How can local churches better use the internet?

Is the coronavirus situation the ideal time to start rethinking how we do church? Do we need to get out of the idea of the church being about a building? How can a local church make use of the internet without running into its pitfalls? In this article I explore how local churches might be able to make smarter use of the internet without endangering the face-to-face contact we need.

Over the last few months, many churches have been forced to rethink how they do church. Because many governments have closed churches (including those here in the UK), we’ve had to find new ways of doing things. A lot of churches have put services online via YouTube or Facebook. Every church has done it a bit differently, but most churches are now trying to make use of new technology in some form. Our church, for example, has made extensive use of YouTube and Zoom through these last few months. Even now, although we’re allowed to meet again as a church, we are still doing a weekly YouTube service as well. I think recorded services will be with us for the foreseeable future.

A lot of people have been wondering what the future is going to look like. It looks likely that the coronavirus restrictions are going to be with us for a little while longer at least. What does that mean for how we actually go about doing church? And what lessons can we take forward into the future?

One of the big things we all need to reckon with is, what place should the online tools have in our churches? Some people have heralded the internet as the answer that we’ve all been looking for; some people have simply been waiting to get back to normal so we can be rid of it. There are benefits but also drawbacks, and we should take account of both. Whether we love it or loathe it, it seems that the internet is here to stay in our churches.

Let’s start by considering some of the good and bad things about the internet and church.

Pros and Cons of Internet Church

Internet and Local Church: The Pros

Here are a couple of things which I think are especially beneficial about doing church online. These are things which would be true whether there was a lockdown or not:

  • People can participate who wouldn’t normally be able to get to church. One of the best things I’ve seen over the lockdown is that people who are disabled or housebound have been able to participate in church. The internet has actually been a lifeline. In fact, it made me wonder why we didn’t start videoing church services years ago!
  • It’s never been easier to visit a church service. One survey back in June found there’d been more interest in church and the Christian faith since the start of the lockdown. These days it’s hard to get to church for all sorts of reasons – making church services available ‘on-demand’ means it’s so much easier. In fact one of the good things about a YouTube service is that it effectively doesn’t have a limit on the number of people who can attend (unlike a physical building). It’s also something that people can catch up on at a later date if they want to.

Internet and Local Church: The Cons

There are, of course, a number of cons about doing church online as well. The biggest one, for me, is that you lose face-to-face relationships. This is a big one for me – when we can’t relate to each other face-to-face, we miss out on a lot. The bedrock of church is relationship – the church family. You can get a lot through the internet, but it’s very difficult to build meaningful relationships. I talked about this recently in my video about church.

So is ‘Internet Church’ possible?

If, by ‘Internet Church’, you mean church which is entirely online, I think the answer is a clear ‘no’. The internet has a lot of uses, but it can’t replace physically meeting together. The Christian faith is a physical faith – that is, our bodies matter, and being physically with each other matters.

However, that’s not to say that the church couldn’t make better use of the internet.

Let’s think about some of the problems that we have in physical churches at the moment to see how the internet could help us. I thought it would be good to focus in on issues with church growth: many people are praying for a revival at the moment – I think we in the UK desperately need one. But if over the next few years we have a big influx of people wanting to come to church, we’re going to run into problems.

Church growth problems in ‘physical’ church

St John the Baptist, Great Clacton

Building and space limitations

One of the problems growing churches encounter is that of running out of space in the building. For example, a friend of mine is the pastor of a church in Doncaster. They’ve had to move out of their church building into a local school, because they simply had too many people. The thing is, every building will have a maximum number of people it can accommodate. However big your building is, soon you will run out of space.

In our parish we have two church buildings. One building is an old, traditional building – it’s reasonably big. At Christmas time, when we have our ‘Carols by Candlelight’ service, we probably manage to fit in around 250-300 people (it’s hard to say exactly). Our other church building is a more modern building which could probably seat about 150 people. This would mean at any one time we could fit around 500 people (give or take). In our parish – which has about 25,000 people in it – that’s only 2% of the people in the parish! If we wanted to fit in 25% of our parish, we’d have to have over 12 services at both churches. That’s simply unmanageable!!

Add to that the fact that there is limited parking at each church. Even if the full capacity of people wanted to get to the church, they may not be able to find somewhere to park.

Not enough church leaders

One of the common things about being human we joke about is that we are unable to be in two places at once. It’s a real inconvenience! But it is a fact that churches need people who are going to lead them. However, the problem is that there are simply not enough church leaders to go round. I can think of many churches recently who have been in vacancy and yet have had no applicants for the job.

There are a number of reasons for that, and we simply don’t have time to go into it all. The Church of England have been warning for some years that we are facing a looming crisis with clergy retirements. There are just not enough younger clergy to come through to replace those who are retiring. (This isn’t a Church of England problem alone; from what I’ve heard, other denominations also are struggling to replace retiring ministers).

The problem here is that a healthy number of clergy is associated with church growth. (You might say, “obviously”!) If a church has enough people to teach the faith and help people grow in their faith, then it will grow. This isn’t just referring to the clergy, of course – you could also add in youth and children’s workers, home group leaders, and so on – lay members of the church who still have a teaching responsibility.

Can the Internet help solve those problems?

I think clearly the answer is yes. The internet could mitigate against both of the problems with physical churches: the internet is not limited in the same way. You can have 100 people logged on to a livestreamed YouTube service, or 100,000. It doesn’t make any difference to the service itself. And, similarly, the internet helps to solve the problem of one person not being able to be everywhere – a video of someone can be playing in hundreds of different places at the same time. The only limit is the technology – which is pretty robust these days.

Of course, if church was exclusively internet-based, then you would lose out on the relational aspect. As we’ve seen, that would be a Bad Thing. But the million dollar question is, can we gain the benefits of the internet without the downsides? I think there might be a way.

Local Church “plus”

One of the things I’ve come to realise over the last few months is that the internet can be used well in a local area. Most of the people who have been watching our YouTube services are from our church or the local area. There are a few from further afield, but it’s been mostly local folk. And this has got me thinking.

In the early days of the church, before Christians had church buildings to meet in, they needed to meet in houses (e.g. Acts 5:42; Romans 16:5). There’s nothing wrong with church buildings, but – needs must! In our church we often try to remind people that the church is made up of the people, not the building. The building is nice, but it’s not the church.

So here’s a thought. What if, rather than everyone congregating in one building, groups of individuals congregated in people’s houses? What if a church service could be livestreamed directly into people’s homes? Then you keep both the positive aspects of the internet, while at the same time mitigating against the downside. People can still relate face-to-face – just not with everyone in the church at the same time.

This is why I have called this local church “plus”. I suppose you could say it’s one local church, but meeting in lots of different places by the internet. It’s similar to the idea of a cell church, with the addition of connecting by the internet. This is partly what I was thinking when I created the church groups section of UTB, which you can read about in the churches section. And it’s why I created the teaching programme, so that a group of new believers could have something to go through to help bring them up to speed on the Christian faith.

There are also some potential pitfalls here: anyone overseeing a church like this would need to make sure that the individual households mixed and didn’t just stay in one bubble. There would need to be times when the church, or at least parts of the church, came together. Those are not insignificant challenges. But I think challenges which could be managed.

Over to you: what are your ideas?

I believe that God has brought us to a time like this for a reason. I wonder if too many churches have become too wedded to the idea of church buildings to see past it. And it strikes me that perhaps this is the ideal opportunity to see if we can break out of the idea of church = building, to meet in people’s homes, and use the power of the internet to connect with others.

This is where I’m going to hand over to you. What are your thoughts and ideas about creating a local church, but using the internet as well? What do you think would work well? Where might there be challenges? What other ideas do you have? Leave a comment below!

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