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The local church online and the ‘new normal’

One thing is for sure, when Covid-19 is finally behind us, the ‘new normal’ will not be the old ‘normal’.

Technology Pete Nicholas
Figure Image
image: iStock

I was speaking to a businessman in my church who was saying that his company surveyed all 400 or so of its employees and not one of them said that they wanted to go back to working full-time from the office – not one! There will be some areas where things will go ‘back to normal’ but, as Christians, we need to reckon with the reality that the pandemic has changed how people think about life online for good.

Depending on a range of factors – age, stage, background, whether you are more of an early-adopter or a Luddite – this realisation may fill you with excitement, fear, or any emotion in between. Here are three pointers to help shape us as we have important conversations about the implications for churches.

1. The gospel has been advanced by many technological paradigm shifts in history

Let’s not pretend that there is anything more godly or biblical about resisting technological change. The early church was an early adopter of the codex (the precursor to books) instead of scrolls. The Reformers accelerated their cause by shrewd use of the printing press. In neither situation did the church create the technology, but the church did ride the wave of the new technology to its own benefit. God is a creator and we, made in His image, should be innovators.

2. History shows us that uncritical ‘adoption’ is unwise

History is littered with examples of people who jumped uncritically on the latest technological bandwagon, only to find themselves careering towards a precipice. Churches that will thrive will be those that reflect carefully on Scripture and the implications for church online. Is ‘online church’ church? What does it mean to be physical beings and do some aspects of life online? What about the Lord’s Supper? There are many important questions that have to be worked through with Bibles open and a spirit of humility.

For myself, I do not think ‘online church’ is church, and prefer to speak instead of ‘church online’. I think the burden rests on people to prove otherwise, since the word for church in the NT implies a physical gathering.

3. Recognise the opportunities that your church can take

There are exciting opportunities opening up. We, like many other churches, have seen our engagement significantly increase through offering church online.

The stats seem to indicate that the majority of this growth is in the fringe, those who have baseline Christian beliefs but who wouldn’t go so far as to attend church (Professor Grace Davie calls them ‘those who believe, but don’t belong’). Therefore church online has been good for us for evangelism. However, we are a larger church with resources to do church online.

Other churches lack these resources and I have heard too many stories of pastors wearing themselves out trying to ‘keep up’ with the church down the road.

My mother’s church in rural Brittany has seen a big increase in attendance at Bible studies just by doing these on Zoom, but there will be little point in them continuing to do church online once they are able to meet physically again. The point is to reflect and recognise the opportunities your church can take, but don’t get caught up in a ‘because everyone else is doing it, so must I’ mentality.

Pete Nicholas is co-author of Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital Age. For more resources visit www.virtuallyhuman.co.uk