It is hard to imagine a book that focuses on changing the way we do church that doesn't include a section on technology. When I first wrote this book in 2009, however, I was a novice to Facebook. I had been using it for only three years and had been blogging for about that long as well. I don’t recall if I was using Twitter, but Instagram, Snapchat, the cloud, smartphones, and iPods were just coming into their own. A church was considered cutting-edge in 2009 if it was able to put their Sunday service online using their own website; social media wasn’t yet a possibility as a means to do so.
Now in 2020, we have an explosion of social media options and opportunities, and quite frankly, most of the church is stuck. Many churches livestream their services and maintain them in an archive for future reference. Some have blogs, chat rooms for prayer and counseling, and actively publish other ministry resources. Yet many churches are yet to make the transition to the digital age. Those churches don’t have websites, do not pay much attention to social media, and are addicted to what I call as face-to-face ministry. Unless someone comes in the door of the church, there is no relationship or attempt to establish one.
Lo and behold, in 2020 we have a world crisis known as the COVID-19 virus pandemic. The entire world was sent home, including the Church, and everyone, including the Church had two things to utilize to stay in touch: social media and technology! We had gas in our tanks but no where to go, so we either watched television, read a book, or learned how to utilize things like Zoom, Facebook, GoToMeeting, LinkedIn, or for some who were way behind, the features of a smartphone.
Many leaders I talk to are ambivalent or downright hostile toward the concept of anything but face-to-face ministry—and it has showed up in their demeanor or words when using social media. I have watched many church “broadcasts” on Facebook during this time of sheltering in place, and it is apparently clear that they are uncomfortable and ready to go back to “normal” as soon as the all-clear alarm is sounded. Most have simply tried to replicate their live services online without anyone monitoring who is watching, if those watching have any prayer needs, or if those watching are “visitors” to the online service. That tells me their online presence is a stopgap measure that is not being introduced as a permanent feature or fixture in the church’s ministry repertoire.
Why does my generation hate social media like many do? When I pose that question, I hear the usual complaints:
- “Those who use social media are self-absorbed.”
- “I don’t have time for anything but preparing my Sunday message and caring for the needs of those in the church.”
- “If we deploy social media, people will stay home and not attend church.”
- “People need to stop playing with their phones and pay attention to one another.”
- “We don’t have money for technology.”
- “We have no interest in broadcasting what we do to the larger public. Our first responsibility to take care of our own.”
- “Social media destroy relationships, and the church is all about relationships. We must have face-to-face time to build and cultivate relationships.”
I am sure you can add other laments to the list—those you have heard or uttered yourself. When I talk about social media, often those listening assume or actually hear that I am implying that social media can replace the church, which I am not—but that summarizes how they see that it is either all social media or all face to face.
Before the pandemic, the ministry opportunities available through the creative use of social media were huge—and now they are even greater. For example, one-sixth of the world’s population is now on Facebook. The Church was given the Great Commission to go into all the world, so now we can simply go to our computer (or phone) to reach a large portion of it. When we “go,” we have access to do or say pretty much anything we want and people are free to read or not, respond or not, reflect or not. What would happen if we paid as much attention to our online presence as we did to our face-to-face presence? That is the question I was asking before the pandemic. What will happen if we don’t pay as much attention to our online presence? seems to be the new, relevant question.
We don’t know and that’s the problem. What is going to happen to our church financial model? How will we fund ministry? Will people stay home after the pandemic? Will our content be censored, hacked, edited, or misused? What will happen to those who are currently addicted to face-to-face ministry? Will they go to another church?
All these are real concerns, and I am not here to predict what will happen. All I am saying is that this shift to technology that was optional before the pandemic is mandatory now. Before the coronavirus, church attendance was down; now it’s almost nonexistent. People don’t like change and shifting to a broader, more strategic use of technology is a BIG change. For many, church attendance anchored their week; for some it was a ritual. What will happen when the all-clear signal is given? Will people continue to rely on social media, apprehensive to assemble for fear of a new wave of sickness?
My own sense is that this represents a significant opportunity for the Church to do what it should have done where the appropriate and aggressive use of technology is concerned. God is using this pandemic, as He has other past plagues, famines, and catastrophes, to awaken and reposition His people for more effective ministry and witness.