Rev. Justin Murff, FRSA, Executive Director of the MENA Collective, submits the following and is available for comment: With all of the uncertainty surrounding the current crisis, one thing churches and pastors can be sure about is that streaming your online service is simply not enough. As ministers of the Gospel, we have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to shepherd and care for the people that God has entrusted to us. Thankfully we live in the digital age where technology can be the most important tool at our disposal. Even a few weeks ago, the idea of the digital Church was a mystery and was also scoffed at by many as an inferior expression of the Body of Christ. That was before the Corona outbreak took its rapid escalation globally.
As more and more Americans are requested to isolate themselves, the Church must not have a defeatist mentality; rather, we should view this as an opportunity that could potentially position the Church for its greatest evangelistic growth in generations. People are scared and confused; anxiety abounds; this is where we have the chance to share the words of Christ and encourage the people not to fear. This is also the time for Christians to remind each other that not only do we serve a risen Savior, but we also serve the great Physician. Realistically, now is also the time for Churches to prepare prudently for the coming days ahead. Loneliness and isolation can be dangerous breeding grounds for depression. Shortages in stores also present an opportunity to love our neighbors in new and unprecedented ways. Now is the time where the Church can really be the good Samaritan to the communities we have been called to serve.
The reality is beginning to sink in for most Christians around the world that for the first time in the 2,000 years since Christ left this earth, the majority of the Church will not be able to celebrate a risen Savior together, at least physically. Even the early Church has its catacombs. We have to not only move our Sunday services online, but we need to be thinking about building an intentional community online as well. We can’t stop religious formation, catechesis, Sunday school, small groups, and community life as we know it simply because of quarantines. No, we can use many tools and resources at our disposal to turn this season into one of the most intentional opportunities for discipleship the Church has seen.
Ministries like RightNow Media, which has tremendous online discipleship resources, have begun to make their content available online for free. People can find the comforting words of scripture on almost any device, thanks to YouVersion. Using these great Bible studies coupled with Facebook groups or Zoom, we can continue to provide excellent discipleship opportunities for our communities. Just because we can’t meet face to face doesn’t mean the Church gets a pass on our obligation to be the ministering hands and feet of Jesus, offering hope, life, and love to a hurting world. For years, persecuted Christians in the Middle East have had to resort to using the digital Church as their only means of gathering and worshiping freely without fear of death or persecution. Now, their ministry experience presents tremendous learning opportunities for churches in the West to learn just how to build an authentic, Christian community online.
Churches across Europe are beginning to grapple with the difficulties of conducting services, particularly funerals, in an age where people cannot gather and find closure, comfort, or a shoulder on which to cry. Even at the most conservative of estimates, the reality is that almost every Church in the country may very well experience at least someone they know who is sick with the virus. Pastors may even be called on to conduct funerals virtually in the coming weeks and months ahead. We cannot afford not to build the type of community online that provides comfort to the hurting, peace to the distressed, and hope to the hopeless.
The conversation around digital churches has been going on for years. In 2019 a group of digital church pastors and theologians from across the Christian tradition had been gathering and discussing how the future of the digital Church would look. This conversation has included scholars such as Dr. Daryl Boch from Dallas Theological Seminary, Jay Kranda, the online pastor at Saddleback Church, Dr. Jonathan Armstrong from Moody Bible Institute, and a host of other scholars and pastors. These conversations have also included futurists like Pastor D.J. Soto, who leads Virtual Reality Church, and Daniel Herron, who pastors the Robloxian Christian Church on the Roblox PC game. These conversations have included everyone from Anglicans to Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics to Pentecostals, and just about every other tradition in between. It is also included a number of pastors and leaders from the Middle East who are experiencing and leading the digital church movement in their region out of the necessity because they have been so effective at reaching the majority populations in their country who do not come from a Christian background. From this group of leaders, a tremendous resource called the Digital Church Guidebook has been created, and it is freely available and can be accessed here.
We are entering into an unprecedented new era for the Church. How we approach the next few weeks and months will determine just what type of Church we are. Are we focused on buildings, budgets, or people? Many of the resources required to develop an online community need little to no funding to get started. The finances saved from electric bills and air-conditioning costs of our churches could be turned into resources to provide food and much-needed supplies to our emergency responders and local hospitals. Now is the time for the Church to be the kind of resilient Church that best represents a risen Savior as we move into this Easter season.
Rev. Justin Murff, FRSA, is the Executive Director of the MENA Collective, a ministry that resources more than 150 ministries throughout the Greater Middle East and North Africa. He also leads the Institute for Digital Ecclesiology.