We had a livestream as a bit of an afterthought to our wonderful in-person community prior to the pandemic. We had no idea how much community could take place on the "other side" of that lens once it had to be situated there. (Credit: Timothy R. Butler)

Is a Church Online a Real Community?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:40 PM

What makes for genuine community? Everyone had to wrestle with that in 2020 when community as we had thought of it was abruptly severed. Four years later, we continue to grasp for the precise answer to the question in our moment.

Earlier this week I saw a pastor making a common assertion: “online church” isn’t “real.” COVID pushed even online-hesitant churches to stream and engage online, but there is pushback that would argue, emergency having passed, that the only appropriate way forward is back to how things had been.

I’ve had a firsthand seat to mull the controversy. As a church “planter” (a pastor who starts a new church), I was busy preparing for our April 2020 inaugural service when the pandemic struck. In the ensuing fear and uncertainty, I launched a small livestream ahead of our planned kickoff hoping to offer comfort from the Bible during the “two weeks to stop the spread” and the “extra week” thereafter before we were to have that first service.

As days rolled into weeks into months into years and our planned launch date was in the rearview window without any launching going on, the live stream became the church “building.” It was meant to just be a temporary bandage until we could launch, but became much more.

Little Hills Church isn’t just online, mind you. We never lost the goal to launch in-person and we did start having people-in-the-chairs church services nearly two years ago. But, by the time we could, our “community” had come to encompass folks from thousands of miles away who were as involved as those who now show up on a Sunday.

As we sought to foster community using what tools we had in a bizarre time, that community formed by God’s grace in a uniquely 2020 way. Community — church or otherwise — has a lot more to do with intentionality than its physical nature or lack thereof.

Especially for those who find the term “online community” oxymoronic, the picture of online church is Televangelism 2.0. A service shows up on screen and the amount of “community” is as non-existent as if you watched Dr. Schuller on The Hour of Power thirty years ago. That is not what a “Hybrid Church,” as we’ve come to refer to ourselves as — or any similar “hybrid community” — looks like.

Regular readers know I am a bonafide geek. Like many who spent time on the more pioneering days of the Internet, days of listservs and the most nascent parts of the blogosphere, I formed longtime, genuine friendships with people I’ve never actually met in person. The early ‘net felt ripe for it — a bunch of the tech-savvy folks interested in any subject, gathering and talking using a novel medium.

Despite that background, I didn’t set out to plant a hybrid church. Of course, church is something that happens with people physically gathered together, right? God used the pandemic to make me rethink things. That experience opened me to a far more out-of-the-box form of intentional (church) community.

If it could be, the next question was how could it be? As we continued to meet online waiting for the right post-pandemic time, we worked on that question together. We didn’t figure everything out, but the rough draft thus far has been incredible.

The in-person church is richer for the online that goes with it. We have church family members who faithfully participate in the full life of the church we wouldn’t otherwise get to share in this community with. By embracing electronic, two-way communication throughout the week, even those in-person on Sunday interact far more than I’ve seen in previous churches I’ve attended or ministered in.

This is the intentional community aspect that I believe turns online church from consumer-driven Televangelism 2.0 to an authentic fellowship. (The same could be said about any attempt to merge the online with in-person gatherings I believe, although it takes on a special weight when dealing with worship of God, naturally.)

Every church is going to have people who come and go with little sharing in the community. People who are consumers of a service rather than “family members.” Counter the reaction against online church, though, as we’ve gathered in-person and online, I’ve personally seen deeper engagement and less consumerism. The means we use to allow online members to engage serve also to make our brick-and-mortar members more intentional throughout the week.

In-person or online, 2020 taught us to spend more time thinking about being deliberate in having community rather than the all-consuming importance of how we gather that community. That’s a lesson useful concerning church, but much more broadly, too.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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