Several of my church-going friends shared a recent op-ed from Fox News Opinion on their social media, “Church as we know it is over. Here's what's next." The op-ed says that “the church needs to accept the fate of physical church as we know it, so we can move into the next phase of digital church.”
Yes, the old expectations that people will somehow just show up in churches must die. But the replacement is not digital church. While I love connecting online, it isn’t the same as being part of a gathered community. Church as we know it may be over, but it’s time to reboot church as we know it – and our expectations.
Christians need to go to church. It’s that simple.
Let’s talk about why digital church isn’t enough, and then I’ll share three ways to change the pattern of declining attendance at church.
Digital church would work fine if church were only about transmitting content or selling a product. But a Netflix vs. movie theater metaphor won’t work for digital church vs. gathered church. We don’t go to church only to watch sermons. We go to church to be part of community, to pray with others, to offer our thanks and praise, and to learn from those around us. Digital church only works when our vision for church is quite small.
The thing about actual, gathered communities is that they’re messy in a very beautiful way. Churches are one of the last places in our red state/blue state world where we rub shoulders with people who hold different political views from us. Churches are one of the only places in our segmented society where people of different races and socioeconomic status spend time together engaging in meaningful connection. Churches are among those few places with intergenerational connection, where kids can learn to form healthy friendships with adults outside their own families. We don’t enjoy any of these benefits if our only tether to church is digital.
When we join a church, part of what we gain is access to teaching and programs. But mostly what we gain is participation in a community. We get to practice reconciliation. We get to share joy with others when we are close to God, and we can draw inspiration from others when we begin to stray as followers of Jesus. It’s not impossible for this to happen with digital church, but it’s much more likely when we are in the same room as other people trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in this crazy, amazing world of ours.
Now, I do think that digital ministry is essential. People miss Sundays, and online sermons help people catch up on what they missed. Those who are looking for a church are likely to visit your website and watch your services to get a feel for what your church is like before they come for the first time. And online connection can help church members get through the week from Sunday to Sunday.
If gathered community is better than digital church, why aren’t people flocking to church? Because churches need to make some big changes.
It’s true that church attendance is decreasing. Here’s how to change that.
First, we have to offer better church. Back in the 1800s, famed preacher, Phillips Brooks disagreed with critics of those who were buying books of sermons instead of coming to church to listen to live sermons. Brooks said that people wouldn’t be buying books if the sermons in their churches were better. In other words, preach better sermons. So it is with us. Instead of complaining that people are making other choices, we need to up our game. Our worship should be excellent and our sermons must be both compelling and rooted in the Gospel.
Second, we have to teach Christians that coming to church matters. Several years ago, I was speaking with a group of clergy who began to complain that people weren’t coming to church as much anymore. I asked them if anyone had ever done teaching on why church matters. No hands were raised. We shouldn’t wonder that people don’t know the importance of Christian community if we haven’t taught this.
When people can’t come to church because of sporting events, we need to talk about the choice that they’ve made to prioritize playing sports over following Jesus. When people say they need the morning to rest, we should celebrate rest but also point out that our busy-ness is a choice. We can step off the treadmill of endless work and activity and leave room for really important things. Not every Christian can come to church every week, but every Christian should have participation in church right at the top of their priority list.
Third, we do need to realize that Sunday morning isn’t sacrosanct anymore. Even small churches can offer a midweek service. We can find ways to make church available for those who really cannot make it on Sunday mornings.
The article which inspired me to sing the praises of coming to church uses a bunch of statistics to show the value of online engagement. And I agree that online engagement is good, though it’s no substitute for coming to church. Here’s just one statistic about church. A Pew Forum study from 2019 says that people who actively attend church are happier and healthier than those who don’t.
But none of this is the best reason for we Christians to come to church. If for no other reason, we should do it because the Bible tells us to. And it’s not just that we need to do what the text says blindly. We need to follow the scriptural command because the command is right.
The tenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews says this, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We Christians need each other to spur one another toward love and good deeds. I know I do.
Let’s meet together, even as we use online connections to stay in touch. Let’s meet together in church, because it’s good for us, it’s good for the church, it’s good for the world, and it’s good for God in Jesus Christ.