Online church was a foreign concept just a few years ago. If you spoke to a church about having an online campus 10 years ago, people would have thought you were nuts. The single most significant complaint about having an online church campus was that being the body of Christ means being together and having a community is critical in being the church. Namely, people would quote Hebrews 10:25 (KJV), “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” This argument is a legitimate reason why having an online-only campus is dangerous. Jason Thacker, chair of research in technology ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention states, “Digital services are dangerous when they become the primary means of the church, because we are an embodied people. Church isn’t a service, a sermon, or even worship gathering, but the people of God.”
When speaking to churches in early 2013 about creating an online campus, my conversations would often consist of proving that having an online campus was the way of the future. Back then a typical conversation might sound like this, “The fact is that only 1 in 7 lead pastors is under the age of 40, over half of pastors now are over the age of 55, the median age of a lead pastor is 54. Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) have overtaken the baby boomers in the workforce, and it is estimated by Pew Research that by 2025 fifty percent of the workforce will be millennials.” Then I would have to explain the importance of everything I just told them. The communities that the church is trying to reach are getting younger, and the pastors are getting older. There is a significant generational gap, and many pastors do not understand how to reach a younger group. What worked in the past to reach the next generation is not going to work in the future. My argument would never be that having an online service was meant to replace in-person service. However, many churches completely ignored my suggestions and when the pandemic hit in 2020, they were unprepared to transition to online-only platforms.
To further illustrate my argument, according to Cross Politics (2017), 59% of millennials raised in the church have left, and according to Barna (2015), millennials are the least likely age group to attend church. So, clearly, what worked before is no longer going to work if a pastor wants to reach a younger generation. As a church, we are called according to Matthew 28:19 (NIV) to “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When most of our current pastors started in ministry pre-2005 social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter did not exist (Carlson, 2010). Fast forward to today, and these platforms are one of the most dominating forces in our culture. The bottom line is that online platforms such as social media is where people’s attention is. To drive that point home a little further, in January of 2022, Christianity Today reported that The Potter’s House in Denver, a church that averaged 10,000 worshipers, would be moving to an online-only service. As a result, Potters House in Denver will be selling their 32-acre property and 137,000 square foot building. The Potters House Denver attracts a younger crowd and believes they can be more successful with an online-only congregation.
According to Pew Research (2021), 72% of Americans are on some form of social media platform. As more and more Americans have adopted social media, and the social media user base has grown to be more representative of the broader population, the question is, why would the church not have an online campus? With the Covid pandemic, many churches have come around to understand the importance of being online. There is not a single person I have talked to within the church sphere that has not understood the value of having an online campus since the pandemic started. However, most are quick to point out that having an online campus should not replace meeting in person. As a minister, I see the value in having an online option, but I do not believe the online-only platform will be a trend. Churches that prioritize loving people and relationships will not trade their relational capital for an online-only church. Having church online should not replace in-person service, but it is an option that I personally believe every church should offer.
Dr. William A. Horton