Seven church trends: Faith formation has a growing digital component

March 7, 2024

By Rev. Rick King

One of the COVID-19 pandemic’s gifts was the Big Pivot to online, which happened seemingly overnight, out of necessity. The past four years (yes, four years!) have taught us a lot about digital church ministry.

I remember the week of March 9, 2020, and watching the COVID numbers rise and wondering if we would need to close the church doors and retool for online worship services.

But before we could think of enough downsides to talk ourselves out of it, BINGO! We were on Facebook Live with our first worship service at the end of that week of decision. March 15 was a watershed moment in how I began to think of more than in-person platforms churches could use for engagement.

When we began our youth group a year and a half later and launched Emerge, our confirmation program for teens, it was all on Zoom. Yes, Zoom had its limitations, but it was also the thing that enabled us to maintain connections and grope our way, after shutdowns, back to having programs that served a variety of age groups.

Yes, like you, I greeted the first return to in-person gathering with joy and open arms. And we have rediscovered the value of the flesh-and-blood community of church. But we never completely went back to the way it was before. Our livestream continues weekly to bring our worship service to a small audience of between six and 24 participants, and we conduct worship in the sanctuary with the awareness of the online part of the congregation.

Many meetings continue to use Zoom for either online-only or hybrid gatherings. And tonight, a four-UCC congregation gathering to discuss the book “Afro-Christian Convention: the Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ,” will be hybrid itself, with church members in the Twin Cities getting together in person for a meal and event—and joined via Zoom by UCC luminaries Rev. Yvonne V. Delk, the book’s editor, and Rev. Henry T. Simmons, one of the writers on the book!

Yet, what else could we be doing in the way of forming people in faith by digital means? I have the idea to start another Bible study group, online-only, which meets at another time that works for people with day jobs and kids. Young adults stand in a unique position to benefit if we offer faith formation opportunities on a digital platform.

But what else is possible? Canadian pastor-blogger Carey Nieuwhof notes that in the evangelical world, organizations like ChurcHome and Life.Church have reached thousands of young adults and connected them through their app and website. Churches have had digital firms develop custom mobile apps for their people to use—for electronic giving, prayer, and other practices.

He also highlights a guy named John Mark Comer, who has used a digital delivery system called Practicing the Way to advance the cause of people developing a “rule of life”—a set of spiritual practices that shape the way they live, every day. And what’s especially cool about Practicing the Way is that although it’s entirely digital, Nieuwhof says it fuels in-person interaction, community, and deepening spirituality.

So we not only cannot ever go back to pre-digital ministry days, but we can’t draw the faulty conclusion that online attendance will adversely affect our in-person attendance. This hesitancy over using digital platforms effectively is magnified even more when we’re talking about faith formation in groups using digital platforms.

How can we use our digital platforms to foster formation in faith—not just broadcast our services or reach more people?