It’s been a year since COVID-19 first drove churches from their buildings. For many churches, this marked their first foray into online ministry. When it first began, I was serving as the Director of Digital Platforms for Grace to You. And I can’t count how many pastors contacted us asking where to begin. Most had never live-streamed a service before; many didn’t even have a website.
In a matter of weeks, however, just about every church in the world was suddenly streaming their Sunday services. And many went even further in their efforts to serve their digital diaspora. They created blogs, weekly video updates, emails, and stepped up their social media communications. Though it has saddened me to see congregations not meeting in person, my heart leaps at the online ministry opportunities this pandemic has opened our eyes to.
I fear, however, that once this is all over, churches will abandon many of their online efforts. So, allow me to offer you three reasons your church should not only continue doing online ministry post-COVID, but actually expand its efforts.
A Supplement Not a Substitute
One of the mistakes many churches made early on in the pandemic was treating their live-stream services as though they were a replacement for in-person gatherings. The church, by definition, is an assembly. A live-stream cannot replace that. But that does not mean online ministry has no place once things get back to normal. Online ministry as a supplement, not a substitute, to in-person gatherings, is a common grace we should not give up.
Just last week, I was speaking with a group of pastors from various churches in my area. One raised this question to the other pastors, “When are you planning to stop live-streaming your services?” I was surprised to hear most of the other pastors say they hoped to stop as soon as possible. That response makes sense if online services are being treated merely as a substitute for in-person meeting. When the perfect comes, what need have we for the imperfect, right?
But many churches have been doing live-streaming for years, long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. And it wasn’t just the mega-churches with their “online campuses” who were doing it. Some streamed services because they wanted to serve their missionaries and those who were physically limited from attending. If you are able, you should continue live-streaming services for those who truly cannot attend. If the concern is that some will default to online services out of laziness and neglect, that’s a shepherding issue, not a technology issue. But I actually want to talk about more than just live-streaming.
I believe there are two aspects to a church’s online ministry efforts, the first and primary is as a supplement for serving your congregation. The priority of pastors and individual believers should be ministering within their local church. Continue to take advantage of technology where it aids in that priority.
But there should be a second aspect of our online efforts: Outreach. And in my experience, most churches have never even considered how they can participate in online outreach.
You Want to Go Where the People Are
Have you ever wondered what the apostles would have done if they had the internet? We can’t know for sure, but I think we can speculate based on the principles we see in Acts and the epistles.
First, when the apostles preached the gospel in a new city where did they go? They went to the city centers and the synagogues (Acts 17:1–2, 22). They went to where the people were gathered. The apostles understood that if they wanted to reach the maximum number of people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they had to go where the people gathered. But where is that gathering place in our day? Where is the one place everyone is? They are online. The whole world is jacked into the internet through their phones all day long.
Second, the apostles utilized the latest communications technology. When they couldn’t be face-to-face, they supplemented that ministry with written communication. Our communication technologies have come a bit further than handwritten letters, however. We have access to email, text, video calls, blogs, YouTube, podcasts, social media, even TikTok. Some balk at the idea of ministering on those platforms because they are so filled with nonsense and wickedness. But isn’t that precisely why we must go there with the truth of God’s Word?
I am convinced that the Lord has given our generation the internet as a tool to be stewarded in the proclamation of the gospel. Yet, I look around at how little our churches are doing online and I have to wonder if we, like the wicked servant, are simply burying that talent (Matthew 25:14-30).
Online Ministry Is Missions
Imagine if we knew of a tribe in some far-off country who were begging to know, “What must we do to be saved?”, but no one was going to them with the gospel. We would spare no expense or effort to send missionaries to those people, right? Why then, when multitudes cry out every hour into internet search boxes and social media feeds, do we feel no similar compulsion to reach them?
Perhaps it’s because we think the work is already being done by bigger ministries or bigger churches. What could my little church possibly add? But the internet can never have too much sound Christian content. We are in no danger of oversaturating Instagram with too much biblical teaching, too much gospel, or too much praising of God. Just do the best you can, and don’t be surprised when God multiplies your efforts.
Our Lord commissioned us to go to the ends of the earth with the message of the cross. And the ends of the earth now have Wi-Fi.
What Could Online Ministry Look Like in Your Church?
Let me conclude by offering some suggestions for how you might establish an online ministry in your own church.
First, get a bigger vision for the outreach side of online ministry. It is much more than your church’s website, live-stream, sermons, and blog. Those are primarily focused on serving your own congregation. That’s great. Keep doing it! But consider Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms as well.
How might you create derivative and original resources for those platforms? By derivative, I mean having someone chop up sermon clips, or turning a single point of a sermon into blog posts. And by original, I mean creating content just for the purpose of online outreach. Sit down with a camera and answer common questions about the Bible, the gospel, and Christian living. Then post those on various platforms. Once it’s out there, you never know who it will reach.
Second, consider allocating resources to a dedicated online ministry. This may include financial resources, people, and equipment. The amazing thing is that with all the free platforms out there, most of this requires no money at all. And there are young people in your church who understand these platforms who would love to serve and even help give direction to a ministry like this. If you’re a pastor, find them, disciple them, deploy them. And if you are a church member reading this and wishing your church had such a ministry, maybe you could be the one to start it!
Third, if your church truly doesn’t have the capacity to begin doing something like this yourselves, consider having your church partner financially with parachurch ministries that are doing online ministry. Imagine what would happen if just a small percentage of churches increased their missions budget to accommodate online outreach efforts.
We rightly rejoice as this season of upheaval in our churches draws to an end. But the temptation will be to slide back into old habits. I’m begging you, though, please don’t lay aside your online efforts. Redouble them.
The temptation is to think that enough is already being done by other ministries. It is not. We won’t be done until every smartphone, computer, social network, podcast directory, and YouTube channel redounds to the glory of God.
Let’s seize this opportunity and reach the world for Christ through online ministry.