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5 surprising ways churches move outside the building

Church is showing up in some surprising digital spaces
Church is showing up in some surprising digital spaces

What does church look like in your mind?

Most of us imagine church as an event happening at a specific place and a specific time. Often that place is a building with stained glass and rows of seating. That time we imagined is a Sunday morning. There are other people in our imagined picture, aren’t there? They may wear collared shirts and floral dresses. If we are amongst the crowd gathered in our picture, we may softly sing along with the congregation at appropriate times--our own voices buried in the thick layers of the larger gathering. We close our eyes at the appointed times and join our gathered community in prayer.

The events of 2020 changed the image of church for many of us. When we learned we could no longer attend gatherings like those described above, we also learned that church is more than an event. We learned that church is community is action. But the gathering limitations of 2020 limited the ways we engage in community. We need to be creative in how we engage in community.

The year 2020 may very well have forever changed our picture of church. According to a 2020 study by the Barna Group, 41% of church-going Gen Zers will return to regularly attending in-person church gatherings. That means 59% will not. This 59% will continue to engage with their church communities in other ways outside of regular in-person worship attendance.

What is church going to look like instead? That’s largely yet to be determined. But there are five surprising ways the church has been showing up during this time of transition. These may not represent the normative practices of the church’s new reality as we wander our way into the future. But they will surely inspire more creative ways for us to engage in faithful community and provide invitations and contact points for those of us looking to connect.

In a box

Lent is the season leading up to Easter. It is a time of reflection and devotion. Traditionally, Lenten participants give up things--or participate in fasting--in order to leave more room in their lives for faithful reflection. For example, they may give up chocolate for the season so they allow room for becoming aware of the good things God provides.

However, Lent 2020 turned into a year-long fast for many--there are many things we’ve all been asked to go without. The will to fast through the Lenten season of 2021 was low. But the urge to reflect and connect in shared practices this season is still strong.

Several faith communities responded to this demand by providing “Lent in a Box.” The goal of each box is to provide a sense of connection to community practice while offering individuals Lenten-themed activities for reflection. Some Lent boxes included palm branches for individuals or families to burn and create ashes for a stay-at-home Ash Wednesday service. Some boxes included instructions and key ingredients for making pretzels--along with a devotional guide for the meaning of the pretzel shape. Instructions and creative ideas for assembling an at-home prayer space have also been included.

Streaming platforms

There are pastors who love to preach. There are pastors who love to connect people with one another. There are pastors who love to game. There are plenty of pastors who love all of it--and an intrepid group has been combining their beloved vocations on Twitch and Discord, livestreaming platforms.

Sometimes these faith leaders show up simply to share a gaming experience. Other times, they dive deep into theological discussions. Some pastors simply stream as individuals. Others have organized streaming communities, including CrossFire Faith and Gaming as well as Checkpoint Church.

Your living room

Once upon a time, intrepid churches shared their worship services through video platforms like YouTube as a means for inviting people into their in-person worship services. That is no longer the case. Today, many churches present video-based worship experiences because this is the means through which a digitally-native population engages in community. So churches are not just recording in-person worship services and posting them online. They are instead creating worship experiences specifically for online engagement.


That’s right, the online music giant presents fascinating opportunities for building connections with communities of faith. Many churches now supplement their worship experiences by assembling playlists for members to listen to and reflect upon through the week. 

One group, known as Spotify Church, assembled weekly playlists based upon weekly lectionary readings. The lectionary is a commonly-used list of recommended scripture passages for worship. So if the lectionary recommended a weekly reading of 1 John 3:1-3, then Spotify Church provided a list of songs evoking the ideas expressed in the reading.

Rethink Church has also assembled a couple playlists for inspirational rocking.

New audio apps

New social apps like Clubhouse and Cappuccino provide interesting ways for sharing in practice and ideas. Groups on the audio-based Clubhouse app meet regularly for prayer and for sharing faith-based encouragement with one another.

Cappuccino provides faith leaders with a way for faith leaders and ministers to give congregants daily audio reflections and words of inspiration. The app is a platform for recording short audio messages that are shared within the app to registered contacts. 

Clearly, church is becoming more technology-dependent. But, in most regards, church always has been--whether that be through utilizing audio amplification technology, television media, or even acoustical and architectural advancements. These new expressions are evidence that the church will continue to adapt to and drive technological innovation. 

How have you experienced connection and “church” in a new way? We’re looking forward to sharing more ideas and seeing more develop. Sign up for our bi-weekly Compass newsletter to stay connected and informed.

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Ryan Dunn is the Minister of Online Engagement, Rethink Church, for United Methodist Communications. His job duties include podcasting, writing and social media management. He nerds out over finding fresh expressions of church. If you know of one, [email protected].

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