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It’s church, gone mobile. For many, digital tools are the latest innovation in church history, no different than cathedrals or the printing press – “the new front door of the church,” as Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, puts it.
This digital shift comes at a vulnerable moment for U.S. religion. Gallup reported that church membership fell 20% in the past 20 years. A 2016 Pew study found that just half of Americans attend church once or twice a month. “Nones” are America’s fastest-growing religious group.
At the same time, Pew found that about half of those attending less frequently cited “practical difficulties,” such as work or travel. If some shrinking congregations stem from busyness rather than lack of belief, the convenience of church online could help boost attendance.
Some see a downside. “In an age where people tend not to interact with other people as much ... I think putting church on our phones can be a dangerous thing,” says Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based writer. But supporters of online ministry argue that in-person attendance doesn’t always promote community and that the anonymity enabled through the internet actually allows many to better connect online. The executive pastor at one church app, for example, says he’s been able to reach people digitally who were struggling with divorce or debating suicide – people he’s never met in person and likely never will.
Dallas residents Lincoln and Natalie Redmon spent two years bouncing from church to church. After marrying and moving to the city, they just couldn’t find the right fit. So late last year Mr. Redmon wrote down a goal: “Find a home church or have God answer that prayer in a different way.”
Two days later, he saw an Instagram post from Judah Smith, lead pastor of the Northwestern multisite ministry Churchome. “We have a new location,” he said in a video post. “And that location is everywhere.” Mr. Smith announced Churchome’s new app, bringing pulpits and pews into pockets and palms.
The Redmons logged on. Soon, they started a local watch group – now with almost 60 members. Every Sunday, about 25 people visit their house and livestream a service together.
“It makes you feel like you’re still a part of a local church even though you’re using technology,” Ms. Redmon says, adding that the app changed their definition of church itself. “When we wake up every day we think everything is church. So if we’re going shopping at the grocery store or if we’re driving our car and we’re singing worship music, all of that means church.”
The Redmons’ experience is increasingly the norm: Call it church, gone mobile. For many, digital tools are just the latest innovation in church history, no different than cathedrals or the printing press.
“When we think of the Great Commission – and going and making disciples – this is a different way of going,” says Lori Bailey, communications director for Oklahoma’s Life.Church, which has one of America’s largest online ministries. “There might be some people who go with their feet, and there might be other people who go with their keyboards.”
A “new front door”
Like the rest of society, church leaders initially thought digital technology would change everything, says Tim Hutchings, professor of religious ethics at England’s University of Nottingham. But when the internet grew banal, so did online ministry. “The ways in which the internet has most changed society are the hardest to see,” he says. “They become an invisible part of how we do everyday life. You kind of forget that there was ever anything else.”
A 2016 study from Pew Research Center said nearly 60% of adults under 30 used the internet while searching for a new church, compared with just 12% of adults older than 65. Life.Church’s online services alone have recorded more than half a million unique visitors, says Ms. Bailey. Their Bible app, YouVersion, is approaching 400 million downloads.
This digital shift comes at a particularly vulnerable moment for U.S. religion. Gallup recently reported that church membership fell 20% in the past 20 years. A 2016 Pew study found that just half of Americans attend church once or twice a month. “Nones” are America’s fastest-growing religious group.
At the same time, the Pew research found that about half of those attending less frequently said their biggest obstacle was “practical difficulties,” such as work or travel. If some shrinking congregations stem from busyness rather than lack of belief, these churches hope, the convenience of church online could help boost attendance.
A real connection?
Online churches are not without their critics, many of whom worry that technology allows people to keep religion at arm’s length. Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based writer, recently criticized the impersonal aspects of online churches last year in an opinion piece for The New York Times.
“A lot of churches seek growth at all costs,” she says in an interview with the Monitor. “For a lot of these churches, they’re trying to expand their imprint – and almost their brand – by creating apps, by putting services online, by counting their online campuses. And that comes, I think, at a real cost of having in-person community.”
If Christians find themselves too busy for Sunday service, Ms. Turner says, they shouldn’t change how they attend church – they should lead a less busy life.
“In an age where people tend not to interact with other people as much, where it’s a lot easier to sort of arrange our lives so that we don’t have to interact with people ... I think putting church on our phones can be a dangerous thing,” says Ms. Turner.
Others, like Mr. Stetzer, support online ministry but still think church is done best in person. “My avatar always looks happy,” he says. “On my Instagram, I’m living my best life every day. So the challenge is if that’s not true, we need someone to weep with us and to laugh with us.”
But supporters of online ministry argue that in-person attendance doesn’t always promote community.
Mark Venti, executive pastor of central ministries at Churchome, says people can easily slip in and out unseen in stadium-sized buildings. The anonymity enabled through the internet actually allows many to better connect online. Mr. Venti says he has used the church’s app to reach people struggling with divorce or debating suicide – people he’s never met in person and likely never will.
The internet allows the elderly or people with disabilities to attend without discomfort. People in countries where Christianity is banned can worship more safely. Those with weekend shifts can use online church to keep their job and their faith.
Making church “addictive”
In order to grapple with declining attendance nationwide, Mr. Venti and others at Churchome are trying to make their ministry “more addictive.” He wants to give church the same accessibility that makes him buy too much on Amazon. But that goal, he says, brings a new entrepreneurial mindset. Pastors listen to God; startups listen to the consumer.
“We’re not in Silicon Valley nor are the people that we’re partnering with developer-wise, but it’s definitely changed our world,” says Mr. Venti. “And so we’re going to [ask] how can we use that mentality and those tools to help the church too.”
Around the turn of the century Life.Church’s most advanced technology was air conditioning, says Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor and the church's innovation leader. Their growth since then has come in part from one of their aligning values: “We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ.”
Mr. Gruenewald says the best thing they ever did for YouVersion was add a streak counter – à la Snapchat – that tracks the consecutive number of days you read scripture. With this focus on habit formation, he isn’t afraid that Life.Church is distracting people into their ministry. The Bible, he thinks, will change you no matter why you read it.
“It’s trying to compete against the other bazillion apps that they have on their phone that have all the same kind of noise that’s vying for their attention,” Mr. Gruenewald says.
Same service in New Mexico and New York
The Redmons say they use Churchome’s app at least once every day. On family trips to the West Coast, they’ve visited in person just to see what it’s like. But even in Dallas, Churchome is still their home church.
One of the first to embrace a multisite structure, Life.Church now has 33 locations, but only one pastor – at least only one who preaches. On Sundays, each Life.Church from New Mexico to New York streams the same prerecorded message from Pastor Craig Groeschel, based in Oklahoma City.
The branch in Albany – which Barna Group listed as America’s sixth-least Christian city this year – can attract more than 60 congregants even on the fourth service of the day on a Sunday.
Walking inside, visitors meet a T-shirt-wearing welcome team and Christian pop on the radio. Pre-service worship resembles a concert more than a choir. Hands raised and eyes closed, congregants sway and spotlights circle. Projected onto three screens, “Pastor Craig” interacts with the crowd from afar. Albany members laugh at his jokes.
Their web-based Church Online offers 10 services a day – complete with worship, preaching, praying, tithing, and volunteer-staffed chat rooms. Many of the songs are similar. Mr. Groeschel preaches the same sermon. You can leave with a left-click.
“Church should be a little bit like ‘Cheers,’” says Mr. Stetzer, “where not maybe everyone knows your name, but at least several people know your name.”
That, or your username.