Dec 1, 2021

Excerpt: Digital Church in a Lonely World—7 Ingredients of Church Community

As researchers, Barna Group often gets a big picture look at data, what Barna president David Kinnaman calls “the 30,000 foot overview of what’s happening.” Yet, while the biggest picture allows researchers and leaders a chance to know what’s going on in the world, their communities and their churches, it takes people who are daily serving within local churches to help pastors connect the dots from the larger overview to practical application.

That’s why Barna is delighted to partner with Benjamin Windle (pastor, speaker and author) and to bring his thoughts to our readers as part of Barna’s efforts to explore new models, methods and mindsets for the future of the Church.

The following article is an excerpt from Windle’s latest work, Digital Church in a Lonely World, which explores what ingredients are necessary to foster church community in an increasingly digital and lonely world. Read part one of the full piece—part two coming in January, 2022—on Barna Access, and explore the articles listed below to discover past research Barna has conducted on digital church.

Digital Church in a Lonely World

7 Ingredients of Church Community

The Seven Ingredients of Church Community
How do we reimagine community in the digital age?

With everything going electronic and being stored on the cloud, will there be a backlash? A desire to be in a village? A need for high-touch physicality? A longing for simple things such as sharing a meal?

Asking the right questions is essential to ensuring that our innovation is accelerating us down the right path, instead of steering us toward the wrong destination.

If innovation is not managed and disciplined, it can easily become antithetical to our actual mission.

Questions act as both a stimulus for creative thought and a set of boundaries to focus our ideas.

Here are the wrong questions to ask: What serves the consumeristic Christian market? Will Christians prefer a digital service over attending a physical gathering? If so, how do we cater to that segment of the preference-driven market?

Haven’t we seen enough consumer-driven Christianity over recent decades to realize that, in the long run, this does not develop resilient disciples, nor build depth in spiritual maturity?

What were the essential ingredients for church community in the New Testament?

  1. Spiritual engagement (Colossians 3:16)
  2. Preaching the Word (Hebrews 13:7)
  3. Worship and prayer (1 Timothy 2:8)
  4. Evangelism (Acts of the Apostles 1:8)
  5. Interpersonal responsibility (Romans 12)
  6. Inconvenient hospitality (Acts 4)
  7. Institutional physicality (Matthew 26:26)

These seven are consistent elements of local church communities in the New Testament. I am sure there are more, but they give us a good framework to engage with.

Can we achieve all seven of these by doing church online? If we can, sign me up for the digital church. Or the hybrid church. I’ll gladly lay on the beach and eat my Portuguese custard tarts, and maybe attend a small group every now and then. Sounds pretty good.

Unless, of course, not every one of these seven expressions can be achieved through a screen.

When I think of spiritual engagement, preaching the word, worship, prayer and evangelism, I have seen examples of all of these being achieved through online church experiences.

Sometimes, that is where the conversation ends. People engaged. People worshiped. People responded to the salvation prayer. These are all crucial elements of a church experience, but I am not so sure they fulfill the full spectrum of church community.

Let’s now divide these seven ingredients of community into how they are best facilitated in a local church:

There are some things that digital can do as well as, if not better than, a traditional church service. It can help connect people in a deeply significant way. Take evangelism, for example. The ability to create content that reaches people in multiple cities and even nations is truly incredible. Online expressions of church may also be a highly effective way of someone visiting your church for the first time. Yet, as remarkable as the opportunities are online, I am making the case that there are three ingredients of community that, at this point, are better achieved in-person: interpersonal responsibility, inconvenient hospitality, institutional physicality.

Interpersonal Responsibility
Interpersonal responsibility describes a dynamic giving and receiving of our human quotient. I have gifts, experiences and a unique spiritual fingerprint in my life that brings something special to a church community. However, I have gaps. And the beauty of a church family is that my uniqueness blesses others, and, in return, their uniqueness blesses and grows me.

Here are some interpersonal responsibilities from the New Testament that were bestowed upon every member of a local church:

  • Welcome guests warmly: Acts 21:17 (NLT)
  • Live in harmony with each other: 1 Corinthians 1:10–14 (NLT)
  • Be spiritual people: 1 Corinthians 3:1–4 (NLT)
  • Work enthusiastically for the Lord: 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)
  • Love each other as brothers and sisters: Hebrews 13:1 (NLT)
  • Provide food and clothing: James 2:14–16 (NLT)
  • Acts of justice and compassion: 1 John 3:16–18 (NLT)

Can we really do all of that in an online chat bar?

Consumer church, cool church and convenient church are failed models. We need the New Testament Church with interpersonal responsibility.

Discipleship is not an academic journey. It has to involve real human beings in real community.

If church is simply a service that people are provided, it is transactional.

If church is an interpersonal family of people who I have a responsibility to contribute to, it becomes a community.

To read about the two other in-person practices—inconvenient hospitality and institutional physicality—noted in the excerpt above, check out part one of Windle’s piece on Barna Access, free for all users to read until part two releases in January 2022.


Photo by Hannah Busing from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2021.

Digital Church in a Lonely World

7 Ingredients of Church Community

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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