The False Debate Between Online and In-person Church (how to Plan for an Uncertain Future)


So it’s been a year now since pretty much every church got online courtesy of the pandemic.

As the world moves slowly but surely into the post-pandemic era, there are a lot of questions about what will happen to future in-person church.

The return to church has been anything but easy for churches that are reopened, and hard even for churches that are located in areas that are almost wide open.

Lifeway Research survey shows that in January 2021,

31% of churches are still reporting less than 50% of their January 2020 attendance

37% are hovering between 50%-70% and 30% are between 70%-100%

Only 2% report seeing more than 100% of their attendance a year ago.

It’s easy to imagine that all of this is going to reverse the moment society is ‘open’ again, but for a number of reasons that’s unlikely.

First, the reopening of society is by every account going to be gradual and staged.

Second, even when laws allow everything to be wide open (as in Texas), people often behave differently than the law allows them. While some people will run into the future unrestrained and with no limits, others will remain cautious for a while to come.

But even that doesn’t explain what’s about to happen next.

Perhaps the deepest threat to in-person attendance comes from a cultural possibility I’ll say more about below, that we might be entering into a relatively selfish me-centered behavior that might relegate churches even further to the sidelines than they were pre-pandemic. And yes, I know, we were already a selfish culture.

I’m not saying this is good. I am saying for the reasons below, it may be true.

As my successor at Connexus Church, Jeff Brodie, told me recently, the number one vision casting challenge is that right now people feel an isolation pain point that they won’t feel in 12 months.

The assumption is they’ll fill it with church attendance in a building once everything reopens. Not so fast.

That also leads us directly to the false debate.

The False Debate Part 1: Think About Online Dating

So what’s the false debate?

Well, search the comments on this site or almost any other church-related social feed and you’ll see many leaders arguing that people don’t want to just do church online.

Those who say that are in part wrong, and in part correct.

It’s nuanced. Let me explain.

The same surveys that show in-person attendance is likely to struggle in the future also show that only a sliver of the population wants to only access church online.

That makes sense.

Think about online dating. About 40% of couples who date these days meet online via a dating app or site.  Not shocking.

But couples who meet online don’t stay online. You’ve never met a couple who said “We’ve been married for six years but we’ve never met in person…”

No, both dating and church online lead to in-real-life.

So those who say church online can’t meet the needs of people long term are largely correct. We’re built for human connection.

So you would think, then, that the return to church would be automatic.

That’s where it breaks down.

The False Debate Part 2: In-Building V. In-Person

It’s true that real ministry happens best in-person. Theologically, relationally and experientially, people need people. The church is a community…in-person community.

But here’s the flawed assumption:  in-person ministry shouldn’t be restricted to in-building ministry.

To date, too many church leaders have assumed that the only viable option for in-person gathering happens in a building owned (or leased) by the church.

If you define in-person ministry as experiences that have to happen in a building owned by the church, you set yourself up for diminished mission.

In fact, if the size of your vision shrinks to the size of a room you can fill, you’ve missed the church’s mission.

Sure, there will always be people who gather in a central facility.

It was done that way for years because it was a highly practical, sensible option. Historically, you’ve needed a building so you can assemble at the same time in the same place for a common experience. For centuries, a building was a sensible way to deliver that. It was hard to gather dozens or hundreds of people for a service.

Then the internet happened.

Moving into the post-pandemic era, churches can now gather people in person in a wide variety of ways: micro-gatherings, micro-campuses, home gatherings…all uniting the distributed in-person gatherings through technology.

In my post on 2021 Disruptive Church Trends, many of the trends deal directly with this dynamic and you can learn more there  (there’s also a free PDF Team Application Guide you can use as well).

In the future, don’t limit your understanding of in-person gatherings to in-facility gatherings; the majority of attenders and perhaps your most engaged people may not be in the auditorium.

If you expand your definition of gathering, it’s much easier to genuinely expand your mission.

To drill down further on why this is so crucial, consider these three things.

1. The Culture Has Become More Post-Modern

Crisis is an accelerator, and as Barna has shown, 1 in 5 church-going adults stopped attending church altogether in 2020.

I’m guessing America and many part of the West became even more post-modern and post-Christian in the last year. Trends that may have taken a decade to cement got accelerated as people were decoupled from their habits.

Among the many characteristics of post-Christian, post-modern spirituality, three stand out when it comes to future attendance trends. Post-modern spirituality is:

  • self-directed
  • anti-institutional; and
  • selective

In other words, people will pick and choose what they want to do. That goes from choosing a favorite preacher to listen to, to deciding to watch from home or on the go, and even (you’ve already seen this) tenets of the faith they are inclined to embrace and tenets they’re inclined not to.

I am not arguing this is good. I’m just saying, as a Canadian who’s ministered in a post-Christian culture for decades, it’s very real.

None of this means it’s over for the church. Far from it. In fact, there’s more opportunity for authentic Christianity than ever.

But if you’re relying on old methods to renew your mission, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Churches that are ready to change their methods in the post-pandemic era will seize incredible opportunities to advance their mission.

And churches that won’t may (as we’ve said here a few times) end up being like malls in the age of Amazon, just waiting  for people to return.

If you change, you’ll advance your mission. And if you don’t, you likely won’t.

If you want more on this, here are five characteristics of churches that will be in decline five years from now.

2. There May Be A Coiled-Spring Of Self-Centered Behavior Ahead Of Us

We were already living a pretty self-centered life as a culture before COVID. As the HBO documentary Fake Famous so clearly points out, we’re really into ourselves and self-gratification.

I wonder if we’re heading into an even more self-centered few years ahead of us as people try to make up for whatever they missed in the last year and a bit: vacations, freedom, time away, and whatever else disappeared from their life.

One leader who leads a church in a pretty much fully open US state told me last week that the 20-30% of people who are not coming back to his re-opened church are still going to theaters, restaurants and other events. But for some reason, they’re just skipping church because “they’re not ready.”

My question was, are they just not ready or just too polite to say they’re no longer interested? Maybe there are many other intriguing things to do with their time…

There is a lot of pent-up angst and longing in all of us.

And so much of the pandemic so far has been baffling. The economic and health impact of the pandemic has been so uneven and in many cases, unjust.

Despite the massive disruption, layoffs, and decimated industries and cities, housing prices and the stock market have soared. People have been spending on home upgrades, bikes, boats, Peletons, and many other things.  Despite all the spending, in North America, personal savings rates are at all-time highs.

If you look at history, rather than dealing with the inequities and problems we face, often after a period of deep pain, people often engage in escapism and pursue fun.

The Roaring 20s followed the First World War and Spanish flu. Jazz music, movie theaters, the automobile, flappers, and night clubs dominated the Great Gatsby era.

The 50s baby boom, suburban explosion, and prosperity followed the horrors of the Second World War and Great Depression.

Is something like that around the corner for us? It’s too early to tell, but it’s not too early to start preparing.

Doing the authentic work of the church, being active in the local communities that don’t have the economic freedom to escape, and being online to mobilize people around the mission matter even more.

If the 2020s end up being like the 1920s, the church needs a better strategy than loud music, more haze and “don’t miss this series.”

The culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself.

You can’t reach a secular culture by being more secular. You can reach it by becoming more authentic.

So be more authentic.

3. Hybrid Church Will Simply Match Reality: Life Is Already A SlipStream Between Digital And In-Real-Life

None of this is really new.

For years now before COVID, almost every human was living in a slipstream between digital and in-real-life interactions.

You text your friend one second, pivot to a YouTube video the next to get a recipe for dinner, and then meet your family in the kitchen to cut some vegetables for the meal.

For years now, you’ve moved seamlessly between the digital and the real.

Church will be that way in the future too, which is why the hybrid church—offering both digital and physical ministry—is here to stay.

People will be in the building one week, watching solo online the next, and the third gathering with some friends in a home or (better yet) serving in the community to be the church.

Standing in a building resenting everyone who didn’t show up is no way to reach people. So don’t be that leader.

And if we are moving into some years where people are heading off to the woods, the mountains, the ocean, tropical islands, or their back yard, digital will help you stay connected with them and call them back to a deeper level of sacrifice and commitment to others.

If you really do believe that the essence of Christianity is to be the church, not just go to church, then embracing a hybrid model of church only makes sense.

On the other hand, if you limit your digital investment in the hope you can fill a room, that’s a whole other, likely much harder, conversation.

A Few Other Thoughts

Before we get to the comments (I would love to know what you think), a few other thoughts.

Having a robust in-person and digital ministry is going to be hard. And no one has really figured the model out yet.

But start here: resource your online presence with the same intensity and resources that you would if you were launching a physical location.

The surprise of course, is that effective digital ministry is much cheaper than launching a physical location, but still. Staff it like you mean it.

Staffing, of course, also involves volunteers.

And because no one has cracked the code yet on micro-gatherings, being a distributed church, or even figuring out what the format online versus for live services will be in the future, feel free to experiment (Mark Clark and I discuss some possibilities here).

Take some pressure off yourself and try some things. Some will connect, some won’t. That’s what innovation is all about.

When it comes to ministry that happens in the facility moving forward, its highest value will likely be for young families who want in-person connection for their kids, student ministry where gathering in person is of high value, people who prefer church in a facility, and of course, new people. You have a whole host of people who are now part of your church online but have never seen or experienced your church in person.

This may likely be the new core of regular attenders for the next few years. I could be wrong, but it seems plausible.

Finally, remember that being the local church is a great thing. 85% of you reading this lead a church of 200 attenders or less. Let that encourage you.

Preachers whose messages are viewed hundreds of thousands of times (sometimes by your people) don’t know your people or your city. But you do.

Along with your team, love them, serve them, reach them.

Nobody should be able to out-local the local church.


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