Logia Post: Taking Church Online, and Leaving it There?

By: Dr. Lynne Taylor

I have a post-it note on my computer monitor with the word “flourishing” on it. It’s a reminder of why I do what I do, and it helps provide a grounding or focus when I’m feeling overwhelmed by workload or possibilities. My focus on human flourishing has always been central to my work and research interests, although how that has been expressed has changed over time. As a Christian, I see the potential that churches have to help support the holistic wellbeing (flourishing) of their congregations, as well as the wider communities that surround them. Therefore, most of the work and study I have engaged in over the years has been motivated by a desire to help Christians and churches live into that potential.

I’ve worked and volunteered in various pastoral ministry roles, seeking to help people flourish in their everyday lives. I’ve engaged in a range of research tasks including exploring how churches can support the wellbeing of older adults, providing community demographics to help hundreds of churches better understand their local contexts, and learning from the experiences of churches that were given funding to engage in new and innovative ministries. It’s been varied, which I love, but has largely been held by that desire to see people flourish.

I had always wanted to pursue further study in practical theology and seized the opportunity to do so when we lived for six years in Adelaide, South Australia. In 2017, I completed my PhD exploring why previously unchurched Australians become Christians today and was awarded the Flinders University of South Australia Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Doctoral Excellence. I began as Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago (in my home country of Aotearoa New Zealand) in 2018.

The next two years were challenging and fulfilling, as I balanced this part-time academic role alongside my pastoral ministry role co-leading a student congregation. In 2020, I was able to increase my hours at the university and while it was a sad farewell to the ministry role and all it entailed, I have appreciated being able to narrow my focus to teaching, research, and writing. I teach courses in pastoral and practical theology, including on pastoral care, contemporary faith formation, and mission. I continue to publish articles based on the work I did for my PhD, as well as researching and writing in new areas. This new research was both a requirement of my academic confirmation and an exciting opportunity to explore topics of interest. I now supervise several postgraduate students (from honours to PhD level) and I enjoy supporting their research and watching them learn and develop as academics.

When Covid-19 hit I was beginning to plan my first research leave. I shelved dreams of overseas travel (including to visit our daughter who is studying in the UK) and wondered what research I might helpfully engage in that learned from and supported churches at this particular time. Watching the unfolding situation and the massive changes that Covid-19 responses were necessitating locally and overseas, I was curious about how churches would respond. What adaptations would they make? What would motivate those responses? How would their actions support the holistic wellbeing of people in their churches and wider communities? What changes to worship and ministry would be retained post-Covid?.

This became the subject of my 2021 research leave. I started to gather data on New Zealand and Australian churches via an online questionnaire, before selecting three churches for detailed case studies. Each of these churches had continued to offer an online worship option after a return to onsite worship was possible, and each reported seeing positive aspects of their online experiences. In addition to questionnaire data on those churches, I engaged in interviews and/or focus groups with leaders, participant focus groups, and content analysis and participation in online worship services.

Of course, online church wasn’t new in 2020. In fact, Tim Hutchings traces the history of online churches as far back as the 1980s.[1] Back then though, and through until March 2020, online was optional: religious communities chose to embrace these platforms. Hutchings theorises three motivations for why such choices were made: amplification, connection, and experimentation. Simply put, those motivated by amplification used broadcast technologies to extend the reach of a preacher. Those motivated by a desire for connection sought to provide ways for genuine community to flourish online, perhaps between people who were otherwise isolated due to ideology, distance, or disability. Those motivated by experimentation explored the possibilities that new technologies might provide and (hopefully, at least) reflected theologically on those technologies and experiments.

Once Covid-19 hit, ministers didn’t have many offline options for communicating to, and remaining connected with, their congregations. Previously unimagined adaptations were readily recognised by church leaders as necessary responses to the pandemic. While for many this was purely pragmatic, others saw such change as not only a necessity but also an opportunity to reimagine the church’s form. Churches found that they were able to amplify a message of hope through online weekly worship and regular check-ins from pastoral leaders. These messages provided permission to be honest about the difficult time being faced, as well as offer a sense of stability, comfort, and hope. The broadcasts had a by-product of fostering a sense of connection and other informal and formal means of connection and care were also encouraged and enacted. Practical support was provided as needed. Despite the challenges, church members and the wider community were helped to flourish, even in the midst of struggle. 

As I write this blog post, the omicron variant is spreading vigorously. Late last year, vaccination rates in many parts of the world had given a sense of hope that perhaps things could return to normal. However, this was a short-lived hope. While vaccination helps protect against serious illness, the pandemic is not over. Physical distancing, mask-wearing, capacity limits, and contact tracing are all helpful and necessary as we seek to control the disease’s spread. If onsite gatherings are possible, people who are vulnerable due to age or health issues are likely to continue to need online options for worship and connection.

There is certainly an opportunity for ongoing experimentation, to create places of genuine connection, amplifying a message of hope. At the same time, there is also the opportunity for a deeper reformation, beyond a simple transplanting of onsite worship online. The online space invites deep listening to both gospel and context, in order to shape a church that proclaims the good news, disciples believers, meets human needs, acts in the face of injustice, and seeks to sustain and renew the earth. I’m planning to keep an eye on what develops over the coming months and years, wondering how it (and I) can contribute to the flourishing of our world and its inhabitants.

[1] Timothy Hutchings, Creating Church Online: An Ethnographic Study of Five Internet-Based Christian Communities (Durham University, 2010), 10.

Dr Lynne Taylor is Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Director and Researcher for AngelWings Ltd.

Her current research is on how churches are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including how they support the wellbeing of their members and wider communities. Lynne teaches courses relating to church and society. She blogs at www.lynnetaylor.nz and her other writing can be found via https://linktr.ee/lynnetaylor

Feature Photo by Jessica Fadel on Unsplash