“We haven’t gone back to church in person since covid—we continue to stream online services.”
“We attend service in person about once a week. Staying home is something we like having a nice, unhurried leisurely morning. When we’re settled, we watch online service together. Sundays now truly feel like a Sabbath.”
“We wanted to check out the kids’ program online. Will you please give us access?”
“Our kids still watch your church’s kids’ online lessons when we can’t go to our local church.”
“Now that we’re watching online services, we haven’t missed a week of church!”
The Scattered Church: Is the Goal Always Gathering?
Over the past month, I’ve encountered all these statements. And I can’t deny that a visceral wince accompanies each mention of a family opting to stay home and consume online worship rather than participating in person. At the same time, there’s a sense of relief that they haven’t entirely left the church and maintain a degree of connection through online services.
Living in Los Angeles, I’m accustomed to the prevalence of commuter churches.
According to the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, 68 percent of churchgoers attend a church within a 15-minute drive from their homes. Another twenty-three percent have a commute of 16 to 30 minutes, while nine percent travel more than 30 minutes to their church. The survey notes that individuals in small towns enjoy the shortest commutes. In these smaller towns, 27 percent live within just five minutes of their local church, while those in larger cities tend to commute longer.
Although I lack specific statistics, my observations living and serving in various large cities across California suggest a notably higher percentage of congregants commuting considerable distances to their church.
Furthermore, the widespread availability of online services, particularly post-pandemic, has contributed to creating a “scattered church.” Churches now commonly consider both in-person attendance and online views when assessing weekly participation.
According to Web Tribunal, 53% of practicing Christians engaged with their church’s services online. And 33% of church attendees initially discovered their church online. Notably, young adults in the 18-34 age range are more inclined to attend a virtual church rather than opting for in-person attendance.
The “scattered church” is becoming more normal in many places today.
The Action Bible Anytime Devotions
The Action Bible Anytime Devotions
The Action Bible Anytime Devotions
Staying in Touch with the Scattered Church
Over the past two years, I’ve had experiences that prompted me to reconsider virtual church settings. Amid the COVID stay-at-home period, I observed a growing number of individuals participating in virtual church within the metaverse. Podcasts discussing relational communities in the metaverse caught my attention, and what intrigued me even more was discipleship in this digital realm.
Bishop DJ Soto of VR MMO Church shared in a podcast that he had shared the gospel more in 18 months via the metaverse than he had in over two decades of in-person ministry. His accounts of people who wouldn’t even consider entering a physical church building but who were exploring virtual church fascinated me. There were stories upon stories of people making decision to follow Jesus via metaverse church.
Intrigued by this, I began exploring metaverse church to gain a better understanding. Although I was initially skeptical, my further research led me to grasp the appeal. Individuals who classify themselves as “dones” and “nones” often express leaving traditional churches due to feeling judged really appreciate the scattered church.
The Metaverse & Other Platforms
The metaverse provides a safe space where people can attend without the fear of judgment. In addition, initial anonymity empowers them to be more vulnerable and transparent, fostering an authentic relational community.
Last year, I collaborated on a project with the Founder of Satellite Gaming, a ministry to teens focused on making disciples and disciple-makers through video gaming. What surprised me was the revelation that 20% of the students they connected with online were individuals they had never met in person. Impressed by the ministry’s impact, I introduced students in my church to Satellite Gaming’s Discord and Twitch communities.
A few months later, we discovered that one of our students was grappling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, the Satellite Gaming team played a pivotal role in sharing the gospel truth with him. They actively engaged in his discipleship journey.
Six months later, our 14-year-old student is now writing short devotionals for his peers within his Discord community. Three months ago, our church partnered with Satellite Gaming to host a Smash Bros Tournament in Los Angeles, allowing this student to finally meet his online mentor in person. It was a meaningful reunion for both of them.
Going Beyond Traditional Church
While the “scattered church” may not align with traditional ideals in many aspects, we must acknowledge that this is a growing trend that shows no signs of diminishing. The emergence of online churches and metaverse-based congregations began gaining momentum even before the pandemic. This seem to be a lasting trend, or, at the very least, a continuously evolving occurrence.
While some will always prefer the traditional in-person meetings, I anticipate the continuousness of “scattered church” communities that connect and engage virtually. Perhaps online engagement serves as an introduction to church or faith for some individuals.
Not every church needs to cater to scattered communities. Some churches will thrive in local ministry, continuing to excel in their immediate vicinity. However, for churches with a congregation that includes longer-distance commuters or an online community, technology and strategic planning now offer viable alternatives.
In my own church, we’re adapting by bringing midweek student ministries directly to where the kids are. Recognizing that some families live up to 30 miles away from the church, making midweek gatherings in LA traffic virtually impossible, our strategy involves taking leaders to their neighborhoods.
We encourage families to host midweek gatherings in their homes, allowing our leaders to drive and facilitate small group meetings for discipleship and fellowship. This approach enables us to bridge the physical gap and meet the needs of our diverse congregation effectively.
Implications for Children’s Ministry
So, what implications does all of this have for ministry to kids? In our approach, we maintain a strong emphasis on in-person Sunday gatherings as a priority. However, recognizing the evolving landscape, we also make online lessons available for those who cannot join us physically.
Our online audience consists of those who have not yet returned to in-person services, those exploring our ministry, and families facing challenges attending church due to illness, sports commitments, or being out of town. We evaluate the effectiveness of our online lessons quarterly, ensuring they continue to meet the needs of our families.
A significant positive outcome during the Covid shutdown was the empowerment of parents as the primary faith leaders for their children. Parents embraced the opportunity to connect with their kids through at-home devotionals and activities provided by the church.
Recognizing the value of this parental involvement, we have decided to continue providing devotional kits for Lent and Advent. We even mail them to families engaged in online participation.
While I don’t advocate for every church to cater to the “scattered church,” for those with the resources and existing engagement from afar or virtually, it presents another viable avenue to meet people where they are.
I believe there is space for both in-person and virtual worship community experiences today. It’s about understanding your congregation’s demographics and implementing strategies that best suit your community’s needs to bring the gospel and to help people grow as followers of Jesus.