Photo: Shirley from Northgate Church, participates in the church’s online services. The church has been intentional in keeping all members involved in the shift to online.

The gathering restrictions brought on by COVID-19 mean that, where a church has the resources to do so, pre-recorded or live-streamed online church services are replacing in-person services.

Even with the inclusion of interactive features like ‘live chat’, the one-to-many digital nature of an online service may seem impersonal. However, many of these churches are reporting a renewed focus on personal engagement even beyond what they had experienced when in-person church services were permitted.

“We’re being really specific around life groups and pastoral care processes,” said Nathan Green, Senior Pastor at Lifegate Church in southern Sydney. “We were doing groups fortnightly, and now we’re going to weekly. It’s the life group leader’s responsibility to track attendance and touch base with each person every week, asking good questions and recording in a spreadsheet when they were last contacted and how they are going spiritually, mentally and physically.”

In a similar vein, Live Connection Church (formerly Northgate Church) on Sydney’s northern beaches is determined that no individual would be overlooked or left behind.

“In some ways, communication has improved because we’re being more intentional about ringing around and making sure everyone is connected and looked after,” said Paul Ravestyn, Senior Pastor at Live Connection Church.

“In particular, we wanted to make sure our older members weren’t left out. We’ve managed to source laptops for 11 elderly people and are putting the church service on a thumb drive and showing them how to use it so they can be part of our online service each week.”

It is one thing for a church to sustain online gathering for a month, but what if the restrictions last for six months? In that case, a big challenge for many will be how to help those who are on the edges of faith remain engaged.

“The question becomes how to help every individual to be on a journey,” said Andrew Ranucci, Director of Soul Life Ministries. “To do that, I think we’ve got to come up with a whole other approach which is much more incarnational, breaking the community right down to more intimate relationships.

“This is an opportunity for the church to help every person become self-feeders rather than rely on an external experience to propel their faith.”

As well as its weekly online services, Campbelltown Church of Christ is eager to help each individual take more ownership for their faith.

“I was concerned that in this season people would still feel too dependent on the church rather than take responsibility,” said Ryan Graham, Senior Pastor at Campbelltown Church of Christ. “We have recently used the metaphors that we as the church are here to coach you and cheer you on as you live your faith, but you’re the one who has to play on the field.

“I’m hoping this season stirs up spiritual maturity. For three years we have had a strategic goal of providing access to discipleship resources to equip people with, and I think this is the time to kick into that.”

By Emily Ferguson