by Leigh Finke
Digital ministry has been a challenge churches have faced for two decades. And it’s been a challenge that, if we are honest, many of us have struggled with. Christianity is an incarnational religion, after all, and digital incarnation just doesn’t feel quite right. We want to be in the same space. Two or more gathered, you know. In Person. That’s part of what makes Christian communities feel like Christian communities.
But then, things changed. A global pandemic arrived, and in-person church went from most people’s preference to actually dangerous. Now, for the most part, we’re online. Our lives, and our churches, have called for it.
If you weren’t fluent in the digital technology of the age before COVID-19, you’ve had reason to learn in 2020. And, like any language, learning can be difficult. But there are people who can help—people like Christopher Harris, and his organization, Faith Growth. Harris started Faith Growth about a decade ago to help “churches share the gospel online.”
For the first few years that work was mostly web development. But Harris and his staff have expanded past the “We need a website!” requests and are helping bring churches into the digital age. We spoke to Harris recently about his work, this challenging year and what he expects church to look like in life-after-COVID-19.
This transcript has been edited for publication.
Connect Journal: Faith Growth is helping churches share the gospel online. How do you think the internet is uniquely in sharing the gospel?
Christopher Harris: I don’t think it’s uniquely helpful. It’s where the people are. Facebook alone, 80% of the world is there. And the people online are hurting just like people offline. They’re searching. If we in the church are not there, then Jesus is not there.
If you get sick right now, or if you have questions, you go to the Alexa or to Google. And we ask questions. And so people are doing the same thing with faith. And all their faith-based questions are starting at Google.com. We need to be there.
CJ: What do you think some of the challenges are in being in online spaces and doing this work?
CH: I think the challenges are the same we see offline. We believe in a fallen humanity and humanity can do some evil things. We see it a little easier online because it’s easier for us to see online. But the reality is, as fallen humanity, there is evil in the world, and it’s there. All of humanity is there, and it’s a broken humanity. And I think the same things that inform us offline inform us online.
CJ: What does Faith Growth’s digital ministry work and courses look like?
CH: Our foundational course is called Digital Ministry Coaching Program. It’s a three-month program. We work with a church to get the basics: getting the foundation for outward-focused communication and establishing a platform for them to do digital ministry, a website and then systems for them for how to do communication, publishing content. It’s amazing how many church websites, they just do events. They publish very little content about what they are a subject matter expert about.
This program is about getting them set up for what we see today. People go “shopping” for a new church. They go online and start asking questions. And when they find something they like, they subscribe to newsletters and they kind of lurk for anywhere from three months to 24 months. When they first poke their head up, they’ve actually had a great deal of experience with us, but we’re meeting them for the first time. They’ve already formed a positive or negative opinion of you.
So we’re helping churches in this foundation course understand this is how people are acting and searching now. How can we be found early on and start nurturing that relationship for up to two years before we meet this person face-to-face.
CJ: Why did you move from traditional website building to more training and courses-focused work?
CH: After a few years, what I realized was all we were really doing was helping (churches) move their announcements online. Not that that is a bad thing—it’s just such a small piece of what online ministry can be. It’s really inward-focused as opposed to outward-focused. So I began really thinking, how can we transform, how can we offer something that really helps take the stress of technology away and equips the church and the ministers to do what they love? They love to meet people and share the love of Christ.
CJ: But you still believe in a good website.
CH: The website is the front door online. I think of the hub-and-spoke model. The website is the hub, and you have spokes going off many different directions, from email, social media, whatever might be next that we don’t even know about.
It used to be let’s impress them with everything, and then they’ll show up on Sunday. Now it’s like, how can I do something right now on the website?
So for me it’s let’s give them three good choices. Keeping the website real simple, like: I can worship; I can subscribe; I can get involved.
CJ: What are you learning in your work from this year of COVID-19?
CH: What I’m learning is, how do we actually facilitate community with just digital connection? We’ve always assumed community happens when we’re in the same room. And that is definitely one way to create communities. It’s not the only way. So I think the big thing we’re learning is, how do we create and nurture?
To me the exciting part is, past the website, past the newsletter, past the emails—what are the tools? What I watched happen in the spring was the church started at least trying all these fun things. That’s the difference with technology. With technology you come up with an idea and you test it, and you see if it works. And if it works, great, keeping doing it. And if it doesn’t, then you just move on to the next idea. I’ve seen pastors doing Zoom confirmation. I know a pastor doing confirmation in Fortnite. Being creative.
If you think outside of church, this is really how all relationships are created. If I want to join a professional group, or dating, that’s happening very naturally in other ways. So how is the church beginning these relationships online? That’s the exciting thing and the challenge. We don’t know the best way to do that, and we’re figuring it out together right now.
CJ: In your experience or conversations, how will churches react to the post-COVID era? Are the changes going to stick around or are they waiting to back to ‘normal’.
CH: The majority I talk to realize there’s no going back. Whatever happens in the future will be hybrid and will include technology. That being said, I am sure there are a few churches that will drop everything when they go back. Not to be doom and gloom but COVID is just accelerating a lot of trends. Things were already headed this way; we were just behind.
CJ: Do you think that churches are losing anything by investing in digital ministry? Or is this just something they have to do because that’s where the people are?
CH: It’s only a loss if you frame it that way. When you look for the opportunity in the limitation—yeah, we can’t do it in the way we’ve always done it, but what opportunities does that give us?—I think one of the biggest opportunities is: It’s time to prune.
We always said December is way too busy. What would Advent look like if we said, okay you can’t go anywhere, how about we rest? All of a sudden that matches the theological season, the time of waiting. I mean that’s just one example, but how many times have I heard, how do we regain Advent? It’s like, wow. This year we have an opportunity, and the only way we are going to do that is communicating via the technology.
Prune back and enable people to worship, to connect, to serve their neighbor. That’s my hope.
Leigh Finke is a professional journalist who lives in the Twin Cities.
Categories: December 2020: "The Theology of Technology"