2020 came with the usual amount of fanfare and fireworks at 00:00am January the 1st. Little did we all know that whispers of a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan at the time would escalate in a matter of months to pandemic proportions with a response that would turn our normal way of life upside-down.
Not even in the World Wars had churches in the UK been forced to stop meeting, but now for the first time in 800 years (yeh, read up on that dispute between the Pope and King John!) this became a reality. In a timeframe that felt something like overnight, every church and its leaders across the nation were forced to consider how to continue being church without being able to meet physically in their buildings. It’s always said that a church is its people and not the building – but when even the people can’t meet, what then?
Enter the digital revolution.
Some tech-savvy and generally well-funded churches had already gone through this transformation. Think ‘church’ and ‘livestream’ or ‘YouTube’ and some of our American mega-churches friends may spring to mind, who have long employed incredibly expensive, full-scale and very impressive broadcast productions to enable people to watch and engage with their services and other resources online. But suddenly, even those of us struggling to put together enough pennies to fix the church roof and don’t know an IP address from a postcode, were confronted with the necessity of moving our services and community interaction online.
Ministers, pastors, vicars and church leaders rose to the challenge with great determination. There were hiccups and humourous mistakes along the way (don’t forget to turn off those filters) but for the most part, depending largely on money available and the skills of our volunteers, even the smallest of parish churches managed to get at least something going online. And yes, it was easy to be constantly comparing to other churches that probably had hugely better resources at their disposal. But let’s just celebrate the fantastic achievement that having something actually is for the majority. For many, livestreaming services or having leadership meetings via Zoom was not something they had ever considered before. They thought the technology was too complicated, too inaccesible for the elderly, too expensive to contemplate. But over weeks and months, we all started to see the wealth of benefits that having online, digital content brings to the table. We saw Skype prayer meetings, Eunice sign up for facebook at the age of 98 in order to see the service, families being resourced with material for kids to do at home as part of their learning, immobile or infirm congregation members able to take part in meetings from their sofa, and perhaps most significantly, 24% of UK adults tuning in to an online religious service. Not only did the improvement to community engagement become clear, but also the outreach potential of digital media announced itself loudly. It has become clear that if faith is a journey, digital media can be the start.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Churches can’t simply remain online only. But in the current climate, it did the job.
So what now going forward?
At Digichurch we firmly believe one way God is bringing good from this crisis is by getting the whole of His church body to move into the digital age. Digital media isn’t simply about convienience or ‘looking good.’ For churches, it is fundamentally about being able to engage and communicate properly with our local communities in the modern world – the digital age. It is possibly the biggest shift in communication for churches since the printing press started to make Bibles widely available in English. Yet generally, the church is notoriously and regrettably very slow to respond to change. Thankfully, this time has been an exception and that is worth celebrating. But if these immediate successes are to become foundational legacies, churches must move from response into re-think.
As we emerge square-eyed and Zoom-fatigued from the gradually easing lockdown measures, this is a critical point for all churches to form a digital media strategy that is sustainable, cost-effective, and appropriate to their context and vision.
This is something that we are incredibly excited about. Digital media is truly scalable to churches of all shapes and sizes, and if supported with the proper resources and training, all church leadership teams and volunteers will be able to employ digital media to expand outreach, improve community engagement, and elevate discipleship. At the same time, as we’ve already mentioned, there are definite pitfalls that must be avoided. Poor quality content can deter visitors, too much can make congregations fatigued or even resentful, and placing the onus on already-stretched leaders to carry the unrelenting responsibility of content creation and learning the technology can negatively impact their primary ministry of caring for the flock. Investing in the wrong tech based on inexperienced advice can also cost the church a lot of money. Careful planning, effective support and value of quality are key things to bear in mind to get digital media right going forward.
Digital media is here to stay, whether we like it or not. Churches must use it as the incredibly useful tool it is. They must let it compliment physical activities but not replicate or replace (unless it helps!), drive vision but not hinder, and integrate not isolate in communication strategy.
We can’t wait to help churches see the digital media revolution become a success story. And at all times, let it be only an aid to the great commandment:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.Matthew 28:19