Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, local churches have been in a race to adopt digital tools in order to connect and serve their internal and external communities. As Covid began to spread globally, shutting down public gathering places, facilitating digital worship services became a necessity more than an option. The churches that hadn’t explored doing ministry in this brave new digital landscape were forced to quickly learn these new methods.
The 2020 pandemic is hardly the first time churches have had to find new ways to deliver ministry. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, many churches were not only closed, they were also converted to emergency hospitals! Despite this challenging situation, religious leaders found innovative ways forward. The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Alabama, published excerpts of the sermons from a range of religious sects under the headline “Sermons given for churchless people of the city.” In Pittsburg, Calvary Episcopal Church mailed sermons to churchgoers.
While the context and available communication options have radically changed, the goal of connecting, engaging, and ministering to our communities in contextual ways through whatever means possible has not.
In many ways the new technology available today provides options for connection that church leaders could not have imagined even 20 years ago, much less in 1918.
Thanks to video meeting platforms like Zoom and Google Meet, virtual sermons can be delivered live during regular service times and then saved and shared with church communities through email and uploaded to church websites.
A few churches were already on the innovative edge of this technology before Covid, finding the necessary transition to digital organic and easy. This was not the case for most.
Effective digital ministry requires an effective digital connection. Uploading video, streaming live services, and using Zoom for small groups and leader training cannot happen if the internet is compromised or losing signal.
Many churches have struggled with subpar WiFi connection and been forced to find new solutions and upgrade servers and routers to deliver a stronger WiFi signals. Making these necessary upgrades has not only served their content distribution needs, but has also allowed many churches to function as a WiFi hub in their community, allowing people to park in their lot and access their WiFi for free.
The cultural shifts in this season of digital-only church connection have been one of the largest challenges to overcome. Weekly physical meetings were the cornerstone of most congregations, a routine that underscored their shared commitment to community. While digital is making some degree of connection possible, digital ministry will never replace the power of physical proximity. The longer we go without physical gatherings, the more people will grow weary of digital connection. “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing.
This is especially true for congregations that skew older. One-third of people over 65 don’t use the internet, and only a quarter own a mobile device. Engaging and serving this demographic during this season isn’t impossible, but churches will need to innovate in low-tech ways like home visits, phone calls, and other methods that better meet older populations where they are.
It’s impossible to predict what the new normal for local church ministry will be post pandemic. There appear to be 3 categories of churches surfacing: 1) those who seek a return to their pre-pandemic model without making any change, 2) those who innovate on their existing model by sustaining digital ministry to varying degrees, and 3) those who pioneer the future and change their fundamental ministry model in light of what they’ve learned in this season.
While most churches will prevail and come out the other side better, there will, unfortunately, be some church communities that don’t survive this storm. One thing we know for sure: The pace of change in the world that the local church serves is not slowing down, so the pace of change and innovation within the church must increase along with it.