What is the meaning of ‘online church’?

So, the first day of the new era of ‘online church’ has come and gone! It feels as though our children’s children will one day ask us ‘What did you do on the first day of online church?’ After our morning online service yesterday, I asked of the experience of others, and most of the 300 comments during the day were very positive. Some experienced technical problems and frustrations, but others reported a surprisingly positive experience—including noting that numbers participating were higher, sometimes a lot higher, than usual attendance. This might be a reflection of the ease of being a ‘fringe’ visitor online, where you can avoid any unwanted greetings, questions or conversations; it might reflect curiosity about what churches are doing in this strange new world; or in part it might reflect the fact that, with other leisure activities shut down, people are doing more online in general, as well as more in their gardens and allotments, and more DIY (if my visit to B and Q on Thursday was anything to judge by).

What was really fascinating was the remarkable and rapid drive by those in ministry to respond to the situation and ‘upskill’ in IT as fast as they could. Truly, the necessity of spacial distancing has become the mother of online IT invention! And the great thing is that, in our era of always-connected smart phones, as well as the development of video-conferencing apps, it really is possible to form an online community with the minimum of effort—even if some people learn painful lessons from experience, like the Plymouth vicar who set himself on fire in live broadcast. As Pete Broadbent, the bishop of Willesden, commented:

People are doing all sorts—both the straightforward mass to the interactive. The diversity and creativity of approach speaks volumes about what is best about our clergy.

The reason that this is interesting is that is wasn’t actually necessary. It was, in fact, only possible because Boris Johnson made the announcement about social distancing on a Tuesday, which gave us the best part of a week to make arrangements. If he had happened to announce this on a Friday, we would simply have agreed not to meet, and made arrangements for the following Sunday. But this intense motivation demonstrates that, of all social groups, Christians are highly motivated to continue to maintain personal relationships. I think it was also borne of a sense that we were not going to be beaten by something that, at first, looked like it was putting a major obstacle in the way of the gospel. There was also a significant pastoral motivation not to allow people, especially those feeling vulnerable, to feel isolated or defeated.

From the comments in response to my question, it seems that there were four main platforms in use:

  • Zoom, the group video conferencing app, which allows everyone to see everyone else, though individuals can choose to mute their sound when one person is leading the discussion or event. This worked for congregations up to 100 people, and was a popular choice for smaller congregations and small groups in larger churches.
  • YouTube, with pre-recorded material or live broadcast. There is a facility for comments on this, but there is less of a sense of being interactive.
  • Facebook live stream or Watch party. This appeared to be popular amongst those who were broadcasting live from a church building with a small team leading ‘normal’ worship.
  • Church Online Platform, which we used. This allows pre-recorded material to be broadcast as a particular time, and with live interaction between those watching, including a ‘live prayer’ option. I am not yet sure how much use was made of that.

There also appeared to be two main divisions in terms of overall approach.

The first was between those who pre-recorded material which was then either put online or broadcast at a particular time, and those who broadcast live. There is a sense in which the latter gives a more dynamic feel to participation—for example, it would easily be possible to have active questions and answers, or prayer requests, or feedback. But it is susceptible to live errors (like setting yourself on fire!) or issues with internet access, which could create serious problems. One major advantage of pre-recording is that you can involve all sorts of different people, in different locations (including in their homes) contributing elements of the service, much as they would if you were all meeting together. The Church of Scotland online service was a good example of this, though done this way demands more video and editing skills.

The other main division was between those who broadcast a normal service, as if everyone was attendance, and those who created something specifically for online use. I can well understand the desire for the first, since one of the main issues was a concern to establish continuity between the ‘normal’ and the ‘new normal’. But I am not sure that this will work as a long-term strategy, for several reasons.

  1. When we are physically present, there is a whole range of stimuli (sight, sound, smell, the wider environment, those around us) that hold our attention and keep us engaged. When we are looking at a screen, the screen itself is only one part of our environment, and it is much easier to be distracted.
  2. When we are physically present, there is an implicit accountability. When viewing online, we can easily go off and make a coffee, do something else, or disengage. One ‘participant’ in our online service who later visited us noticed that the numbers logged in were quite a bit lower at the end than at the beginning!
  3. Speech and action need to be different online than in real life. You can see that by comparing dialogue in plays on radio and TV with real life—real life is much more chaotic, because we are immersed in it and can disentangle the different elements, whereas in scripted plays everything is much more orderly. In moving from church IRL to church online, we are moving from the first to the second. This whole process will both demand and develop broadcast skills in those leading services in future.
  4. Participation is not the same online as when gathered. Are we really expecting people to sing out loud in their own homes, either on their own or (perhaps worse) with one or two others when we are leading songs? In our service, we had a really good process of intercession, where the person leading online left just the right amount of space after each petition so that we could either pray silently or out loud where we were—quite different from what we might do in a large congregation.
  5. There are practical aspects to participation too. A video of words on a screen will usually be illegible, whereas structured subtitles or whole screen words work much better on an inevitable quite small screen.
  6. Then there is the question of sharing Holy Communion. The idea that a priest celebrates whilst we watch from a distance will strike many as a return to a pre-Reformation era, and seriously undermine what ‘Communion’ is all about. The bread and the wine are the remembrance of a meal in which, theologically, we all participate, not something ‘magical’ offered or done on our behalf by the priestly caste!

On the other hand, it is worth noting that broadcasting something, whether live or pre-recorded, means that people tune in at the same time—and there is a powerful effect in offering temporal proximity to compensate for spatial distance. Even when pre-recorded, the service becomes an event to engage in, not just a performance to watch.

Christopher Smith waves a hesitant flag, asking people to think twice before live streaming services—though in fact his post is more positive about this than the title might suggest. He urges that online ‘meetings’ should be as interactive as possible, though I think underestimates how interactive things like Facebook Live can feel. Pete Philips offers a list of helpful practical suggestions on making online events interactive—though of course the degree of real interaction in services will have varied greatly depending on the size of a congregation. Groups of 40 will start with very different expectations from congregations of two or three hundred.

There has clearly been some excitement about the creative possibilities that lie ahead. We had a family Mother’s Day Zoom meeting—including some of us in different rooms in the same house! There is no doubt that large, more urban and younger congregations are going to feel more at home with these things than smaller, older and rural congregations. But one of our neighbours has already been being provided with a CD recording of the Sunday service from his Methodist church, and you can arrange for audio material to be made available by phone.

There will be plenty of analysis over the coming weeks, as people refine their practice and find what works practically, pastorally, technologically and theologically. I think the cross-fertilisation of ideas could be very exciting. Having for various reasons exercise itinerant ministry and thus visited different churches, I am often struck by how much different churches could learn from one another, but rarely do, since those leading in one location rarely visit others. With ‘online church’, there is no limit to whom we can visit and what we can learn!

But behind all the practical questions, the most important thing that we can do in the current context is be pressed to think again about what ‘church’ is. Those involved in ’emerging church’ movements have repeatedly challenged us to think beyond ‘building plus ministry plus congregation’, though in some traditions these all continue to be of central importance. I was very moved to watch the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, wrestling with the loss of the central defining action of the Catholic Church, the celebration of mass, in clearly emotional terms, though offering some deep theological reflection:

But are there other ways we might want to think about ‘being the church’ when we cannot meet? There are a number of different images and ideas in the New Testament that bear reflecting on.

The main word translated ‘church’ is ekklesia. This does not really carry the connotations of ‘building’ or ‘institution’ that the English word ‘church’ does. (In fact, both ‘church’ and the Scottish ‘kirk’ derive from kyriakos meaning ‘belong to the Lord, the kyrios‘.) There are two backgrounds to this term. In the Greek OT, the term is used for the ‘congregation of [the sons of] Israel’, and so it suggests theological continuity, identity and discipline, so that the story of God’s dealings with his people in the past becomes our story. In wider Greek culture, the term was used for the gathering of citizens in the city, the polis, where news would be shared and decisions made. It therefore suggests that we are citizens of another kingdom, and our meeting together has been an important part of our self-government as those citizens, walking to a different beat from the citizens of this world amongst whom we live.

In Acts 2.42, Luke offers a summary description of what the new followers of Jesus were in the habit of doing. They met; they attended to the apostles’ teaching (which we continue in reading, studying and reflecting on the Scriptures); they prayer; and they broke bread, which had the double sense of eating meals together and eating The Meal together, remembering Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension and future coming. But Luke goes beyond this ‘gathered’ sense: they also provided for each other and those around, and spoke and acted so that others came to faith and joined them.

A primary characterisation in the New Testament of Christians is that they are ‘disciples’, that is, they actively sought to learn from and model their lives on their rabbi Jesus—and then, in turn, became disciples who made others into disciples. This is most clearly expressed in the ‘Great Commission’ in Matt 28.19 where we find the unusual word μαθητεύω, matheteuo, ‘to make disciples’, which Matthew has used earlier of ‘teachers of the law instructed in the kingdom’ (Matt 13.52) and of Joseph of Arimathea, who had been ‘made a disciple’ (Matt 27.57). It is also used just once by Luke in Acts 14.21: ‘They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples’—but in fact could have been used to describe most of the key events throughout Acts; this was a normal part of ‘church’ life.

We are a resurrection community living a resurrection hope. Paul both talks of the resurrection as central to the ‘tradition’ of the gospel in 1 Cor 15.4 (and makes it central to his recorded preaching, even in Athens in Acts 17.18, 31), but also as the defining meaning of baptism in Romans 6.3–4. In entering the water of baptism, our old live of sin and selfish human nature (the ‘flesh’) has been put to death (by drowning!), and when we emerge from the water we now live the resurrection life of Jesus, full of hope (Rom 5.5). I confess to have been surprised at how little this sense of hope beyond death has been mentioned by national church leaders in a time of unexpected death and disease.

Paul’s primary image for the ‘church’ is of the body of Christ—where our life is source and animated by our ‘head’ Jesus (this is the main meaning of this metaphor) and we are organically connected with one another. Although this is most obviously expressed in times of meeting (as we see in 1 Cor 12 and 14), it is as true when we are dispersed, and it derives from Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road where Jesus rebukes Paul not for persecuting ‘my people’ but for persecuting ‘me’.

Paul also describes the people of God as an eschatological community, that is, living in anticipation of the age to come, animated in this reality by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Peter 2.4–10, Peter describes us in a series of terms rooted in the OT narrative—a spiritual temple, a holy priesthood, offering sacrifices of praise, declaring God’s praises, receiving and showing mercy, formed together as a chosen people. It is by no means that case that all these things can only be expressed at times of meeting.

There will be other images that you might think of as well. But the challenge here is to consider all these, and then ask the question: in what ways can our being ‘online church’ express these and enable them to happen? It has been all too easy in the past to think that ‘building plus minister plus congregation’ expresses, supports and delivers all these things—but perhaps we have been too naive and optimistic! If, instead, we think about the kind of people God wants us to be, and then think about the most effective ways of being and doing that, perhaps our assumptions and practice when we can once again meet together, might look rather different.

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14 thoughts on “What is the meaning of ‘online church’?”

  1. ‘I confess to have been surprised at how little this sense of hope beyond death has been mentioned by national church leaders in a time of unexpected death and disease.’

    Surprised and disappointed. I listened to a service from Australia late Saturday night, Bp Paul Barker. Would that all our Bishops had such a clear understanding of, and confidence in, the gospel.

  2. 1.That was was one of the first things that struck me too, Lynda, but gleaned from the comments sections on many of Ian’s articles, I don’t find it surprising that no hope beyond death is offered. Beyond fear of the 100% certainty for all of us: death. The bodily resurrection of Jesus may be mouthed but not believed.
    2. An aspect of all this which doesn’t seem to have been raised in many quarters, was something I came across yesterday in a podcast discussion I listened to : the two kingdom theology and the relationship between state and church and how that plays out in the current circumstances.
    3 As we are drawn, pulled in, constricted and restrained how do we engage expansively with the gospel.
    4 Is the medium the message? While I didn’t watch it all, my impression of the AoC in his garb and surroundings was how out of touch with reality, how distancing, how “other” it was, at arms length, an essay, without an intimacy, preaching, bad and good news.
    5 As a congregant I really don’t understand this push for being “interactive” in a service, so that now we can have a tweet-along, like-along, emoji – along service, for people who might not even sing – along, praise-along, confess-along, read-along, listen along, amen-along.
    6 As much as I appreciated our You tube service, with live comments available, yesterday with inputs from two ministers, from their studies, one informally dressed and scripture readings and prayers from members from their homes, and recorded worship songs with text, used with permission, from Keswick ministries and others with an excellent sermon joining Exodus and 1 Corinthians: idolatry, breach of 2nd commandment, judgement, mercy, Jesus with pertinent present day applications (we were “virtually” closer, than social distancing guidelines, to all involved than in the church building, a greater intimacy) there was something missing.
    7 What was missing was the effort and commitment needed to go to a service. It was too easy for all who watched, listened in. As the minister said, it could be watched in whatever we were wearing in bed.
    8 What wasn’t missing was the quality and personal, “close-up” intimacy of the sermon, perhaps more so than in an actual service from n metres away. Indeed if it was being watched alone in isolation, it could have come across as individually personal.
    9 I’ve listened to much online teaching and preaching including conferences and none of them had that sense of immediacy. It is, in effect, “distance learning discipleship” along with book reading as a substitute for some in house church discipleship. Is there not an individual responsibility to make an effort to be fed?
    10 A good number of year ago I recall reading articles about what was termed “hyper-reality” and our seeming preference for it, where screen images appear more real than than being actually physically present. There is an actual spacial distance in both instances but screen may appear more real and intimate. Even when we are at a live event, we may be drawn to a live screen view.
    11 I recall reading that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that it was when people stopped taking down notes of his sermon, they were really listening. There can be a sense of God being there in live preaching and services, of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and work that I’m not sure can come across, on screen. The adage, “you had to be there,” I’m unsure can be replicated on screen though I stand to be corrected.
    12 It would be good to hear from someone who through sight difficulties would have not been able to watch the services yesterday, only listen. How would it compare to, say, listening to Premier Radio on a Sunday morning. I think they attempt a communion service, though I don’t know the process.

  3. Thanks Ian, Lynda and Geoff. I took to heart Geoff picking up on Martin Lloyd-Jones. In my dotage I find it hard to listen. Since retirement I generally take notes on a sermon, how sad that I haven’t learned to listen properly.

    • Hello Ray,
      Did your path ever cross with some I know now, but didn’t then: he was a sometime vicar at St. Stephen’s CoE, lower Elswick; don’t know the dates -Clifford Hedley?
      As you’ll be aware there is a huge library of MLJ’s recorded sermons online, free to listen to, download. His vocabulary is of its time, and the recordings are sometimes scratchy, but to me remain timeless, for today.

      • When I was a student Dennis Lennon was a curate at the church I attended. I recall him describing how he attended MLJ’s talks on Ephesians. When these had reached chapter 2, Dennis was called up for national service (that dates it!). When he returned from that 18 months later, MLJ had reached chapter 3. Maybe these talks would be good for us isolated at home!

        • Hello David,
          They are readily found with a search, but just in case here is the link to free and freely downloadable, sermons (232 on Ephesians!).


          Invariably they are 1 hour long each, with no bloat filler. I understand he didn’t use notes.
          His opening is always in the same very short format, but one for the Friday evening open (what, today, may be termed “invitation”) services, one for the assembled church, Sunday morning.
          Some older sermons were recorded on paper tape, which are much more difficult to listen to.
          I’ve downloaded a number of them onto my phone. They are certainly not of today’s style(s), tastes. Interactive, they are not.

  4. I do hope the current crisis will bring a fresh and compassionate look at the needs of those who had already been forced into isolation from church by sickness and disability, shift work, sole parenting or caring etc

  5. Ok lay person here warning; apologies if this comes across as too critical. I watched in full or part three services on Sunday. Two from churches where I’ve been a member in the past and one which is partly online anyway.

    I liked: seeing who else was attending (Facebook stream) and their comments, linking up in community with people I knew/have known for years; thoughtful prayers with pauses to add my own intercessions, silence in community is good; the honesty and humour when things didn’t go smoothly, it’s a learning curve and the effort is appreciated hugely.

    I didn’t so much appreciate: live music, performance v participation; a long sermon – concentration was hard as someone above said; long prayers – inviting a response would have involved me more; too much done by one person, appreciate there are technical challenges. In short a normal Sunday put online didn’t work for me.

    To stress, I am very grateful to those who did online. The church we’ve gone to since moving last year is producing a weekly service sheet so feeling rather adrift. Have found this brief compline v helpful https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ai15F_69mJc

    Sorry for rambling; trying to process thoughts.

    • ‘In short a normal Sunday put online didn’t work for me.’ I totally agree. The medium is different, with a different dynamic. To get the same effect you need to do different things. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • we live-streamed a service last sunday with just a handful of us in church –
        It was somewhat shorter and rather different in style – and given the situation, also in tone. It was perhaps snappier – the talk was broken up into 3x 4minute slots – prayers were more formal, a pianist leading singing but not a long ‘worship’ section etc

        whilst over 1500 tuned in for some or all of it live, and double that watched the recording subsequently and comments were positive at the time, what surprised me was there was some criticism subsequently that it wasn’t authentic or true to our ‘usual’ services n style. mmmmm well these are unusual times and our usual 30mins singing & 40minute sermons are not gonna work online.

        Now that we have been instructed that we cannot live stream a service as last week – we will be attempting something with Zoom – we had a prayer mtng by zoom last night and over 200 joined in!!!

        I am a technophobe but I am intrigued how this online medium attracted more congregants on sunday and participants at a prayer meeting than usual. It is also clear that it must be done ‘differently’ than normal services

  6. For interest, or grist to the Anglican research mill.
    An up-date e-mail circular from the minister included this info: there were 110 concurrent views and so far 382 people have viewed the service.

  7. Great article Ian, thank you…. I’m a lay person too so please forgive but I’m seeing a different angle.

    At my churches “virtual” service I felt spiritually more engaged than I do on a normal Sunday service. I almost feel slightly guilty about that but on reflection I think the reason why is that it felt like we, as a local church, were fighting back against Covid 19 in some kind of way. That may be a reflection of current church being a little too comfortable, but the challange to keep meeting, to keep praying together, to keep talking about the Gospel, somehow, felt up lifting.

    Seeing how my kids have adapted to isolation is an eye opener. They don’t seem to have a problem with it at all, infact I can see how they are more connected, more interactive, and more engaged in social relationships, albeit “virtually”. There is an entire new world “out there”. That world feels very devoid of the Gospel message. What does “church” look like in that new world. In a Mark 16:15 kind of way maybe what Covid 19 is going to do is help us to recognize the need to learn to preach the Gospel in a new way, into a new part of His creation?!


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