This week on ChurchPulse Weekly, Ben Windle (Australian pastor, author and Barna contributor) and Jay Kim (author of Analog Church) sit down with Carey Nieuwhof to discuss making space for community in the digital era. They discuss what you can’t get from doing church online, the importance of building “lingering spaces” into your church buildings and opportunities to reimagine digital discipleship.
On Engaging in Transformational Discipleship
Recent Barna data show that half of churchgoers (57%) say they have stayed connected to the people in their church over the last year, compared to three in four (77%) who have stayed connected with friends and family living nearby. Discipleship—both digital and in-person—can be a great way for the Church to keep people connected and growing, even in a more separated season.
Windle says, “Where we can boldly innovate in the space of digital discipleship, we should pursue it. We don’t get to choose, as the Church, whether or not we’re going to be a part of the digital revolution. We’re in it, and we’re late to the game […] At the end of the day, discipleship is not knowledge transfer nor information; it’s a relational, communal experience.”
Kim shares some of the elements of in-person relationships that may be difficult to translate into a digital context. He notes, “There’s something different about the experience of transformation, when it’s side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder, with other people who are going through the pain with you.”
He continues, “In the late modern, Western world, with our consumeristic approach to things, we expect becoming like Christ to be easy, to be packaged in a neat, easily accessible way […] But when you really get into it, you realize following Jesus is about taking up a cross. It’s really hard, and because it’s hard, we need one another.”
On Designing Lingering Spaces
Kim shares, “I think one of my concerns is that digital, as helpful and beneficial as it is, has a way of, without us knowing it, uprooting us a little from place. […] Being in-person—analog, with the slower pace of showing up to a place—doesn’t solve the problems, but it does mediate a life that leans more toward rootedness amongst the people and a place.”
Windle is considering what the new role the church will be moving forward, asking, “What does in-person experience provide that online cannot, and how can I embrace that?” He continues, “I think foyers and cafes are the new auditoriums–places that help people linger longer, food, and things that keep people.”
Kim adds, “For our leadership team here, we’re trying to figure out ways to create more of those sorts of lingering spaces, not just for those who call our church home, but for our city, seven days a week. […] The more we can think about our spaces as gathering spaces for the lonely masses, and our towns and cities, the more beautiful and effective the mission of the church is going to be as we head off into the future.”
On Reimagining the Hybrid Church
As people look to the future, half of practicing Christians (54%) say they will prefer “primarily physical gatherings” after the pandemic, 38 percent say they will prefer “both digital and physical,” while just eight percent desire a “primarily digital” experience. Kim and Windle share how they’re thinking about a hybrid approach as they look ahead
“One of the great benefits of digital [is that] it’s given the church a uniquely broad front door, but the front door is an entry into more intimate and meaningful spaces,” Kim says. “Digital gives us that opportunity, if we can leverage it to invite people to something as simple as a literal meal, and, metaphorically, to dine at the table of God together with his people.”
Windle says, “It’s helpful, in my opinion, to add some layers to how we define community, and I think that’s so crucial. If we don’t embrace digital, we will lose the two new generations that we must reach, millennials and Gen Z, but if we capitulate to it, and we give into consumer-driven or preference-based Christianity, we can lose our effectiveness.”
He continues, “I’m not sure true community begins until it’s hard, challenging and inconvenient. But that’s a part of what makes our church community so special and rich. […] There’s a version of community that you’ve maybe never discovered, but if you embrace it, it will be a catalyst for your growth.”
About the Research
Barna Cities: The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95-percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021