In my office I have one wall painted with chalkboard paint. The last thing I wrote on it was written March 12, the day I decided to close down our public gatherings. It reads, "May, you will not recognize us."
On May 24 we reopened our campus to onsite worship and we did look different. Now as we close out June, we still look different. We have new faces. We're missing old faces. Everyone is still scattered sparsely throughout our large marked off auditorium. It feels like we're missing a bunch of people because they're not at 4041 Bahia Vista Street. But if you look at the sum total of people joining us onsite plus online, our "attendance" is actually double what it was this time last year.
Wow. Who knew?
Of course it doesn't feel that way. Only 25% of us meet onsite. The other 75% join us online, with 44% watching the service as it's streamed ("watch party" style), and 31% watching it on their own time (on demand).
If you look at the numbers we are now an online church with an onsite presence. We used to be an onsite church with an online presence.
What do we make of this? Is it the wave of the future?
If you listen to the chatter among the experts, some say churches should prepare to not see a return to "normal" for a couple years. Others think that's ridiculous, that people are just chomping at the bit to return. And others speculate that we'll never again see the kind of onsite attendance we used to, that online is the future of the church.
Personally, I think online is the future of the church. But I also believe we'll see a renewed interest in meeting onsite as health concerns subside. And I also believe that some people will realize they like online church better than onsite church, and it won't be because they're lazy Christians.
I'll say that again: It won't be because they're lazy Christians.
For generations "church attendance" was a measure of Christian faithfulness. We knew if a person was blacksliding because they stopped coming to church. But was that really the measure of Christian faithfulness? Most of us can think of many examples of lazy Christians who attend church faithfully.
What if there's a new way to be church? Honestly, much of what we think of as "being church" is really just being part of a cultural expression of church. That's not to say it's meaningless. To the contrary, it's very meaningful. But it's not the only meaningful expression.
And I do believe Christian fellowship is part of faithfulness. I just don't think Sunday morning church is necessarily the most meaningful fellowship. It can be. I just don't think it automatically is.
Like I said, I believe many of us will return to onsite worship gatherings where we express ourselves in the ways we find meaningful, even if less populated for a time. But I think we'll also see new expressions that we should embrace and celebrate, even nurture.
Not only do I imagine that those things will happen, I pray that they will, for the sake of God's kingdom. There certainly is something to the onsite gathering that will always be wonderful. But there is something about the online gathering that onsite doesn't offer. With onsite gatherings people come to church. But with online gatherings, church goes to the people.
Let's do both. And let's do it well. May God fill the world with love joy and peace as we sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship near and far.
I wonder how you have been relating to onsite and online church? And how do you see yourself relating to both in the future? Would you please help me understand by taking a minute to fill out this survey?
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.