NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the state of the church.
After the March coronavirus shutdown, almost every church in the country began to stream Sunday worship. And even as many have begun to reopen and gather in person, they’re still putting services online for people who cannot.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: How does digital church affect churches and church goers? WORLD’s Anna Johansen reports.
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Kristi Funni used to drive to church every week. Pre-COVID, of course.
FUNNI: My husband was serving on the greeting team on Sunday mornings, and I serve in children’s ministry. My daughter was attending youth group every week.
When the church shut down, the whole family switched to watching the online service in their living room—usually in their P.J.s. Though grateful for the virtual option, Funni says it wasn’t the same.
FUNNI: Very different. It wasn’t, it wasn’t like being at church at all, for us anyway.
No one really felt comfortable singing in their P.J.s in the living room.
FUNNI: So at that point, the worship part of it became kind of observational. And you tried to engage as far as like listening and you know, meditating on the words, but it was not the same.
Her husband’s Bible study switched to Zoom meetings, but the group dropped by about half. Funni tried to join a Zoom prayer meeting, but the format was too unwieldy for the number of people. The family still watched the service every Sunday, but Funni had a hard time staying engaged.
Her experience highlights a continuing concern for churches. Most have resumed meeting in person in one form or another. But the majority report a massive drop in attendance, less than half of what it used to be. Many people are still attending online—either because of health concerns or space limitations at their church building. That means digital church isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Heidi Campbell is a professor of communications at Texas A&M University. She studies digital religion and media, and says the way you do online church matters.
CAMPBELL: Just because we’re using social media doesn’t mean we’re building relationships, just because there’s connectivity doesn’t mean you have community.
Early in the pandemic, many churches were just trying to get something online. But now, they’ve been doing it long enough to start experimenting with different techniques. Campbell says the best tactic is to encourage active engagement, rather than just passive viewing. That’s especially important for building community.
CAMPBELL: Church in America has really become event and experience oriented. And it’s about the Sunday. And when that’s stripped away, you know, what is church and what is Christian community And how do we facilitate community especially when maybe the community that we thought we have, we don’t really have as strongly as we thought.
Many pastors are grateful for the ability to stream services. But digital church does have its drawbacks.
RAINER: It is extraordinarily hard to engage online.
Sam Rainer heads the research group Church Answers. He’s also a pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida. The church has both online and in person service options. Rainer wants to have a strong digital presence and take safety seriously.
RAINER: But we are an in person first church, digital second church. And I firmly believe in the incarnational side of ministry that it’s meant to be done in the flesh as Christ came in the flesh.
Rainer calls online services a short term band aid, and says that, like many things, convenience can be both good and bad.
RAINER: If you treat church like Netflix, and it’s always on demand, well, you remove the discipline, and you remove the accountability. And when you remove discipline and accountability, people are going to fade away, or they’re going to multitask, or they’re going to do other things.
Rainer believes churches will shrink by an average of 20 percent over the next year and a half. That’s mainly the people who were just starting to come to church, or who came occasionally, or who were already drifting away.
RAINER: I think we lost a lot of those people during the pandemic.
But not all churches are struggling.
Pastor Zach Lambert has had a very different experience at his Texas church, Restore Austin. The church has yet to return to in person services. It’s still completely online…and things are going really well.
LAMBERT: We still have pretty vibrant, small groups that meet on zoom throughout the week. And our participation in those has been really extremely high over the last six months, with even a ton of new folks joining those groups.
On Sunday, Lambert streams the service live on Facebook and YouTube. It’s hard to track attendees on those platforms, but he says he knows of several new families who have started attending Restore Austin in the last few months. He thinks it will be a while before people even want to come back to church in person.
LAMBERT: People are, I think, wondering if the one of the long lasting effects of this is that nobody wants to sit in a room with 2,500 people anymore, ever again.
Pastors like Zach Lambert and Sam Rainer want to be sensitive to people with health concerns who can’t come back to an indoor, in person service. But Rainer says it’s still good to miss the physical gathering of believers.
RAINER: Our goal is for you to long to be in person.
At the end of the day, Rainer says the people that are really invested in church are invested both on and offline. And whether you watch the sermon in your PJs in the living room, or dressed up in a pew, the most important thing is to be fully present and engaged.
For Kristi Funni, going back to an in-person service at her church was unexpectedly emotional.
FUNNI: We pulled into that parking lot. And I could feel the tears coming. Like even if I think about it right now, I can just, I can still remember that feeling.
She says, at home, she didn’t fully realize how much she missed worshipping with fellow believers.
FUNNI: And I was just like, yeah, this is different. This is where I want to be on Sunday morning.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.