By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
It used to be that whatever churches did digitally was designed to serve the physical, meaning in-person, physical events and activities. The digital was used to market, give information about, or offer registration for the physical.
But going forward, the church will need to turn that upside down and have the physical serve the digital. As my friend Carey Nieuwhof has written, churches will need to become digital organizations with physical locations. In other words, churches will be digital organizations with physical expressions, not physical organizations with a digital presence.
Think about companies like Sears, JCPenney or Toys “R” Us. They were the older, more traditional models that placed an emphasis on big, physical footprints and in-person shopping. All three had to recently file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
They were physical retailers that slowly adopted an online presence, behaving as if most people still wanted an in-person experience. But people didn’t. They wanted to shop on Amazon. And Amazon read this perfectly. They started out online and then, only after that was established, did they start developing physical stores—but those are designed to enhance and serve the digital footprint.
The Church will need to see its online presence and online community as its primary medium for growth, development, discipleship, worship, ministry, community… everything. Not to solely become an online entity (there is an extremely strategic and important role for a physical campus), but to make the shift to the physical serving the digital.
Right now, Meck’s growth is meteoric. We’ve never seen anything like it:
January – May 2021 was +45% to January – May 2020
June – August 2021 was +69% to June – August 2020
When you are running at an average size of 100 and increase to 150, you see those kinds of percentages. But when you are running in the thousands, you don’t. We did. But where was the growth? It wasn’t in person.
It was online.
The world has gone digital, and the Church must follow. Even better, it should lead the charge. When companies insist on a physical approach in a digital world, they fail. If churches insist on a physical approach in a digital world, they will face an uphill climb as well.
So here’s the shift (and tip of the hat to Tony Morgan for the language): We need to move away from a focus on gathering, and move toward a focus on connecting. We’ve bet the farm on gathering people together in a building. That’s a bet that won’t play out in the days to come. Instead, bet the farm on connecting people in whatever way they are connecting with you. And right now, and for the foreseeable future, that will be done digitally.
And stretch your thinking—this doesn’t mean you don’t gather together; rather it’s rethinking how you gather together. This may not be in a building.
Thousands gathered this past weekend at Meck. We talked to each other, engaged one another, experienced a shared worship and teaching with each other. We gave of our resources and prayed with and for one another. Pastors were pastoring, counselors were counseling. People gave their lives to Christ. It’s just that most of it happened outside of a gathering in a building.
But it still happened.
And it was very, very real.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.