In person vs. online

Ah, it’s the debate of the whatever we are in now. It’s a big debate in the church. What’s the right approach? Going all in on hybrid and online ways of doing things or scrapping them to focus attention fully on in person gatherings? I’ve heard so many of the arguments and have made them myself. And like most arguments in churches, the arguments fall on deaf ears because most of us have already made up our minds and we can easily dismiss anything we disagree with. Fun times!

The more I’ve thought about this lately, the more I have come to the conclusion that the debate is pointless – not unlike so many debates that go on in churches.

That’s because the debate is on the wrong focus.

Being in person is not some kind of silver bullet solution for churches. If it was, it would have been working great before the pandemic. It wasn’t and it hasn’t for decades. It’s not the being in person that matters the most.

Hybrid and online options are not the silver bullet solutions for churches either. If they were, we’d see amazing long term sustained growth. We aren’t. It’s not the technology that matters the most.

You want to know what matters the most – trust. If you don’t have trust, it doesn’t matter if you are in person or online. If you can’t trust the people you are with, then no amount of in person or online connection will matter.

But if you have trust with someone, then here’s what I also know – whether you are in person or online won’t matter either. It’s just a medium. What matters is the trust.

Trust can be built in person, for sure. But it can most definitely be built in an online digital medium as well. For example, I have a colleague that I have known for a few years now. We have taught a few classes together and done some one-day style teaching opportunities. We have spend hours in planning and talking and keeping up with each other. We work really great together. And…I’ve never met my colleague in person. Ever. And it’s possible that I may never either. And that’s ok. I don’t feel disconnected from them. I have great trust of them and they of me. That’s why we can do what we do. I have far more trust of my colleague who I only know online than I do of some of the people I live next door to in my neighborhood, and I see them in person all the time.

If there is a lack of trust, there is nothing to build a relationship on. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend with that person. It doesn’t matter what activities you do. It doesn’t matter how much you invest in the relationship. Without trust, you have nothing. And I think that’s part of the challenge that churches face. The people don’t trust one another – not all of them of course. But you end up with congregations within congregations. Call them cliques, call them groups, call them whatever you want. Most of the time, it’s just informal, which makes it even harder to deal with. They have trust within their group, but not in the larger body. They may even have a different culture than the larger body. They may have a different way of communicating. They may have different expectations and assumptions. But if that’s the case, and they don’t try to go beyond their grouping, then they won’t have trust in the larger body. Why would they? They aren’t making any effort to build trust.

In person, online, hybrid – save your arguments. Show me how trust is being built and maintained. If that isn’t happening, then the medium doesn’t matter. And that’s not just a leadership challenge to overcome as if the leadership has all the responsibility to build trust. That’s the responsibility of everyone who is part of a church. It’s part of the responsibility of being a member of the church and the body of Christ. If you expect someone else to do the work of building trust, then you really don’t understand what trust is. Trust is mutual. It means you see one another as equals. It means that you contribute to the relationship and put effort into it. It means you are intentional. It means you care about the other person. It means you are vulnerable with them too. It means you listen. It means you speak up directly to them – not through back channels.

It’s really hard to trust someone who makes no effort to reciprocate, who communicates anonymously through back channels, who doesn’t respond, who maintains unspoken expectations and assumptions, and who leaves you scratching your head as to why they are a part of the church when they don’t do anything to support it, or worse yet, openly refuse to do anything to support the church.

The church has been in decline for decades – this is not news. Numbers don’t lie. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think the essential reason why the church has been in decline is because of a lack of trust. There has been a lack of trust among people in the church, a lack of trust in what the church is about and what it stands for, a lack of trust in how money is used and who gets to make the decisions, a lack of trust in transformation, a lack of trust in the message of life, death, and resurrection. Without trust, you end up with a dying church.

Every church that I have seen that is thriving has at its core this essential element – the people trust one another and trust God. That doesn’t mean they are uniform in their beliefs or politics. It doesn’t mean they all have the same culture, background, language, or race. It doesn’t mean they are all the same economically. It means they are able to get over and past divisions because they trust one another. They know that their relationship with one another and God is far more important than anything else. They are intentional about building and maintaining trust – regardless of whether that happens in person, online, or through a hybrid means. They all invest in building trust with one another, not relying on someone else to do it for them. They trust.

You want to turn a church around? You want to see a church grow and thrive? You want to see new ministry happen? You want to see care done for the members? Then it starts with a foundation of trust.

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