Online church is the latest attempt by churches to reach out to people that are not willing to or are unable to walk through the church doors on a Sunday morning. Preachers like Joel Osteen and Andy Stanley have been doing this for years through television and now the mainline in jumping on board. Cyberspace, more specifically social media sites, have created a new frontier where it seems as though anything is possible. Things like Facebook Live and Mevo cameras have opened the doors of possibility, and many churches do not want to be left behind.
We have more 'friends' than we could have ever imagined. We have access to more information in 0.5 seconds than previous generations had in a lifetime. To take a church online is to take the church to a place where people are already spending time. Think of it like Pub Theology or Worship in the Park. Both of these are great ways to take the church to the community.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership lists four 'features' your online church needs:
1. An introduction to your church. Your website is the front door to your church. A live online worship service allows people seeking a church home to experience and decide whether your church is a place to visit in-person.
2. An outreach of your church. People are coming to faith through online worship services in the same way millions did through watching evangelist Billy Graham in the privacy of their homes. For many people seeking God and faith, attending a church is too threatening. Visiting church online can be a safe first step towards coming to your church
3. A lifeline for your church family. Sports tournaments, sick kids, vacations, business trips, and other reasons can interfere with regular church attendance. Church families can stay connected and in community spiritually, emotionally and financially through an online campus. I am grateful that my son was able to stay connected online with his home church while deployed in Afghanistan.
4. A church multiplication strategy for your church. Thousands of people are logging on to internet campuses from around the world, but also from your local region. Your online campus congregation can reveal where to launch a multisite campus or a church plant.
What is missing from this list?
How can churches function online, building thriving community (which I know is possible since the launch of Crackers & Grape Juice in 2016), and still administer the sacraments? This is the grey area where we are now living. How does one preside at the table or baptize someone over the miles of fiberoptic cabling? Its possible and yet it creates a sticky wicket.
It's tricky as Gregory Neal points out:
"This has been my experience in multiple facets of my online ministry. The largest single group among the 31,100+ subscribers to my Video Sermon Page on Facebook are those who are often identified as millennials: individuals who only rarely attend a brick-and-mortar church and who do not self-identify as “religious” but do view themselves as “spiritual.” These people frequently involve themselves in cyberspace-based religious communities for discussion, learning, and support. While the videos linked to this Facebook page are almost always my sermons, preached weekly in my current congregation, on occasion (and especially-so when the message has been about Communion) I’ll add the Eucharistic liturgy at the end of the sermon. Frequently, the responses to these messages have been greater than to those sermons without a Communion liturgy at the end."
The Eucharist is a response and at the same time people respond to the Eucharist. In our order of worship it is a response to the proclamation of God's Word, and as such it is a powerful moment. But online?
In the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church Bishop Sharma Lewis has put a stop to online sacraments and I think she is right to do so.
When the Church of Scotland was considering online sacraments in 2016 David Robertson, moderator of the Free Church of Scotland said, “The notion of online baptism is as ridiculous as the nation of online weddings or online Communion. At best it is a cheap gimmick, at worst it comes across as yet another desperate attempt by a declining national church to shore up its numbers and justify its existence.”
How do we navigate the necessity to minister to community while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the sacraments? It seems that online baptism is out of the question due to logistics, and while marriage is not a sacrament most would not consider that rite online, so what about the Eucharist? Can we gather at the table even if it's in the cloud?
Trying to decide for yourself? These resources from the UMC are a great place to start.