Canon Billy Kennedy is the International Leader for Pioneer Network - one of CTE's Member Churches.
The Guardian’s online newspaper reported: 'A quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began, and one in 20 have started praying during the crisis, according to a new survey.'
In response to the enforced closure of church buildings and public gatherings, the church, like most other organisations and businesses moved online. But is this just a ‘necessary evil’ that we will ditch when lockdown is eased, church buildings are re-opened and public gatherings are restored? Or is this part of the new normal?
The church isn’t alone in stepping into this new territory. All sorts of businesses and community organisations are having to make the same leap. And everyone is trying to develop a cohesive online strategy to help their business or cause to continue to be effective.
We all agree that church is community and community is expressed when people meet together. The message we proclaim is that God took on a body and lived among us. The incarnation is tangible not virtual.
The church if it is to continue to be the church needs to meet together, to sing together, to eat together, to take communion together, to pray together, to learn together, to serve together, to mourn, to comfort, to dance and to cry together. We can do some of this online but nothing beats the face to face interaction, the hug, the handshake or the huddle.
But is church online here to stay?
Here are three reasons that have convinced me that we need to remain online and develop our online presence.
1. The Roman road(s)
The spread of the gospel in the 1st century was in no small way facilitated by the transportation system developed by the Romans. Roads, trade routes and a common language across the Empire enabled to the gospel to spread rapidly from city to city and nation to nation.
Today, the internet links every person in every nation on earth together in one worldwide community. Today’s roads are the engagements and interactions that happen every day via social media and other online activity.
2. The invention of the Printing Press
The timing of the invention of the printing press and the flames it fanned during the Reformation in Europe cannot be underestimated. Martin Luther said, “printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one”.
Not only does the internet provide the route to one another across the globe it also provides content. It’s our modern day ‘printing press’. Blogs, podcasts, online articles, websites, apps, video channels, e-books, live streaming, Facebook live, Instagram [the list goes on] all enable us to put out content that will be read, watched or listened to for years to come.
3. 19th century migration from rural to urban
Methodism saw a huge growth in its membership in the 1800s. At the same time there a was mass migration of people in England from rural to urban settings. The Church of England tried to develop its parish system in these burgeoning centres of population but with limited success.
But it was the Methodists with their agile and nimble structures, their classes, their societies, with a focus on discipleship, who were successful in the growing cities all across England. Methodism was able to adapt to the changing culture and new forms of church quickly emerged.
The world has moved online. The vast majority of the population has migrated to a new virtual space. And we need to adjust to the changing landscape and adapt what we do and how we do it in order to reach the people who now live in that space.
Living in the midst of a global pandemic is not comfortable but it has forced the church to occupy some space that up to now we’ve not been fully convinced it’s a space we should inhabit.
Well, we’re here now. Let’s get used to it.
Welcome to the new normal.
Billy Kennedy is a church & network leader, husband, father, grandfather, cook, beekeeper, bread maker and loyal follower of Southampton FC. He is an avid reader and compulsive learner.