Why digital is key for the church in 2023

January 2023 | a personal blog by Elliot Crippen – Digital Enabler for Yorkshire North & East Methodist District

The theme and metaphor used are inspired by the lyrics of the song “Two Oruguitas”  from Disney’s “Encanto”  – displayed at the end of the page

Why should churches care about embracing the digital age?

This is the question I have been attempting to persuasively answer since I started my role in the church back in 2018, and somehow, even in a post-pandemic world, answering this question still forms a prominent part of my work today in 2023.

Perhaps even more so, with increased pressures on resources, dwindling volunteers, a lack of ministers, and a feeling that there are greater priorities. We have been trying to “get back to normal” – but now is the time to emerge from our cocoon. Why should your church focus on your online presence right now in 2023?

I could give you statistics. Facts. Examples. Quotes. Stories. Books to read. I have tried these approaches before, and I’m still answering the same question. Why should churches and leaders embrace the digital age fully, right now, and with a high priority? This is my case… Collected here, with all approaches, for all abilities, all in one place.

“If you’re leaving the digital world just to focus on your Sunday – were you ever doing church from the beginning?”
-quote from Lindsey Murphy, an Online Pastor talking on Pocket Pulpit Podcast

It’s not just about social media or having a website. Digital is not something separate – it is entwined with every aspect of church life. Do you use PowerPoint? Email? Wi-Fi? Do you have a phone? A laptop? A camera? Does your church hold events? Make posters? Notices or newsletters?

I no longer carry any physical cash on me – does your church offer contactless payment in the collection?
Everything from work, to shopping, to food, fitness, and entertainment has shifted online and distributed access (on-demand). Have we done the same with our worship, evangelism, discipleship, mission, and ministry? Or is our faith confined to the building?

Digital is everywhere and shouldn’t be an afterthought – the possibilities should excite us! It is not just for the technical-minded, limited to the pioneers, or only for young people. We are in the digital age now – we must embrace it now, or people will assume our gospel is as outdated as our technology. If we insist on communicating only in ways that we find familiar, we will find that fewer and fewer people are willing to listen.

"To navigate a world, that turns, and never stops turning"

“The digital church can reach a person that the physical church can’t. It doesn’t mean that we should compete with one another.”
-quote from Mark Lutz, who runs an online church for gamers, talking on Breaking the Fifth Wall Podcast

FLOURISHING NOW - Raising awareness online of your church in the community

Focusing on your online presence is not about taking resources away from your other work, but about augmenting your existing efforts and growing your congregation in the church building. Live streaming your service is not stopping people from attending in person. The more we provide community online, the more it will result in growth at your physical church. It’s not either/or – it’s both/and! Online church won’t replace our buildings, but both can flourish together.

I have stories where posting about a church service in a local Facebook community group brought a new person to church. Where online worship has grown church attendance to more than pre-pandemic numbers. Where sharing live prayers on social media has prompted positive messages from friends who have never been to church.

There are many reasons we should be engaging online: being relevant to our communities, providing for the housebound and disabled, meeting the expectations of younger generations, credibility as an organisation. Or simply for the huge publicity advantages:

Almost every church has a poster or notice board outside their building. Churches often put adverts in the local paper or print leaflets. But today this is often expensive and ineffective. Social media offers the opportunity to promote your church’s community events, for free, and reach far more people. 

"Wonders await you, just on the other side"

“If our church is invisible online, those searching will assume it has closed down. We can expect very few visitors.
If we have a website but it’s woefully out of date, it looks as if we don’t care, or stopped putting on events after Easter 2014.”

-quote from “Church Online:Websites” by CPO in the series “Reach Out:Church Communications”

FLOURISHING FOR THE FUTURE - Reaching new people with online ministry

It’s not just about expectations or publicity – it’s about going where people are. Beyond our walls. Reaching out. Sharing the Good News. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” – Matthew 28:19

The revolutionary idea of John Wesley was to take church outside of the building and into the open air. Go to where the people are, and today they are online. There has been a digital revolution and the church has been behind the curve for a long time – we are stuck singing the same songs, in the same way, not noticing that the world has moved on. We have passed the point where we can ignore it, we must decide how rather than if we will respond to the digital age. It is no longer a case of adapting, we must transform and emerge as something new. 

If the church is not engaging in this space, then we lose an opportunity to see society transformed and ultimately we lose an opportunity for the Good News to be shared. “People will be loved into faith by starting not in our church, but in their world” – The 21st Century Christian by Michael Moynagh & Michael Beck

The online world holds huge opportunities for the church to utilise, and is a core part of Our Calling and the Evangelism & Growth Strategy, providing a means to reach people with our message where they are: online. We live in an increasingly digital age and our methods must change to reach a new generation. Now, more than ever, the church must strive to explore how we can use these digital tools for worship, evangelism, discipleship, mission, and ministry.

"So let the walls come down, in a world that never stops changing"

There are 57.6 million active social media users in the UK as of 2022, and 80% of them haven’t heard or don’t believe the gospel –
social media is the nations largest mission field

-second statistic from Digital Church Toolkit

"Cocooned and waiting - So afraid of change"

Yet as a church, we still only ever utilise social media as a notice board! We reach out, only to communicate that God’s love can only be received and experienced by attending the church building at 10.30am on a Sunday! The on-site, in-person experience remains the priority. And so we remain cocooned, hiden in our buildings, waiting for them to come to us, and not growing.

But those we are trying to reach don’t “use” the internet – it is a space they “live” within. The world is hybrid. Social media does not reflect culture, it forms culture. While you might think of “real life” and “online life”, for many there is no distinction. The implication that spiritual answers are only to be found in an offline, pre-digital church building is incomprehensible to our society, and faith will be percieved to be irrelevant and old-fashioned. Facebook has been around for almost 20 years, the internet for 40 years! We are not talking about teenagers anymore!

Interactions online are no less ‘real’ than being physically together – just different. Just as online banking is no less ‘real’ than paper money. It’s true, much of the online worship we experienced during the pandemic did not manage to fully encompass being ‘real church’ – but neither is consuming a sermon half asleep once a week. Being physically together in a building is no guarantee of sharing meaningful interactions. Whether the medium is through your building or the virtual world, the ablity to share in community comes from how we engage meaningfully in that space. Both are valid expressions of ‘church’.

So 2023 is the time to emerge from the cacoon, and embrace the change, to become a church that puts equal value on our online presence as we do events in our church building – so that both might flourish.

“Try telling a student who is being bullied online that digital interactions aren’t real”
-Dave Adamson, MetaChurch

“If Paul the Apostle had thought the only way he could disciple people was in physical, face-to-face community, at least 13 books of the bible would not have been written.”
-Dave Adamson, MetaChurch

We don't have the people - who will do this work?

There are increased pressures on resources, dwindling volunteers, a lack of ministers, and those with digital skills.

But skills can be taught. Resources redirected. We just need to find the people who are willing – and that comes down to how the digital world is perceived. Are we enthusing people with the possibilities of the online church? That’s what this whole blog is about!

We have found the energy and enthusiasm to “return to normal”. We have found people to make Sunday’s happen. I want to challenge you that investing in digital is just as important. And when church leaders are keen to embrace the digital age, we will find people to do the work. Maybe you could explore if there is a young person connected to the church who might help?

It is time to stop waiting on a miracle. Make it happen! Don’t hold so tight to the past. Now is the time to evolve. Move beyond the pandemic. Look to the future. Stop being reactive, and start being proactive.

"Don't you hold on too tight, It's your time to grow, To fall apart, to reunite"

“I am waiting on a miracle. Open your eyes. I would move the mountains. Make new trees and flowers grow. Someone please just let me know, where do I go? I would heal what’s broken. Show this family something new. I’m sick of waiting on a miracle, so here I go. I am ready. I’ve been patient, and steadfast, and steady. Bless me now as you blessed us all those years ago. When you gave us a miracle”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Waiting on a Miracle Lyrics – Disney’s Encanto

Resourcing your church

To get there, we have to move from this being something that “would be nice to do”, to actually making changes, investing and resourcing, reimagining how we communicate, reordering our priorities, and maybe letting some things go… The challenge is often not the “why” but the “how”

This is what I do for a job, helping advise and equip people with the specifics, the digital skills, and the right method for the local context. It’s going to be different for each church. I’ll continue with the bigger picture below, but just to take a second to help you with the “how” – how do you resource this? How do you make it happen?

District Digital Resources – Here you can find all my digital resources, advice, downloads, and support for churches

NEW: 2023 Resource Packs 
> FLOURISHING NOW – Raising awareness online of your church in the community
> FLOURISHING FOR THE FUTURE – Reaching new people with online ministry

"And start to prepare, The way for tomorrow"

“It’s so hard to admit, but I see us applying sticking plasters in many areas of our church life to ‘keep things going’. That’d be fine if they were only needed temporarily. But actually they’re just masking a huge paradigm shift: the old is fading and the new is emerging – fast”
-Leslie Newton, 2022

What are we emerging into? A vision for the future

Ultimately I want to encourage you with a vision that should be achievable for churches in 2023. This isn’t something just for the churches with pots of money, big tech teams, or young congregations. There’s many conferences, articles, and experts out there for these churches. If you have the resources, skills, and people, then I would suggest reading the book MetaChurch by Dave Adamson which gives a blueprint for becoming a church with an active online ministry.

A different approach is through pioneering, Fresh Expresions, and New Places for New People – and I won’t go into that here. I’m still discerning what the future might hold for how the church engages radically in the online space in our contempory culture.

But what about within the bounds of our traditional, established churches? What does that look like in a UK and Methodist context? For the small rural church?

"What happens after the rearranging?"

“Helping your church thrive in the future is not about streaming your services, updating your website, or simply posting more content online. The church leaders who are well-placed for the future are those who are open to innovation, testing new opportunities, and listening to experts”
-Dave Adamson, MetaChurch

This is an expression borrowed from Carey Nieuwhof in this great article: It’s 2032, here’s what’s left of the church
And it’s what I’ve based my previously mentioned Flourishing for the Future Resource Pack on.

Forget about the specifics, and ask the critical question: are you placing the same importance online as you do offline in your church? Make sure everything you do has an online counterpart, so you are ministering to those online as well as in your building. As equals. Start to think digital-first. And that could involve live streaming, Zoom groups, websites and more. But it could also be as simple as making sure any physical poster, leaflet, or notice that you announce on a Sunday is communicated online.

Thinking digital-first isn’t about replicating everything you do online, but about having a counterpart – it might look very different. You don’t need a full service with hymns to provide online worship, it could be 10mins of live prayers. Or simply a social media post with a thought-provoking quesiton. Discipleship might be a Zoom group. But you are providing a range of “Grace Spaces” for those online. Where the skills and people are lacking, but there is still a desire to grow, look at providing this online ministry as, and through, your circuit. A group of churches working together to provide one set of online prayers, only needing one website, one social media volunteer, one weekly live stream, one place to go to find all publicity. 

The church must let go of the “digital vs physical” perspective, and embrace the understanding that digital and physical are part of a single experience – a hybrid, holistic whole. 

"Wonders surround you. Don't look behind you, Fly till you find, Your way toward tomorrow"

Whether you do the full-scale “MetaChurch”, or the simplified “Digital-First” version, both require us to provide a range of options throughout the week. Moving from our complete focus on Sundays. This is not a digital issue or challenge. And we will need to grapple with that in order for the digital church to flourish.

In 2023, will you embrace the digital age?
Will your church undergo the transformation, and emerge from the cocoon?

blog by Elliot Crippen – Digital Enabler for Yorkshire North & East Methodist District
Get in contact: digital@yorkshirenemethodist.org
If you’ve found this article useful, find more about Elliot’s digital encouragement campaign here or digital resources for churches here
Note: I’ve been to many digital conferences, and read many books and articles, all of which have influenced this article. Where I have remembered a specific quote or person I have credited them, but apologies if I have missed anyone or not credited the source of a phrase or idea.

The theme and metaphor used are inspired by the lyrics of the song “Two Oruguitas”  from Disney’s “Encanto” 

Two oruguitas
In love and yearning
Spend every evening
And morning learning
To hold each other
Their hunger burning
To navigate a world
That turns, and never stops turning
Together in this world
That turns, and never stops turning

Ay, oruguitas
Don’t you hold on too tight
Both of you know
It’s your time to grow
To fall apart, to reunite
Wonders await you
Just on the other side
Trust they’ll be there
Start to prepare
The way for tomorrow

Two oruguitas
Cocooned and waiting
Each in their own world
What happens after
The rearranging?
And so afraid of change
In a world that never stops changing
So let the walls come down
The world will never stop changing

Ay, mariposas
Don’t you hold on too tight
Both of you know
It’s your time to go
To fly apart, to reunite
Wonders surround you
Just let the walls come down
Don’t look behind you
Fly till you find
Your way toward tomorrow

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Two Oruguitas Lyrics – Disney’s Encanto