Both/and Principle: Technology & the Church

 By Oliver Locke

Is Online Church going to replace in-person gatherings? A trend in our society is that more and more things are moving online. Some people look at that trend and conclude the future of the church will be online gatherings, using fully immersive VR headsets or hologram projection. It’s possible this will become more and more common. 

However, recently I was reading Daniel Burrus, a business futurist who discusses technological trends that will shape the future, and he has proposed a “Both/And Principle” (https://www.burrus.com/2018/11/to-see-the-future-think-both-and/). His point is that when new technological innovations appear that disrupt an established market, often the old technology doesn’t disappear. For instance, digital media has not totally replaced the use of paper; and online shopping has not made in-person shopping completely obsolete. It’s both/and. The older mediums survive if they offer something the new technology cannot.  

This got me thinking about Online Church and in-person gatherings—I think it will be a both/and situation.  

Take online dating for instance. Twenty years ago, it was odd to hear of someone meeting a significant other through online dating. It was often seen as desperate. However, now it’s become a new-normal part of people’s lives. So, will online dating completely replace the need for in-person contact in romantic relationships? I doubt it. It will be both/and. I think it will play out like this: people will increasingly use online dating to find a potential romantic partner (especially Christian singles living in rural communities where there aren’t many single Christians their age to meet), but only as a tool that precedes meeting up in person. 

I think this offers a helpful comparison to Online Church. More and more, we will see a trend of people “church shopping” online. If people are feeling drawn to explore faith in Jesus or if a Christian moves to a new area, they will check out religious communities online before coming in person. I have heard this story repeatedly at the church I am serving in currently. Rather than spending a month or two visiting different churches, visitors checked out several churches through their websites and service livestreams, and concluded they wanted to try attending ours. They “online dated” a handful of churches and then decided they wanted to meet us in person to see if we were compatible.  

This principle shows that Online Church probably won’t completely replace in-person gatherings. But it should lead us to ask the question: what is the most effective use of our online presence, and what is the most effective use of our in-person gatherings?  

This is not just a technical question, but a theological question. God created humans to live in community, reflecting the communal nature of the Trinity itself (Genesis 1:26-27, 1 John 1:7). Being physically together is important—it helps us support each other and grow spiritually, mirroring how the body of Christ should function (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This idea tells us that gathering is not just nice to have, but a vital part of living the way God intends for us. This leads me to the question: What aspects of our faith can we adequately express online and what aspects require being bodily present with others?  

Churches need to be careful to not just naïvely adopt every technological trend or completely reject every technological trend as something evil. Some churches will have the resources to create very engaging online church experiences with virtual reality technology, etc. (this will only become more affordable and normalized), but don’t be afraid if your church does not currently have that capability. Remember the both/and principle and consider intentionally where you will deploy your energy to engaging your community online and/or in-person. We need to prayerfully seek God’s will for our churches and reflect theologically on what next steps we take. 

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