Another Sunday morning service is over. Today, our onsite congregation was maybe two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels, but with fewer chairs out, it looked decently full. Anyway, I drive home and, during the afternoon, I notice the views on YouTube. As usual, the number is surprisingly high. Not the ridiculously high numbers we saw in the heady days of 2020, but still intriguing. And I find myself asking the same questions, who ARE all these people? And, will they ever attend physical church? In these dark winter mornings, church from home is easy and convenient, but it doesn’t look like this trend will end just because the pandemic ends. Some people like doing church from home.
The pandemic wasn’t a blip, it was a reset
Is this a new face of church for the 21st century? Is it a Fresh Expression of church? Or is it this another face of consumerism and not really “church” at all?
Some have no choice: those who need to isolate, or work shift patterns, or who are “just looking”. For all these groups, online church is a Godsend. But there are many other around the country who choose to do church at home. And it’s not the “home” bit that’s the problem – house churches have been around since the first century. It’s more the fact that we are doing church alone.
Working from home … shopping from home … churching from home?
Church has become optional
Attending church in a physical building became “optional” long before COVID. In our individualistic western world, church over many years has become secondary, a private pastime to blend with a busy life when convenient. So perhaps home church actually helps these people to engage, at least to an extent? But at best, home church is a thinned-down imitation of church. It may even encourage the idea that church is simply another “life accessory”.
Premier’s Digital Theologian Pete Phillips points out that, when COVID first hit, many churches started off engaging their online audience in innovative ways, including online spaces to meet for coffee, Zoom house-groups, and online ways to request prayer. But now, they side-line the online congregation favouring a smaller core who physically meet. He says, “… often live-streaming services is simply putting your physical church service online. It is a broadcast experience which leads to the congregation simply consuming a piece of media …. When I (physically) come to church, I am part of a community – saying hello to friends, asking how people are, drinking the coffee… a rich multisensory experience which shows why church is so much more than live streaming”.
The Lead Minister at my own church, Jonathan Bramwell, agrees, “When we meet, we are naturally drawn to looking after the visible rather than the unknowns. The occasional shout out, ‘… welcome to those online!’ doesn’t really cut it in terms of trying to be a hybrid church. I feel we are drifting back to being a live church but with a streamed service. Is this model of any use? Or does it offer the worst of both worlds? We need to do more reflection”.
Home church also means there is no sense of discipleship or accountability. People may engage some of the time or none of the time or get their teaching from sources that might concern a church leadership team. It is disconnected from the living body of the church, and it is creating the impression among a generation of children that “… church is watching YouTube”.
We are drifting back to being a live church but with a streamed service — is this the worst of both worlds?
But then a good question to ask is:
What is church?
You would think this would be easy to answer and, if you ask a non-Christian, it is easy – you just point vaguely to a church building. But theologians have struggled to define what makes a church a church.
The identifiers or “marks of church” are classically defined in The Creeds as “one”, “holy”, “catholic”, and “apostolic”. But, if you are sitting on your couch at home, wondering whether you are really doing church, these marks don’t help. Others have tried to define church around phrases like “a mystical communion”.
A more practical explanation comes from the Archbishops’ Council. In their book, Mission Shaped Church, they state that the church is where the Word is preached, and the sacraments celebrated (baptism and communion/eucharist). In addition, they say, church requires worship and community. OK, that says that a church has five elements, the Word, Baptism, Communion, Worship and Community. Not a bad definition. No matter which Christian tradition you belong to, you can’t do all these, home alone. (Although, if you occasionally drop into a physical church, maybe you can?)
Of course, all definitions of church pre-date the idea of pandemics and online congregations, so perhaps we need new definitions?
Could home-church become a Fresh Expression of church?
In the late nineties, the Fresh Expressions movement (FX) began. FX flies in the face of the “bums on seats” church mentality that we often have if we’re honest. Fresh Expressions reverses the “attractional” approach of drawing people to a building on Sunday and reverts to an “incarnational” approach of enabling people to become church exactly where they are, (“incarnational” loosely means Christ coming to us, not the other way around).
At its heart is a desire to engage with people who don’t go to church. One of the best-known examples of FX is “Messy Church”, a mix of games, crafts, Bible stories and food run in public buildings across the country. But there are hundreds of other examples of FX, including bikers meeting in a pub to talk about Jesus, and mums’ breakfast clubs. The question “is this church?” is not one that troubles advocates of FX. Their goal is to bring gospel to people in specific contexts, such as dads, or farmers, or a book club.
We have work to do before home-church could be considered a Fresh Expression. We especially need better ways of building community online. Getting the social experience right is the hardest part.
Is this “church”? … Does it matter?
What matters most
We are all accustomed to the phrase “the church is the people not the building”. But even those Christian traditions which downplay buildings (including mine) would say, after two years of repeated closures, that buildings are rather helpful in gathering the church. More than that, a building can facilitate many activities we need to flourish. It can occupy a central place in people’s lives, a place of conversation, hospitality, humour, purpose, and, for some, it’s a place to pass the time.
Can you do all those things online? Yes, you can. Do you want to? No, not really. Zoom coffee and chat just isn’t the same, as we learnt early on in COVID. But on the other hand, online prayer does seem to have caught on. Some things actually work really well online.
The pandemic isn’t a blip, it’s a reset. We have to accept that the face of church has changed and it won’t change back just because the pandemic goes away. Many of our churches will have a smaller core in the building and a larger, new “fringe” online compared to pre-pandemic. This fringe will include church members who prefer church at home, people who attend multiple churches online, and people who are surfing for reasons we are yet to discover.
Looking ahead, asking “what are the non-negotiable elements of church” may be less important than the question: how do we reach out to this fringe of church who we may never see? And there is an even more basic question. Do we want to create an authentic fresh expression of church for people at home, or do we really want to flush out our congregation and get them back in the building?
Is this a new face of church for the 21st century?