Using the Web to Cultivate Community

Prior to COVID-19 most churches looked at the web as a tool for digital publicity, not digital ministry. It’s long been a cliché that the website is the front door of the church though up until a few weeks ago most churches treated their digital footprint more as the front yard than the front door – an under-utilized space designed primarily for curb appeal.

Sure we wanted a nice looking website and cool social media posts, but we did so primarily to draw more people to our physical campus where we could actually connect with them. During the new reality of social distancing, we have all been scrambling to find ways to experience community and connection. The churches who emerge from COVID-19 stronger will be those who continue to use the web to cultivate community long after this crisis has past. They will use the web to truly be a front door to the church and perhaps even a living room.

Disclaimer: I still believe the most powerful experiences of community will be in person. I’ve just come to see that most of us in the church, myself included, have been slow to realize all the possibilities digital ministry gives us to help people connect online and eventually in person. We have said for years that the church is not a building while functioning as if the church is a building.

Churches who care a little about reaching people digitally will quickly solve issues around broadcasting worship and creating online small groups. Churches who care a lot will move from there to ask these more formative questions:

  • What is the best way to establish a personal connection with a new people who may or may not ever set foot on our campus?
  • How can we resource people online to take their next step in faith?
  • How can we use our digital platform to help people connect with others in person – even if they are hundreds of miles away?

I have no doubt we will see creative answers to these questions emerging. We already see some churches offering digital connection cards in worship and following up with personal emails. We see church leaders interacting with online followers live during prayer services and in some cases even during the Sunday sermon. We see churches starting new campuses in the homes of their followers throughout the country. And we see churches helping their regular volunteers to embrace their call to cultivate community and share their faith in their neighborhoods as well as through official church in person ministries.

Recently, my wife overheard some of her co-workers chatting about their pastors. She was glad to know they went to church and joined the conversation to hear about their churches. To her surprise, several of her co-workers did not go to a church in town. They considered themselves to be a part of churches hundreds of miles away which they connected to digitally. And they had plenty to say about how their churches had blessed their lives.

I long for the day when we can once again swing wide the doors of the church and gather in large groups. I just hope when we do so we will also continue to minister to those who will never be able to walk through those doors. While committing resources and energy to such a project will offend the sensibilities of some, it may be time for us to embrace example of John Wesley and become “more vile” so we can make “the world our parish.”