The Virtual Church Is Real

…time to figure out what to do with it!


The Barna Group published findings of a recent study.

They surveyed senior pastors on their use of the internet and present interesting statistics on the future of the Virtual Church.


There is a problem with this survey. It polled pastors. Asking pastors to judge the effectiveness of internet ministry is like asking hunter-gatherers to evaluate farm equipment.shutterstock_183504395


One of the first statistics presented in the report points this out.

  • 96% of senior pastors use a computer at church
  • only 39% use that computer to access the internet


They are either using the computer as an abacus or they are just so focused on what they are doing that they think they exist in isolation of their communities and the rest of the world.


About a year ago, I looked up pastors on LinkedIn, the social media platform used by professionals. I probably was looking for one person and one thing led to another. That’s what happens on the internet!


Many were not on LinkedIn. Of those that were listed on LinkedIn, a large percentage had their profiles locked—private.


This reveals an interesting attitude. Do pastors not want to be found? Do they not want to witness!?


Why did they bother taking the time to sign up at all? Sharing is what LinkedIn and most of the internet is about.


Pastors Make Snail-like Progress

The Barna Group report shows that pastors are making progress from their answers to a similar survey in 2000, but the statistics still reveal slow acceptance of the greatest mission tool the world has ever known. Below is a screen shot of the infographic which is part of the referenced post. It is at the bottom of the long infographic and you might miss it. It is very revealing!


The Barna Group report is comparing the year 2000 with 2015—fifteen of the most fast-paced years of change in world. The advent of the desktop computer, which started all this, was circa 1985. So, it took 15 years for pastors to reach 35% in their vision for the future. Another 15 years to make another 19%. While the rest of the world is at 100% and moving full-steam ahead!


So let’s ponder why the Church faces such challenges today . . . .  Hmmmm?




What Would A Survey of Lay Leaders reveal?

I suspect that the statistics would be very different had the survey polled lay leaders.


How has the internet changed the lives of parishioners in the last 15 years?


A similar poll in most of the workplaces and homes of the people pastors expect to come to church would have 100% acceptance across the board.


You can bet we laity use the internet to find answers to biblical and spiritual questions. We are surfing to find resources to help teach Sunday School, etc. We share thoughts, photos, and videos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Our work could be benefiting our congregations! (Several 2×2 readers regularly PIN 2×2 object lessons! Thanks!)


The people the Church wants to reach are on the internet every day. The Church, for the most part, is somewhere else, still waiting for people to come to them on Sunday morning.


Even congregations with snappy websites are not using their sites for outreach and relationship-fostering—key benefits of online ministry.


The Experience

Six years ago, a bishop declared 2×2’s parent church, Redeemer Lutheran in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, closed. (Lutheran bishops don’t really have that power.) She deemed our congregation of 82 members too small to achieve a missional purpose. Our money and property were confiscated. Pastors fled. But we were not closed. We were locked out. There’s a difference.


We took our ministry online. It costs only about $50 a year to have an internet presence! We named our online ministry after the reference to Jesus sending disciples out in teams of two as recorded in Mark 6:7.


Truth be told, we didn’t know what we were getting into when we started our congregation’s website. We knew only that our denomination was thinking in the past!


Frankly, one reason for 2×2’s success may be that we suddenly had no pastor. We could launch our site without any protocol.


Our initial objective was to keep our congregation in touch and grounded in what we knew was our missional purpose.


That objective was easily achieved.


We soon saw even greater opportunity. We became pioneers in online ministry!


Four years into our experiment we are reaching more people each year than we reached in our entire 100 years of neighborhood ministry. Now that’s fulfilling missional purpose! And we feel like we are still just beginning!


We learned two things.

  • Vision for tomorrow cannot be measured with tools and measures of the past.
  • Pastors who do not use and understand the internet have no business judging any congregation’s mission.


If pastors are not using modern tools, they have no idea what might be possible.

  • They do not realize that they can nurture their members (and the entire community, the world even) every day. They don’t have to wait until Sunday.
  • They may not realize that the Bible is online! It is so easy to find passages with a key word search! And to find commentaries! Everyone with a smartphone has a Bible at their fingertips.
  • They have no idea that their members are finding resources offered by other churches who have embraced new media. If they want to influence members from going astray, they need to be part of the dialogue.
  • They have no idea that an online mission will direct and fuel their mission. Opportunities and needs will find you. The neighborhood will see you in action. They may want to help.
  • They have no idea that their people will be talking about their faith experiences online. If the congregation isn’t there, they cannot be part of the message. (This is especially important if a sharer is unhappy with your church!)
  • They still don’t understand that the few people who are looking to attend church, check a website first. No website. No visit.
  • While they can fret about poor attendance in Sunday School and forums, they fail to realize that they can teach online. People can learn at their convenience.


What’s the Holdup?

The holdup is in shaking that old Top-Down thinking. Top-Down thinking assigns important jobs like this to pastors.


Most pastors don’t have the skills. This will surely change but it is likely to come slowly. The aging of clergy is one of the challenges of the mainline church today.


Lay people have the skills but can’t exercise them without authority.


To use the internet well, foundational thinking must change.


But this we know: it sure beats waiting to die.


2×2 has published many articles on how congregations can use a website to grow mission. Here’s a short list with links, but you can find much more by typing Social Media into the search box.