In this article, I recount and synthesize some experiences and ideas from 2020 in order to discern what it might mean for the future of Church. Read on to dive in or skip to what interests you from this outline:
- Pivoting Our Platform
- Sharing Stories, Casting Vision
- What Refactoring Means
- Exile or Exodus?
- Reconsidering In-person
- Digital First vs Physical First
- Church as a Platform
- Canonical Scripture Engagement
Early on in the pandemic my team at TheoTech held a webinar outlining how to translate the practices of the early church in Acts to a fully virtual environment. We produced a Facebook live primer for non-technical pastors to stream themselves from home. We shared tips on how to protect against Zoom-bombers.
Because of the influx of pastors and organizations needing technical assistance, we tried offering cohort-based learning, but found it ill-timed given how everyone was scrambling to survive. So we pivoted from emergency training to focus on improving our spf.io platform.
Pivoting Our Platform
Spf.io is an all-in-one platform for accessibility and translation. Originally designed for in person events, as churches went into lockdown, we added integrations with Zoom, YouTube, OBS, Streamyard and more so that churches could caption and translate their virtual worship services.
I will never forget one Sunday morning when Zoom failed to stream to Facebook Live. Because my church used spf.io we were able to seamlessly switch to YouTube streaming on the fly and everyone participating didn’t have to lift a finger!
Through the weekly feedback loop of Sunday services, we discovered two main approaches churches were taking to going online: live interactive Zoom meetings or produced videos that premiered at a set service time. In order to support both approaches we added a slew of features like:
- Embedding Facebook Live and YouTube streams in the spf.io audience view so that people could get real time captions or translations.
- Integration with Zoom’s and YouTube’s closed captioning API so that spf.io’s AI could display captions natively on those platforms.
- A virtual teleprompter so speakers can look good on camera and bring the energy of their body language to their live talks.
- Automatic audio/video captioning and translation so churches can make their recorded videos accessible in any language. (We recently released an additional YouTube integration so you can use our tools to caption and translate videos on your channel).
As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Sharing Stories, Casting Vision
Meanwhile, we also pivoted our content calendar to produce episodes of the TheoTech podcast, sharing stories of how Christians in medicine, design, higher education, 3-d printing, church, entrepreneurship, open source, and more were responding to the pandemic.
Every two weeks I shared life and business updates with our amazing podcast Patrons and found having people who care about me and my work a great source of resilience and accountability!
After recording a podcast episode with Professor Michael Paulus of Seattle Pacific University, an opportunity arose for an even greater collaboration. With funding from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, we launched the Church Digital Transformation project creating resources to help churches navigate the sudden digital turn and casting vision for the future.
We held a virtual summit, hosted breakout discussions, and created a series of video resources structured as a learning path with reflection questions to unlock insight into God’s will for the future of Church. We also launched the Church Digital Transformation forum for ongoing collaboration (join us)!
What Refactoring Means
Taking a term from the world of software development, “refactoring” means restructuring existing computer code so that it better fulfills its purpose. This often means reducing complexity, so that a program is more efficient, easier to maintain and can be easily extended for a wider variety of purposes.
2020 forced the refactoring of our world and our churches in unforeseen ways—so much is breaking and falling apart and we’re scrambling not only to release “hotfixes and patches”, but to create new structures that are resilient to the overwhelming circumstances.
A lot has been and will be lost in this restructuring. Things we cannot yet know definitively will be gained. And the way the Body of Christ grows up to maturity is when we continue to speak the truth in love to one another.
This is even more critical as we all share in the sufferings—economic, emotional, political, cultural, medical and more brought about by the present crises. As an ideator and innovator, I don’t want to overlook this need to bear one another’s burdens together even though I tend to focus on finding a way forward. I want to acknowledge prior to sharing these thoughts that the way forward is not an antidote for the pain and loss of the past.
A post-digital church that seamlessly integrates the physical and digital realms will not heal the present pain and loss that we feel over our having to sustain “long-distance” relationships at scale for more than a year along with the racial tensions, economic hardships and political instability. The inability to hug and comfort one another with a clear conscience during this time when it is most needed exacerbates the feelings of futility that so many of us feel.
These trials force us to ask, “What’s the point? Where are we in God’s story? And what are we supposed to do?”
Do we say, “The show must go on” and do our best to keep up our traditions and institutions in this time of disruption? Or do we re-evaluate our lives, our habits, our institutions in light of God’s promises to iteratively discern a new way?
Exile or Exodus?
During the virtual summit on COVID-19 and the Digital Transformation of the Church, I had a conversation that drew on the biblical metaphor of exile. When the nation of Israel was conquered by other nations and sent into exile out of its own land, there was a deep longing to return expressed in Scripture along with the command to settle in the new land, seek its welfare and create a life, believing God’s promise that they would one day return.
As the pandemic and lockdowns continued to prevent in person gatherings, I wondered whether the Exodus of Israel out of the land of Egypt would be a more apt metaphor. In America, political and legal disputes raged around the question: “Is Church Essential?” But it seemed that very few conversations probed whether or not the model of church we’ve practiced for the past 50 years is essential, or if Church might be reimagined according to Scripture in a “digital-first” way.
The early Church in Acts owned no physical buildings—they gathered in people’s homes and for as long as the Temple in Jerusalem stood, they met there as well. But as mentioned in the letter of Hebrews, persecuted Christians were eventually not allowed into the physical Temple and soon after that the Temple itself was destroyed.
Instead, access to God was made possible through faith in Christ who through his torn flesh on the Cross opened a way into God’s very throne room presence to whom we now have access through the Holy Spirit who seals every believer. We are now seated in the heavenly realms with Christ and are ourselves portable temples of the Holy Spirit whom God is joining together into a glorious new Tabernacle, Temple, or House for God to dwell in.
This theological truth forces us to re-examine our assumptions about the centrality of our in-person gatherings and physical buildings.
We already believe in Christ’s mysterious presence with us when we gather in his name and eat and drink the Lord’s supper. We already believe in the communion of saints across space and time even when we are not physically present at the same time with one another.
These theological truths and many others are amplified by the difficult situation of not being able to physically gather during the pandemic. They give us new eyes to see that our true hope rests in the New Jerusalem, the city whose builder is God, where our longing for in person, embodied, physical communion with God, one another and Creation will be consummated in the visible presence of God filling all of Creation.
In light of this, perhaps it is healthier to view the trials, pains and challenges of our pandemic lockdown orders not as a temporary exile and return to our physical church spaces, but a necessary transition, a necessary “Exodus” out of very limiting views of church centered on buildings into a more mature expression of the Body of Christ as the spiritual network of people from every tribe, tongue and nation who the Holy Spirit gathers as one new humanity, equips and sends through Scripture to be witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus in every sphere of society.
This has always been true, but 2020 has exposed the ways our traditions, assumptions and cultural imports have limited our vision and imagination of what God is actually calling us to be and do. Perhaps instead of longing to return to the constraints of the past, we can discern the meaning of the freedom God has given us to enter a new phase of “salvation history” as Scripture continues to unfold before our eyes, inviting us to fix our eyes on Jesus who is sovereignly leading us through these trials into his Kingdom.
If you’re open to the possibility that there will be “No going back to normal” and that this opportunity, as painful as it is, may be a liberating Exodus into a “refactored” structure of Church that more maturely and faithfully expresses God’s building up of the Body of Christ, then we might ask, “What does that new structure look like?” and “How do we get there?”
To answer these questions, let’s consider several insights that emerged from the Church Digital Transformation Project.
Digital First vs Physical First
Although a hybrid approach to church seems logical at a glance, it turns out that beginning with that vision and trying to implement it gets in the way.
Because the moment you try to hold an in-person gathering amidst the pandemic, you must focus a lot of attention on the physical space including cleaning surfaces, ventilation, heating, social distancing, food and other amenities, whether or not or how to support singing, etc.
This reduces the attention given to the digital experience so much so that you miss the opportunity to practice and master the new medium. You miss the opportunity to try out new ideas that can go beyond the pandemic and create an amazing experience for people who want to engage with Scripture and follow Christ.
If on the other hand, you reimagine church gatherings with a digital-first mindset, you could explore other dimensions of how people connect with one another to worship God. For example:
Time: When do people connect? Do they connect at the same time? Is the experience permanently accessible online or transient?
Privacy: Who is this experience designed for? Is it a private 1:1 connection a public event or something in between? Do we limit who can join or can anyone drop in?
Interactivity: Is this experience designed for mass communication, personal communication or a free for all?
|Multi way||virtual world|
Context: How are people experiencing their calling and connection with the Body of Christ? Is it in a building, at a park, through their phone, on a TV, or at their dinner table? What is their purpose in joining? There are so many more contexts we can explore.
|In Place||On the go|
|Agenda/Program||Ad hoc agenda||Just for fun|
Modalities/Literacies: People have always had different ways of learning, different personalities, different abilities, different cultures and languages, but our churches have traditionally favored a select few. How can we rethink how we do church to be inclusive of and empowering to all this diversity?
|Verbal / Oral||Language|
|Physical / Sign||Touch|
|Written / Reading||Athletics|
Church as a Platform
A second insight from the CDX Project was the focus on viewing Church as a Platform for saints to use their gifts for the work of the ministry that builds up the Body of Christ.
The significance of church buildings has been in their use as a platform for ministry. But the constraints of the building meant that people would view ministry as something that happens “at church” rather than something every saint does in fulfilling their vocation or calling from God in all of life.
Even in an era when church buildings are no longer the central focus, churches can more fully live into their role as a platform for connecting, equipping and unleashing saints to use their unique gifts to live into God’s call for their lives—as individuals and in community.
There are many technological possibilities that can be used, adapted and even invented to facilitate this function of church. However, consistent attention must be paid to iterating, experimenting and learning to really discover how to effectively use the right tools for each community context and person.
Furthermore, in the same way that church building architecture in the past was designed to display theological beliefs and values such as the centrality of Scripture through the location of the pulpit and a physical Bible, or stained glass windows telling the stories of the gospel for the illiterate, or the positioning of a choir to immerse the congregation in the sounds of worship, we must design and adapt our digital spaces.
One way “Zoom church” has reflected an ancient and new theological value has been in the flattening of hierarchies—whereas a pulpit (un)intentionally elevates the preacher as the person in authority, a Zoom gallery view shows the saints as equals in the Kingdom of God, a priesthood of believers, each bearing witness to God’s grace and truth and participating in the life of the Body together.
A second theological reality emphasized by the digital turn is the inclusion of people across far geographical distances in worship together.
Relationships that were lost or diminished due to people moving away were strengthened through worshiping together online. The online environment fostered greater cross-pollination with people joining multiple communities and church leaders participating in calls with many other leaders across institutions. The digital turn also greatly simplified making services accessible in many languages through captions and translation. Churches can choose to emphasize these kinds of shifts through the selection of digital experiences they choose to create and the ways people participate in them.
One area that remains somewhat ambiguous, but critical, is vocational integration—people connecting their faith with their daily lives in the work and play that they do and the relationships they nurture.
What does it mean for everything to be to the glory of God?
“Church as a Platform” means that through participation in the shared life of a local church(es) (even digital life), people gain discernment of God’s will for their lives and gain the support they need to fruitfully and faithfully live with a clear conscience before God.
Especially amidst the economic instability, job loss and disruption posed by the pandemic, having the opportunity to meditate on Scripture, pray for one another, tangibly serve, connect with others in shared experiences, and reflect on one’s own life—the bulk of which happens in the home and work “place”–and how the Spirit is maturing oneself will be more essential than ever. Personal spiritual formation goes hand in hand with vocational integration.
These practical examples are simply meant to stir the imagination because the possibilities opened up by digital transformation are vast and largely unexplored.
Canonical Scripture Engagement
A third insight from the CDX Project is that Scripture’s authority is not merely in individual verses or paragraphs, but in its canon as a whole. Having access to the Bible online and in apps is great from the perspective of accessibility, and searching for a verse is helpful for reducing friction, but some things are lost along the way.
Unlike a physical book, it’s harder to get a sense of “place” in Scripture—you have less of a sense of “where you are at”. And Scripture is easy to copy and paste, meaning that it is easier than ever to take it out of context and post it online as a heartwarming meme. On top of this, the sense of its wholeness as a library of texts that together express God’s Word and the interconnections between those texts is hard to convey.
This presents an interesting opportunity for user experience design and innovation. What would it look like for Church Digital Transformation to change how we engage with the Bible for the better?
Instead of just having a Bible app that is easy to search and add notes or hosting Zoom calls that are indistinguishable from work meetings that are not centered on Scripture, how can we help people engage with all of the Bible, and not just hear it, but do what it says? What could worldwide biblical literacy look like given the digital possibilities before us?
This is something each of our communities can experiment with and discover for ourselves. It’s a fruitful area for sharing and trying out new ideas.
One prototype we considered draws from the concept of “spatial software” where participants have a sense of place in the virtual world. But instead of imagining a virtual reality church, imagine an infinite canvas with Scripture laid out as a series of “scrolls”. Imagine people gathered around a particular section of the text in the form of little pointers with their faces displayed. As a person discusses the text they can highlight or motion what they are referring to. (Note: Concept art/screenshots are forthcoming!)
Since everyone is immersed in the same textual virtual space, they can also add their comments or associations, bringing in other resources like links or videos and juxtaposing them with the text and with what others are sharing. A teacher acts as a “tour guide” through the whole canon of Scripture, sharing and asking questions about a particular text, but also taking the group on a trail to related parts of Scripture and then bringing it all together to see the different texts side by side.
Forming groups to discuss Scripture could be as simple as drawing a rectangle on the canvas and inviting people to “hang out” there. The rectangle can act as a sandbox for the ideas, resources and experiences people share in that group and it can either be a permanent space on the canvas that group members reorganize, enhance and adapt to their needs, or it can be a transient space for that moment that group members can later revisit to see a history or timeline of their engagement with Scripture in community.
One advantage of this simple “canvas view” of Scripture and the “rectangle” model of a gathering around Scripture located on that canvas is that it can easily lend itself to a visualization of the whole Body of Christ—you can see where people are engaging with Scripture in your immediate network or community, or in aggregate across the whole world.
It also conveys the sense that Scripture isn’t a book–it’s a library. And just as in a library you can see where people are “hanging out”, you can see where people are “hanging out in Scripture” and follow your curiosity to spontaneously join in or follow a guided tour or just immerse yourself in the connections of the text perhaps with one other close friend. It illuminates the definition of church as a called out assembly, gathering around God’s Word to hear and obey together and it digitally displays the interconnectedness of local churches as a portal into the global Body of Christ.
These ideas are possible to prototype/experiment with through state of the art tools like Miro, Figma or even Google Docs, which in different ways leverage the concepts of spatial software. However neither is designed for the purpose of engaging with Scripture, bringing together the “content presence” of the Bible, the “instructor presence” of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor/teachers, and the “social presence” of the entire Body of Christ.
Digital transformation may look like pressing into these state of the art tools and concepts to form new expressions of church that more faithfully reflect our theology, God’s call and effectively serve as a platform for Christians to live out their faith in a mid-pandemic and post-pandemic future.
In this article, I’ve offered a synthesis of ideas that emerged from my experiences in the pandemic through our spf.io platform, the TheoTech Podcast interviews and the Church Digital Transformation project.
My hope is that this humble vision casting might inspire us all to lean into what God is doing through the present disruption, coming out of these times more mature and more complete as the Body of Christ. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve felt the Lord regularly impress two themes on my mind: “the primacy of God’s agency” and “the expansion of our identity” as the Body of Christ.
God is using this pandemic, digital transformation and all the crises of 2020 to unite heaven and earth in Jesus Christ through the Church. Our churches have been stuck in strange structures that have limited our understanding of who we are as the body of Christ and hindered our purpose as servants of Christ. As we undergo this great refactoring, let us embrace the ways God is expanding our identity beyond the four walls of a physical building, the confines of our subcultures and the comfort zones of the past. Let us invent, experiment, pray, grow, suffer, and rejoice together, pressing ever onward to the better future God promised to us in Scripture.