Online Church—Are There Ramifications for Ecclesial Movements?

The Covid-19 breakout placed the global church in a unique situation. Churches were forced to utilize social media or sources like Zoom to maintain connections with their congregations. While the church should be thankful for technological opportunities, we should be aware of possible hindrances to long-term “isolation.” Albeit, platforms such as Zoom can be highly beneficial and should be praised for their ability to sustain connectivity. 

Covid-19 may have exposed humanity to a virus, but the impact that it has had on the church could be costly regarding ecclesial movements. No one would argue that social media platforms performed as a much-needed service and presence of stability during a time of instability. The leap to online church was not difficult for most Western churches. Many evangelical churches were already broadcasting services over the same networks—they seemed prepared (as much as prepared can be) for the situation. However, now there seems to be a select few that desire to never look back upon the congregational gathering. While I have significant doctrinal issues with “neglecting the gathering the of the saints” (Heb. 10:25), I have more significant practical problems.

I believe sustained online church strategies will quench the guidance of the Holy Spirit, create reproducible disciple-making obstacles, and hinder the innovative pioneering needed for ecclesial movements. With that stated, I primarily desire to focus on the latter of the three in this short article, hoping to write about the former at another time.

So, let’s address the question: what may be two apparent ramifications for the long-term online church regarding ecclesial movements?

Collaborative Apathy

Corporations spend billions of dollars in research and development (R & D). For the most part, organizations utilize the collective collaboration of innovative thinkers and analysts to make important decisions about their products and marketing. Subsequently, Covid-19 disrupted the flow of analytical in-person collaboration. Corporations were forced to use social media or tech platforms to unite their employees like the church.

As Covid restrictions were universally lifted, corporations analyzed data and noted a reduction in their financial overhead. Online employees were not utilizing corporate buildings—hence corporations began to sell off their office space. Perceived as a winning solution—remote work thrived. Businesses envisioned a paradigm shift of savings and streamlining.

Why is corporation data relevant to ecclesial movements? We know that culture has shifted from the church to the marketplace. People are the workplace as much as people are the church—basically, the same people! The people who work from home are also the same people watching online church services. There’s an ease of isolated lifestyles—drinking the money coffee is solace, reporting to work or watching a church service in pajamas, or hitting mute and eating crunchy cookies—yet perhaps it produces a collaborated yet individual apathy of collective motivation. 

A recent study of US employees indicates that 75% of those surveyed preferred working remotely at least once a week—while 40% stated that they would leave their job if required to full-time in-person work.[1] While people choose to work from home, those preferences weigh on faith and worship preferences. What happens in organizational and leadership culture tends to overflow into the church.

A recent Lifeway Research study indicates that pastors view disciple-making strategies and technological skills as two of the most prominent areas of needed development.[2] The correlation between online church and culture is evident—pastors feel the pressure of trying to connect with congregants. While refraining from using “lack of gathering” terminology, the reality is that online church is producing a collaborative apathy among believers. While technology is a good tool for the church to utilize, it has also relegated the essential nature of the communion and fellowship of the saints as optional. However, this is not the most significant ramification of online church.

Hindering Innovative Pathways

A study involving Europe, Asia, and the Middle East found that “videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas.”[3] I would love to confess, “I told you so,” but I don’t want to be that guy. Yet, the study is not surprising if one understands that people are created in the image of God. As image-bearers, people were made for relationships.[4]Within relationship building is communication. Communicative attributes are not solely verbal but very much non-verbal. 

            The manner in which someone rolls their eyes at a new thought or concept, the shifting of weight in a chair, sounds, sighs, and grunts all provide clues and insightful feedback when discussing essential concepts. With the conference call on Zoom, many of those vital non-verbals escape notice—especially when microphones are muted or a screen video feed is briefly turned off. However, non-verbals are not the only suppression of collaborative idea generation.

            One study notes the dilemmas between eye focus, video conferencing, and in-person collaboration. The video-conferencing participants only view what they see broadcasted from their colleague’s narrow screen. In-person collaboration requires sharing the same space and “visual scope.”[5] The reality is that “idea generation … requires cognitive focus and analytical reasoning … virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation,” recognizing that “videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus.”[6]Understanding that the research and analysis of the extensive studies by major corporations may not be producing the outcomes they expected. Before corporations begin mass sell-off of office space, some conclude that innovative pioneering occurs best in person.

            How might this information directly reveal the hindrance to creating innovative pathways for church multiplication strategies? While the Holy Spirit can direct an individual through a video feed as easily as in-person, human relationships thrive and were designed to use the five senses (touch, smell, see, hear, and taste). Perhaps the sense of taste seems ridiculous, but coffee and donuts or shared meals are still the number one way gospel conversations occur. 

            The online church could be hindering congregants from having idea-generating conversations. One may argue that these conversations are not occurring in person either, but they cannot be cultivated or experienced without human interaction. Historically, the most remarkable church movements were established and sustained through human interaction, idea generation, and strategic gospel multiplication.

Conclusion

I believe it is wise for the church to look into some of the corporate research. While the church is not a corporation, it is a body of believers that manifests the power of the Holy Spirit and the collective love of Christ. If the church is to reach neighborhoods and communities, strategic divine ideas are essential. We should not neglect our innate senses, design for a person-to-person relationship, communication, and life-on-life.


[1] Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N. & Davis, S. J. “Don’t force people to come back to the office full time.” Harvard Business Review (24 August 2021).

[2] Marissa Postell, “Pastors Say They Need to Develop Disciple-Making, Technology Skills,” Lifeway Research, https://research.lifeway.com/2022/03/29/pastors-say-they-need-to-develop-disciple-making-technology-skills/

[3] Brucks, M.S., Levav, J. “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation.” Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04643-y

[4] Matthew Fretwell, Multiplying Jesus: Missionary Preparedness (Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 2022), 64.

[5] Brucks and Levav. 

[6] Simon, H. A. A behavioral model of rational choice. Q. J. Econ. 69, 99–118 (1955).