Most of us have developed a level of proficiency for “Zoom church” and its many lacking facets. To what degree has moving online been helpful to your church? In what ways has it been a hindrance? These pandemic times have made many leaders re-think prior assumptions surrounding the online church. I would certainly count myself as one.
Church planters are familiar with the emergence of missional theology rooted in the missio Dei. The main feature rightly centers around the incarnation. Incarnation reflects presence in the flesh, and Christ among us influences everything. That includes how the church embodies its function out in public.
Over the past 30 years, as the missional church conversation garnered attention, one of the often cited phrases I recall was the juxtaposition between incarnational and attractional. The move to embody Jesus in the neighborhood also came with a de-emphasis on more “consumer oriented” features of attractional churches. You know the ones, they spend most of their resources trying to deliver great programs and Sunday services. The main criticism is usually on how entertainment has taken precedent over discipleship.
The cure to superficial consumer Christianity? Attractional would suggest more “church”. Missional would suggest a recapturing depth in relationship (better discipleship). The best way to achieve that? Through presence. With touch, feel, and an “enfleshment” of the Gospel in community and beyond.
One can imagine how, within this context, it was easy to malign web based ministry ideas. Granted, that was 15-20 years ago, but it seemed “internet church” was just a lazy excuse to do community poorly. It also lacked the generative features of physical presence.
Transition of Necessity
Despite the reticence by many leaders to pour attention or resources into web ministries, the global pandemic changed that. Nearly everyone transitioned to some form of online gathering. Was it just out of necessity we acquiesced to online formats? Of course! But are the ways society gathers and builds community permanently shifting to include online? Also yes. The question is, how will we come alongside to co-create?
Our New Normal
I don’t imagine many churches will stick with online only services once it’s safe to return to in-person. But we also can’t deny to what degree social media and video gatherings have become part of our normal. Every sub-culture of community is available to those who seek. If you’re looking for “your people” who reflect a certain theological persuasion, social media is where you’ll find the emerging contemporary theologians. If this seems reminiscent of the consumer Christian culture where celebrity leaders and a la carte consumption of content reigns supreme, you’re not wrong. But what we have to contend with is how much tech, social, and web have changed our communication, defined younger generations, and still lack a competent reply from most churches.
I used to think “online church” was a lazy attempt to do church. Now I see how they’re something of a mainstay. In some situations they will always meet a need (accessibility is a big one). I also see how real relationships are being cultivated using new mediums. It counts. But is it incarnational?
The Challenge We Face
Perhaps it’s the best we can do. It certainly presents a long-term challenge to the neighborhood church that is trying to develop local community. We all only have so much to give into relationships (even less so during the pandemic), and some of that energy may no longer be spent in-person. But is there a substitute for the in-person reality? The touch, feel, taste, experience we cherish when gathered around tables for meals? Can that be replicated?
We all long for connection. The challenge will be how to get everyone to the table in the first place. Or perhaps, we just need new kinds of tables?
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