Digital Church: Option or Aberration

The Biebs done gotta get his church on even when he’s out-of-town. And now that’s possible to do with his preferred church home (literally called Churchome) even on the road via their recently released app

Shepherded by Judah and Chelsea Smith, Churchome, which is a west coast multi-site megachurch based out of Kirkland, WA, is the congregation of several Christian celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and pro golfer Bubba Watson. 

Say what you will about Bieber, but he has not shied away from telling his 100+ million Instagram followers about his faith in Jesus. Over the past several years, he has routinely posted clips of sermons, sang Christian songs, and offered professions of faith in Jesus with clear articulations of sin and grace.

So far as I can tell, Bieber is doing a pretty remarkable job of balancing enormous celebrity with a Christ firstset of priorities. 

The Bigger Discussion

The bigger discussion is that news of his church’s app leads me to think about, however, is the technology-driven mutation of what it means to be a church. Certainly the definition of “church” hasn’t changed from biblical times, but the advent of digital technology is perhaps exposing some flaws in our current working definition

So, for instance, virtually every Christian believes that “church” contains some element of biblical teaching. Most would also agree that the Christian Sacraments of Baptism & Holy Communion must be present in some form. The final essential criterion would seemingly be that it is an assembling of believers. 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

The primary Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία (pron: ekklesia), is used 114 times in the New Testament and basically means “assembly.” The word is sometimes used to refer to an assembling of 1) the body of Christ worldwide, over which Jesus is head (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; 1 Tim. 3:15); 2) a specific region (Acts. 9:31); 3) alocal congregation (1 Cor. 1:2, Rev. 1:11), or 4) a specific group gathered for worship (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

Clearly, a church must be an assembled body of believers. But what does it mean to be assembled? Must we physically be occupying the same enclosed space? Must we be able to touch? If I can see and hear someone clearly, are we assembled? 

So, for instance, when I FaceTime my mother for an hour, have we assembled together or not? Certainly, we’re more together than if there’s no communication. Certainly, we’re more together than writing letters. Yes, I’d still like to be able to give her a hug. But overall, I’d have to say that the communication is no less effective digitally than if we were sitting in the same room.

What does this mean for churches?

According to leading Christian researcher, Thom Rainer, 6,000-10,000 churches are dying every year in America. Put differently, every week, 100-200 churches close. 

If we expand our scope of this phenomenon a bit, it’s perhaps helpful to understand that there have been some fairly influential American store brands that have also folded in recent years. American icons Toys R’ Us, Sears, and Blockbuster closed their brick and mortar outfits because they couldn’t navigate the American shift to digital engagement. It wasn’t that their products became inferior. It was that their products were not offered in the way that Americans were accessing products anymore. 

Now, admittedly, churches are not retail outlets producing commodities for consumption, or at least they shouldn’t primarily be this. Nonetheless, it’s always telling to me whenever I give a presentation somewhere and ask church leaders,

“If an individual can get better preaching than your church’s preaching online, and if they can get better music than your church’s music online, why should they show up at your church?” 

Most older church members are stymied by that question. It’s because they’ve come to understand “church” in terms of American free-market capitalism – i.e the consumption of spiritual commodities. Put differently, if I can get better commodities elsewhere and it costs less/is more convenient, it simply doesn’t make sense for me to show up at your big box retailer anymore. 

This mentality is absolutely impacting the Christian Church. 

From my perspective, there’s a 2-step solution that churches are going to have to be able to figure out in order to stay viable.

1) Establish your church as more than the consumption of spiritual goods. 

Not to belabor the point, but I “consume” about five sermons/week, via podcast, manuscript, etc. I don’t need to show up at a building to hear a sermon. What I can’t accomplish by reading a book or streaming online content is:

  • experience peer accountability
  • peer encouragement
  • Confession & Absolution
  • Sacraments

These things are tangible and highly relational. Furthermore, while I can take in many spiritual commodities online, I can’t serve others with the gifts that I’ve been given. 

Churches that are not tapping into the spiritual giftedness of the members are arguably not churches (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 2:9). 

They are, in essence, roughly 60-minute shows put on by clergy and musicians, the church professionals. And I believe that the young adult Christian population, in some respects, is rightfully rebelling against that show by their current lack of engagement. 

In short, a church seemingly should embody a local mission that is what Christ himself would do if he was physically present in that particular city. And by his Spirit living in that local body, in some respects, Christ IS living in that city. Fortunately, Jesus gave us several years of earthly ministry and a Great Commission to show us what he seeks his people to work on together. 

A simple summary of Jesus’ ministry can be found in John 6, revolving around the topic of bread. In Jesus’ ministry, he both offers literal bread to those who are physically hungry (John 6:1-15) and he uses this as a platform to teach about how he himself is the real sustenance of life (John 6:25-59). 

He heals the sick. 

He relieves the demonized. 

He touches the marginalized leper. 

He calls the impenitent to repentance. 

He befriends the socially ostracized. 

He builds bridges to the foreigner. 

He cherishes the children. 

And he invites everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, to freely receive forgiveness, life, and adoption into the family of God through his grace. 

I have a hard time believing much of that can be accomplished by streaming content via a church app.

2) Make your commodities available 167.

Here’s the other side of it. And at first glance, it’s going to sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth. But this is the uniqueness of doing ministry in our current age. 

We’ve already established that a church is WAY more than the consumption of spiritual commodities. And those of us who have functioned as though it is, need to repent. However, that doesn’t mean that a church isn’t responsible for producing quality spiritual content that feeds its people. Churches need to do that also.

But what churches need to adapt to today is the fact that the population is accustomed to having its content available:

1) when that content is needed and 

2) when/where the user is available. 

In an increasingly spatially and chronologically decentralized society, that content probably needs to be available more than several hours on a weekend in your church sanctuary. Local manifestations of your church community throughout the week in numerous locations, i.e. “small groups,” are probably necessary. Additionally…

  • podcasts of sermons
  • studies
  • Q&A that members can access around the clock, on the road when out-of-town on business, and on the drive home from work are probably necessary. 
  • Digital groups (social media, email, church app) that create constantly updated lists of prayer requests both help invoke the power of accessing God’s throne and help people stay connected to one another. 

When society was predominantly Christian, believers could largely feel supported and find comforting spiritual community throughout the week on their own.

In a post-Christian world, believers need more specific access to intentional Christian community and content that appropriately shepherds them. Churches are responsible for meeting that need. 

So if the Jews are willing to listen in the synagogue or the Temple courtyard, that’s where you go. 

If the Greeks are willing to listen in the marketplace or on Mars Hill, that’s where you go. 

And if the Millennial is likely to listen on a podcast or through an app, that’s where Christian missionaries go. 

Conclusion

The local church – the physical grouping of at least two or three believers together, gathered around Word & Sacrament – will never go away. But thousands of churches are going to close this year, not necessarily due to doctrinal issues, not necessarily for lack of effort, but potentially for the same reason Toys ‘R Us & Sears wishes it had thought like Amazon, or Blockbuster wishes it had thought like Netflix. It’s a basic inflexibility to be a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, or a Millennial to the Millennials (1 Cor. 9:19-23). 

The amazing thing is that God has given us a gospel that powerfully forms hearts but is malleable enough that it can transmit through constantly transitioning cultural forms and languages. One of the perpetually clarifying questions of good Christian ministry is whether or not we’re willing to alter our theologically neutral forms yet never alter our theological content. The latter makes us faithful theologians. The former makes us humble, flexible ministers. 

5 thoughts on “Digital Church: Option or Aberration

  1. Excellent commentary that reminds me my church isn’t about me, it’s about Jesus, or it should be. And that I shouldn’t, only, be going to church because of what “it” does for me, but also to see what God has called me to do for “it.”

  2. Naomi Henkel says:

    Pastor, this blog reminds me of missionaries – those who left home for far away countries. They learned a new language, a new culture (today that would be the digital world) just so they could share the Good News with others. For some of us senior citizen Christians, getting into the digital world can be as scary as leaving home for a foreign country. I’ll be pondering your ideas.

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