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Digital Church - where contemporary culture meets God

Coronavirus seems to have given the concept of online church an even bigger boost than it already had. We’ve been hearing from friends in Singapore and Hong Kong and, especially China that churches are being asked NOT to meet in person in order to minimise COVID-19 infection. Instead, churches are broadcasting services, prayer meetings, bible studies. In Singapore, digital leader Simon Seow is partnering with a number of other creatives to do a 90 minute workshop on Digital Church later this week.

Up in Scotland, Premier are partnering with SanctuaryFirst and New College (Edinburgh) to deliver four workshops exploring Digital Church. Book in and you can come in person or sign up to our livestream. Later this summer, we’ll be developing some online workshops at Premier HQ in London to offer some further thinking on Digital Church and engagement. For each of these, we’re working with digital church pioneers, evangelists, theologians and creatives to explore how we can all make the most of digital to share the Good News about Jesus.

At the moment, I’m keen to take on as much as I can about how people explore the idea of digital church. For me, digital church is a no brainer - it's what we need to do and it is the cultural context in which the vast majority of contemporary culture lives and moves and has its being...But I’ve been in so many church conversations which privilege physical church as being so much better than digital church, so much safer, so much more Christian. I have to say it’s often then boomer generation who seem to be saying that rather than younger generations. Why? Is it about control or power or convention or what? And is it actually true? Physical expressions of church can be as prone to abuse as digital.

Ed Stetzer says that real church needs real knees. But I am happy as happy to see people on their knees on a football field, or in a town centre, or at a beautiful beach as I am in church. It's about the devotion of our hearts rather than the physicality of church, isn't it? Indeed, Stetzer also calls the church to renew its engagement with digital culture and to be overtly evangelistic on social media too.

Of course, this idea of privileging physical seems natural in a religion which is all about incarnation. Meeting someone, communicating with someone in person is the best way to meet – the richest experience of connection through all our senses. Person to person is best. Indeed, part of church growth is always seeking to make the experience of church as rich as possible – people centred, good worship, good hospitality, good premises – hence the need to upgrade the premises and import the soft furnishings and make sure the band, the tech team, the hosts, the welcomers, even the leaders are all excellent creatives in their own right and, of course, that the smell of good coffee pervades everywhere! We remember how, in the early church, most congregations met in homes and now we seem to be turning our church spaces in domestic spaces – soft furnishing, smells of cooking, great acoustics, lovely people.

Who would have thought that anyone would want to push digital church rather than this great space to worship God? But one of the moves towards digital (apart from avoiding other people’s germs!) is because, as we all know, local churches don’t always reach the image of church which I set out in the previous paragraph. Indeed, it may well be that a local church can only invest in one location to this level in a parish, circuit, presbytery or district. It might be more impactful to invest in digital church alongside this central physical expression of church, putting our combined resources into digitally-creative, digitally-welcoming spaces, rather than replicate weak venues which offer a less engaged, less welcoming, less experiential expression of church.

Do we need to invest more in good expressions of digital chruch and less in poor expressions of physical church?

One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to explored why James Emery Wright closed down three of the four campuses for Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, USA and turned digital. Instead of multiple sites or campus-style church, the church has decided to focus all their efforts on one central venue supported by digital engagement. In the podcast, Wright lists the seven (he says six but there are seven) reasons why he and his church made the decision:

  1. Multisite was dated – it’s no longer state of the art…

  2. Multisite was a physical response in a digital world

  3. Digital breaks the 20 minute rule (people will only travel 20 minutes to church)

  4. The new mix made better use of/allowed more investment in the central location

  5. Survey of attendees – intuitively invited people to digital or central – evangelism tended to be: “here’s the link, check it out”.

  6. A sense that the campus site was often not as good in reality as the digital experience but the central location was even better than digital – stepping people up from digital to central made more sense.

  7. Evangelistically and culturally, massive potential in investing in all things digital

A lot of the rationale for the church going digital was not about leaving physical behind but rather asking how people engage with life in the contemporary world. Wright argued, rather convincingly, that people now engage everything online, through their phones. This was the primary of engagement with the world. As such, digital should be the primary context of evangelism and outreach. That’s where the audience is. People use digital to find entertainment, food, shops, travel hubs, medical services. Why not make use of this digital preference to draw people into church.

Wright then makes a very pragmatic argument about whether or not digital is the best environment for church. Basically, it is an evangelistic argument: it is better to meet people where they are online than think you can drag them directly into a central physical location. In other words, digital becomes the evangelistic expression of church, the aspirational setting, but physical church is the core expression which you hope to draw people into gradually.

Can you have authentic community online? Wright argues that that doesn’t matter. In the end that is where people are and so do community there, and do it as good as we can and lead people into a richer experience – but then transition people into a physical expression of church as they crave more than digital can offer in terms of sensory and creative space. In fact, this goes for all aspects of church: discipleship, education, even worship – it has to be digital first because that’s the context in which people are working.

This is contextual mission – we start where people are. Colonial mission, on the other hand, imposes a culturally external form of church, bricks-and-mortar church. In terms of ecclesiology, we might all agree that a physical expression of church community is the end goal but what Wright is arguing is that digital could be the path to that physical expression simply because people are engaged completely in digital culture right now. Missionally speaking, digital is the home environment of contemporary culture and that’s where we start our evangelism, even if we would want to encourage digital engagers to move onto to physical expressions of church.

But we cannot start with physical because that’s actually not where contemporary culture is. We welcome new people through digital and gradually transition them to the potentially richer experience of physical church. But even then, you make physical church as digitally integrated as possible using apps and digital engagement – push notifications like you’d get at an event or conference; calendar invites to meetings or bible studies; welcome to church notifications; opportunities to give. Make digitally engaged people feel at home rather than tell them to turn their devices off! People navigate the world through apps – so why not work with people rather than expect them to de-contextualise themselves to do things in the old ways of the church.

This all makes great sense to me – what do you think?

Pete Phillips

Head of Digital Theology, Premier Digital


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