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Leading a Digital Church

How to Serve God’s people in an online space.
Leading a Digital Church
Image: Nadine Shaabana / Unsplash

And just like that—it happened.

The entire geography of western society shifted (at least, for now) in the span of 48 hours and a series of White House press releases about the novel coronavirus.

As researchers discovered more about the pandemic, I watched national policymakers react to each discovery with appropriately and increasingly stringent measures. Recommended gathering sizes dwindled from regulation-free to 250, to 50, to 10.

There aren’t many organizations of 250-1000+ that gather all in the same room on a weekly or twice-weekly basis.

Except, you know, the church.

And when the shift happened, my phone began to ring off the hook.

All church gatherings in my community shut down because of the pandemic.

Just like that.

In an instant, every church leader was trying to figure out how to serve God’s people. And (unless you have a megaphone and a huge, grassy field where thousands of people can sit 6-10 feet apart), digital became the only option.

I’m the lead pastor at Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, Washington, and although our entire staff pulled a lot of extra hours last weekend making the shift to a fully online church, we weren’t scrambling too terribly.

Digital Church

Rewind the story almost six years to the day we launched our Internet campus, against the passionate protests of one of our Executive Pastors—that was a hard call to make.

I fully understood his concerns about the premise of a digital church: “Aren’t God’s people supposed to gather together? Will people stop coming to church? How can people serve online? Are we creating Christian consumers? It just isn’t church.”

But we launched an online church platform simply because … there were people online. We’ve all seen the trends: like it or not, people spend way more time online than almost anywhere else except their full-time jobs. It’s just reality. So we saw it as an opportunity to engage new people with the good news of Jesus, right where they were already spending the majority of their time. We also saw it as a way to help disciple our in-person regular attenders when, for whatever reason, they couldn’t be at the church.

So we jumped in, and over the last bunch of years, we have been working intentionally in the digital space in the name of Jesus.

Just a few weeks ago, we joined Western Seminary, here locally in Portland, Oregon, and Dr. Gerry Breshears, to advocate the merits of digital church for his “Exploring the Digital Church” class (in which students learned from leaders who both love and loathe the idea of church online).

In my presentation, I made a snarky comment: “If this virus shuts everything down, we’re prepared to care for everyone’s people. We don’t want to do it, but we will if it’s needed.”

I got a few eye rolls and a number of head shakes. (Probably rightfully so).

But sure enough, here we are today—no church gatherings in the name of social distancing and seeking to flatten the curve of this pandemic.

Whether you think online church is viable in the long-run or just a temporary means to an end, we’re all wondering how we can lead most effectively in a digital space.

Here’s what I would say:

Remember, Church Is Church

This is something I often remind people: church is church. While we (rightfully) love our buildings and the ability to physically gather together, church is the people of God gathered together in Jesus’ name, wherever we are. Whether it’s a lot of people or just two people, it’s church. Whether we gather in cathedrals, homes, or underground in hiding, it’s church. If we have to translate the Bible into another language as we preach, if the people of God are gathered together in Jesus’ name, it’s church.

The digital space creates its own kind of proximity. I recently FaceTimed my wife and kids while I was traveling and preaching. Although I was a thousand miles away, we were together. Was it the same as when I was home? No. But was it absolutely amazing while I was away? Absolutely. We got to laugh, talk, look into each other’s eyes, and pray as a family.

I have never, ever advocated a digital-only strategy. I still don’t! But digital church is still church, and right now … it is the only way we can gather.

Use all Available Means

Historically, the people of God have always used whatever means are available to share the good news of Jesus. When the Apostle Paul was traveling throughout the Roman Empire evangelizing, he had a few options. He could preach to people in public squares and at home gatherings, and he could also write letters. So he did all of the above.

With the advent of the printing press, writings could be mass produced for wider dissemination. Much of the Protestant Reformation was fueled by widely circulated writings from the Reformers. They used what they had, which meant they had a wider reach than previous generations.

In the Mid-Twentieth Century, preachers began to record their messages and utilize radio. Then when cassette tapes rolled out, you could listen to sermons from the privacy of your own house, car, or Walkman. When I began to walk with Jesus, the sermon on cassette was an important part of my growth. (Yeah, I’m old).

And now, we have innumerable methods of preaching the gospel to anyone who wants to listen. We can send the gospel in an email, post it as a blog, share it on social media, or print it and snail mail it to people. We can talk about it on a podcast, upload it to a website, text it to peoples’ phones. And you can set up a camera and livestream an entire church service.

The people of God have always employed all available means to fulfill the mission of God and see people come to Jesus. So let’s do that.

Be Your Unique Expression of Church—Digitally

This is wildly important. I think God loves unity, not uniformity in his children, and he’s delighted by the unique expressions of each local gathering of his universal church. It’s crucial that we maintain the beauty of our differences even in a digital space.

The key is to step on out into it, and be okay with learning as you go. Sure, check out what other people are doing. Take stock of what resonates with you, what art forms and expressions you are already naturally drawn to. Look at what the people under your care enjoy as well, and see if you can pull that off. But be willing to find a way to exist digitally that is an adequate representation of who you are and what you value.

The folks who call your church home are there for a reason. There are certain things that you do that make you uniquely you. Try and find a way to translate that to the digital space! Don’t stop being uniquely you.

And—we all know this cognitively, but let’s take a moment to pause and take this to heart—God’s not done with his church. If church as you’ve known it has ceased to exist or changed beyond recognition in the last week, don’t lose hope. The bride of Christ is as eternal as our Lord is, and he has plans for his people that are as wild as the times we’re living in. So let’s be flexible, and continue to be the church … even if it looks a little different right now.

Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.

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