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How to walk into (online) church

How to walk into (online) church

In the opening section of his book How to Walk into Church, Tony Payne offers this key insight and tip:

But if you were to understand what the Bible says about church—about what church is, and why we go there, and what we’re supposed to do while we’re there—then there is one particular way of walking into church that you would want to master… 
It is this: we should walk into church praying about where to sit.

Now, churches across the world are trying a variety of forms of church during this pandemic, but pretty much none of them involve walking into a building and choosing a seat! Mostly they involve sitting in front of your TV or computer, perhaps on your own, perhaps with family or housemates.

So praying about where to sit seems, well… a little redundant right now.

But don’t give up on the book just yet, because Tony then explains why that tip reflects two key truths about church:

If we walk into church praying, we’re putting ourselves in the right posture or frame of mind towards God. We are turning our hearts to the one who is the centre of everything, including church.
Secondly, when we pray about where to sit, we’re also putting ourselves in the right frame of mind towards each other. We have started to think about church as being about someone other than me.
This can be quite a mind-shift, but it’s a vital one. We come to church not only to be loved and blessed by God, but also to love and bless others around us. We come not to spectate or consume, nor even to have our own personal encounter with God. We come to love and to serve.

So how can we put those two ideas into practice in our online church context?

As I said, there are a wide variety of online churches—some pre-recorded or livestreamed that we just watch, others with more active participation and interaction through a platform like Zoom—so perhaps not every tip below will be applicable to your church’s approach. But most churches have some sort of music, prayer, Bible reading and sermon, and most have some form of interactive online fellowship at some point (perhaps at the end or at another time in the week).

Given these commonalities, following Tony’s framework in the book, I’m going to suggest some tips for before and during online church, and my colleague Marty Sweeney will share some tips about after online church.

Before online church

  • Plan to join every week. It’s not the same as normal church, of course, but in God’s providence it’s what we’ve got. So commit to it and make the most of it. (It’s not like it clashes with Sunday sport now!)
  • Pray. You may not pray about where to sit (depending on how many are in your household, I guess), but you can still pray that:
    • others will engage with your online church, whether regulars or newcomers
    • God will speak powerfully through his word
    • the Holy Spirit will use that word to change our hearts and minds and grow us in Christlikeness
    • you will be able to encourage others in some way, even if it is just by them knowing you are participating; if possible through personal conversation
    • the technology will run smoothly and won’t distract from any of the above.
  • Think. “Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). Read the passage in advance, and think about it. Be better prepared to talk with others about what God is saying to you through it after the sermon.
  • Invite. The hurdles for a non-Christian to visit our church are currently as low as they get. They don’t have to drive and park, worry about their appearance, walk into unfamiliar surroundings, or fret about what to put in the plate when it comes by. Instead they can hear God’s word by clicking on a link from the comfort of their own home, and hopefully see at least some of the joy of our community life. It’s a great first step. (And follow up with an invitation to a second and third step.)

During online church

Participate enthusiastically. Especially if others can see you, but even if they can’t. (I don’t need to remind you that the “audience of one” can see you, do I?)

  • Sing heartily (and loudly). I like to open my living room windows in the hope that my neighbours will hear my wife and I singing on a Sunday morning. (Hopefully it’s a little less annoying to them than the leafblower other neighbours might use at such times!)
  • Say “Amen” with those leading in prayer (and/or say the responsive prayers) with a committed voice.
  • Speak up in any interaction; don’t leave it to others. We’re all a bit tentative using this unfamiliar new Zoom medium and so are hesitant to speak. But serve others by jumping in and saying something.
  • Be aware of your ‘facial screensaver’ (as Tony terms it): the look you have on your face as you listen (e.g. to the sermon). Do you look bored? Or engaged and receptive? Smile at the jokes. Nod if you hear something that strikes you as true and important. In regular church we all look to the front, and only the preacher can see our faces, but if we’re all on screen then many more people can see us. That’s an opportunity to encourage many more people.
  • For the same reason, please ditch the distracting fake background images, especially the ones that make your face transparent. And try to make sure there’s nothing distracting in your actual background (visible or audible). 
  • Do whatever it takes to maximise your concentration. Take notes in the sermon. Switch other devices to airplane mode, and don’t try to do other things at the same time. (Having said that, maybe now is a good time to make the important point that we are all wired differently. I have a colleague who says she concentrates much better on the sermon if she is doing something like folding the laundry. Let’s not get judgy about any of these tips!)
  • I find it very hard to multitask, so if someone uses the chat function, or I try to use it to send a question to the preacher, I inevitably tune out of everything else while I read/write it. So care for people like me and keep chat messaging to essentials (e.g. for technical issues) or wait until an appropriate time.
  • If you have the blessing of some interactive time online before or after church, make the most of the chance to talk to people and encourage them. This is where your pre-thinking comes into play, because you’ve got some thoughts and questions on the passage you’ve all been looking at. If your church doesn’t set up online interaction, arrange with someone in advance to watch online church at the same time and then connect by phone or video call for an encouraging chat and prayer.

But now I’m starting to stray into the ‘after online church’ area. And that’s where I’ll hand over to Marty Sweeney’s article.

It’ll be a great day when we can walk back into (real) church—hopefully returning with good habits even more firmly entrenched.

Ian Carmichael

Ian has been with Matthias Media from its beginning (1988). In late 2020 he stepped down from the CEO role, and now works as an honourary consultant and editor for Matthias Media and Vinegrowers. Ian and his wife, Stephanie, have two adult children, two (gorgeous) grandchildren, and are part of Chatswood Presbyterian church in Sydney. Ian is one of the Vinegrowers team providing free consultations for church leaders who want to more effectively grow the disciple-making culture in their church.