Online living has well and truly been launched. We're working, socializing, worshipping and entertaining digitally and socially-distanced. And the church, like it or not, has been rocket-launched into the dark unknowns of digital space.
Globally, churches are responding in very different ways. Some churches are unable to access technology. Others refuse to close their doors, claiming the disease won't touch them and so they don't have to move online. Some churches are picking up technology for the first time and learning to stream shaky services on Facebook-Live. Other churches have been leading the online charge for years. Whether they like it or not, for most churches, going online is now the norm. For now, there aren't many other options.
Who knows what the future will bring? All I know is that the present is raising many questions and highlighting the widening generational gap that technology just exacerbates.
The challenge of the online space
"I'm eating pancakes," comments a ten-year-old girl on the live comment feed. She's tuning in to our Sunday service, and multi-tasking between breakfast, the stream and comments is natural for her. I go to a medium sized church in Sydney, Australia. We've been doing church online for over a month using the Church Online platform from Life Church. It's new, weird and very different.
There have been many issues in the move online. It requires internet and a basic understanding of technology, which not everyone has, particularly the most vulnerable groups. Navigating multiple and new digital platforms presents another complex challenge for some.
My church posts services and training on our website, we use Elvanto for online contact and scheduling, we have a closed church Facebook group as well as an active Facebook page, we run services on the Church Online platform, and have an Instagram account. Some small groups in our church meet on Zoom, others Google Hangouts. The church is where the people are, and online, they're everywhere! However, that's a lot of platforms for people to navigate and use.
And what about the knowledge gap?
Nothing divides like a knowledge gap. Children are being brought up on a diet of online learning and playing, whilst older generations may struggle to even open a browser. The church is a microcosm of this gap. Many generations all with one goal, yet interacting in very different ways.
I'm a young adult (whatever that means). It makes total sense for me to use one platform for a Sunday service, another for accessing archives, another for communicating, as well as seeing my church on my social media feed. But even my pastors frequently confuse the purposes of the different platforms, posting from the wrong account or putting a message to the church community on the page designed for outreach. It's very confusing for people who haven't grown up with it.
Technology is polarising the technologically savvy from the illiterate. Within days, the job descriptions of pastors have changed to content creators, data analysts, video editors and online ministers. Attempting to lead through change, they're trying to support church members and evangelise to a whole new audience.
Church leaders are mostly middle-aged or older and must learn to understand technology or pass the baton on. The language and culture becomes even more disconnected as memes and terminology evolve faster each day. Pastors and church leaders must learn new tricks or empower young adults to lead. We need to speak the same language of the people we want to reach.
Studies show trends of young people leaving the church. If church community, services and training can't be accessed online, this presents a massive barrier to reaching the online generation. Just like translation and cross-cultural mission, we need to speak the language and go to the places of the people we're trying to reach. How can pastors reach a generation through technology that understands the technology better than they do? If we're trying to reach the next generation, the church must be online.
I'm wrestling through these questions as many leaders are. Each day seems to raise more questions as we continue this science experiment to the future.
What about the elderly? They're extremely vulnerable in this pandemic, cut off from people and often unable to use technology without help. How can we continue to include, love and learn from them? Do they need to learn and catch up, or do we need to rethink our strategies in order to include every generation?
Embracing the change
What does this mean for discipleship and spiritual growth? How do we learn to grow in our faith when the main ways the church has developed (Sunday services, small groups, ministries) can't meet in person? How can we best care for our people who are really struggling without human connection and interaction?
No matter size or location, churches must learn to embrace technology. The technological and generational divide is growing and churches must be on the forefront if we want to survive and thrive.
Most churches will reopen their doors one day. The question that may determine their futures is, will they have changed?
Courtesy of Press Service International