

When we start these meetings, places will be limited. As far as we can tell right now face masks will be mandatory, congregational singing prohibited and social distancing will be in place. There will also be no children’s work or refreshments, but we do hope to have a live band and you’ll certainly be able to enjoy the preach as it happens and to smile behind your mask at people and wave. Despite everything I believe it will be well worthwhile!

Looking to the future though, the situation is complex: What new advice will be given to churches and when? How will the guidance change? When can we sing? What about serving coffee or food? How long will we have to wear face masks? When will social distancing end? When can we start to engage in prayer ministry? When will children’s work begin? Will vaccine passports be legally required for meetings of a certain size? If so will this apply to churches? We’d all like to think the end is in sight with step 4 in June (please 🙏) but it may be much more complex than that in reality.

Our hope is that as restrictions ease, in person meetings will slowly return to (a new?) normal … and this will require many of us stepping up to serve again, so let’s be ready (and this is just another aspect of the complexity we face).

Remember, as Christians we are not on our own. Jesus is with us always, He sent the Holy Spirit to be our helper and we are also encouraged to ask the Father for wisdom:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1v5

What about the future of online church?

Of course when we do start in person meetings most people will still be watching from home, so I’ll post something about the future of online church tomorrow