Never waste a reset: How churches can thrive in 2021

As devastating as COVID-19 has been for all of us who have been in a state of loss — jobs, family time, friends and loved ones — paradoxically it is the greatest opportunity for reset in the recent history of the church. It has given every industry the possibility of pausing, ending, reinventing and restarting. An opportunity we have largely failed to understand, embrace and harness thus far. 

It is possible that the consequences of this global pandemic will have lifelong implications. We are witnessing perhaps the dawning of the Covidian Age, in which the psychological, economic and spiritual aftermath has yet to be comprehended. The likelihood of mutations, new strands and vaccine effectiveness are already making headlines.

While much of this is speculation, what is certain is that we find ourselves in a digital age. The Digital Age is simply the time period starting in the 1970s when the personal computer became widely available. In the 1980s, computer access combined with the internet in the 1990s facilitated the dramatic proliferation of digital devices. In the 2010s, the smartphone revolution essentially placed a supercomputer into the pockets of billions of human beings, creating a new social web and hyper-connected mobile technology. It’s also called the Information Age because the emerging computer technologies introduced the ability to collect and transfer information freely and rapidly.

Sociologist Manuel Castells described the emerging social structure of the digital age as the network society. The network society is the resulting global social structure resulting from these microelectronics-based information and communications technologies which serve as flows that enable us to connect across geographies and time. People, objects and things are moved through social space through these digitally enabled flows.*

In the digital age, we must consider a new kind of space. This “cyberspace” is an expression of the nodes, hubs and flows of the network. In other words, the digital space of bits and bytes is the result of the machinic infrastructure of servers and routers, boxes and wires, cables and satellites, of the network society. 

So, in the same way that cities provided opportunity for encounter in physical space, the digital ecosystem facilitates distanced contact in the space of flows. A city is a built environment that both facilitates and limits the movement of people through a space. The web is similar to a city — it is a digitally built environment that facilitates and limits the movement of people through a virtual ecosystem. Connections, passions and relationships are formed in the built environment of a city and are equally facilitated with others in cyberscape.

This has given us an appreciation for technological advances and personal connections. For instance, Michael experienced some of his grandchildren’s “firsts” through Zoom and attended his mother-in-law’s funeral through Facebook live. Roz’s 81-year-old mother who barely speaks English Facetimed for the first time thanks to his oldest sister, since he hasn’t been able to see his New York family in over a year.

“Virtual reality” is not virtual as in not real, it is real virtuality. Just ask any church that had to survive 2020 by going digital if their online worship, sermons, prayers and tithes were real or not. In some way we are citizens of this new cyberia, but COVID-19 made us more aware of this truth. 

Further, not only can our minds be extended to any locale instantaneously through digital technologies, but our bodies can also be present at any location across the world in a matter of days. We can literally fly in an airplane, jumping space and time, to any desired location (typically in less than a day). Now interplanetary travel looms on the horizon as we hear of Elon Musk and the SpaceX plan for building a Mars settlement in which “a million humans could live on Mars by the 2060s.”

In 2020 we came face to face with a largely unforeseen consequence of a globally connected, network society. We discovered that the data, resources, peoples and ideas that can travel across the earth through these flows at the speed of digital light can also spread a virus traveling those same pathways.

The silk road served as a network to transport valuable goods and services, but it also transported the bubonic plague. Likewise, the technologically enabled capacity of humans to jump space and time, traveling the globe in a matter of days, now enables a single carrier of a novel virus to spread death across the same network. 

In the Fresh Expressions movement, we have prayerfully sought to discover ways to form church with people who don’t go to church in this emerging social milieu. 

Many of us are rushing to put 2020 behind us and venture optimistically into 2021, but what have we learned that might help us thrive? The saddest tragedy of all could be that we waste this moment of reset. 

We had all hoped things would go “back to normal” but find ourselves in a new normal

Both digital natives and digital immigrants alike are familiar with video games. Many of us have experienced a time when our system froze up or got stuck in a loop. Whenever that anxiety inducing moment occurred — whether we grew up on Pong, Super Mario Brothers or Fortnite -- when all else failed… we hit the reset button! 

This is also an approach we employ frequently with the plethora of our digital tools. When our laptop overheats, our PC crashes, or our phone is glitching… we turn it off and turn it back on. When our devices become bogged down with cookies, are maxed with data, or contract viruses the manual reset is a built-in mechanism to optimize and make the system work again.

The church has become bogged down, loaded with unnecessary clutter and infected with many viruses. The virus of imperialism, racism, classism, consumerism, sexism and so on. The U.S. church has been in a state of plummeting decline for over 50 years. We have needed a reset for a long time. 

The global pandemic provided the church with a moment of manual reset. In Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post Pandemic World, we try to curate and distill some of the learnings from 2020. 

Roz and I wrote this book as theorists, removed from frontline action in the local church. We both live this on different scales and in different ways in the trenches of a digital frontier every week. As local church pastors and church planters, we are practitioners of what we share in the book.

We propose that the future of the church in the West is not analog, nor is it digital, it is hybridity… a blended ecology of analog, digital and hybrid expressions of church for a post-Christendom world. 

A central but radical idea that we propose…

Any Christian with internet access and a device can be a missionary in the Digital Age. 

Furthermore, evangelism, discipleship and church planting should not be programs, departments or the expertise of specialists. They are a single move of the Spirit that flows through the life of every Jesus follower. When we do this in community with others, we are the fullness of the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5-9). On the digital frontier, the playing field has been leveled. Every believer can play a part in God’s ever-expanding kingdom.

Not only do we suggest simple ways for traditional congregations to use technology to reach new people and care for existing flocks, but we also suggest a process to plant churches on the digital frontier. We hope you will find this resource timely and helpful to seize the tremendous challenges and opportunities that 2021 will provide. Pre-order your copy here and make the 2020 reset count.


* Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), xvii–xviii.

comments powered by Disqus