When God Closes a Church Door, He Opens an Internet Window

Image: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images Pastors like Troy Dobbs at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, preached to empty sanctuaries as church services moved online last Sunday.

More Christians worshiped, prayed, and shared Scripture online in the past week than ever before, as COVID-19 precautions shut down in-person church gatherings across the US and around the globe.

Bobby Gruenewald would know. His team at Life.Church developed the popular YouVersion Bible app as well as the Church Online Platform, which was used to stream worship to more than 4.7 million devices last weekend, quadruple its typical reach.

These technologies have existed for well over a decade, and about a quarter of Protestant churches in the US already livestream services in some format, according to LifeWay Research.

But what happened starting last weekend was unprecedented.

Churches across traditions took advantage of the technology and met over YouTube, Facebook Live, Zoom, and outlets like Church Online, which saw 8,800 new congregations join in the past seven days. It’s a free platform that adds church-specific features to a typical video steam, so congregants can participate in sermon discussions and leaders can connect with individuals who need prayer.

Gruenewald said when they built Church Online 14 years ago, they imagined it would help tech-savvy churches get their messages to a new crowd, allow services to go on in the aftermath of natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, and provide a way for Christians to gather in places where their activities are restricted.

“But we didn’t anticipate a time where in our country nearly every church’s doors are closed. That was unthinkable,” Gruenewald said. “It’s like there’s an ark being built, and we didn’t know it would rain.”

Churches’ digital resources typically supplement in-person gatherings, providing access for those who are sick or traveling or, at some multisite churches, assembling those who prefer to worship online into an “online campus.” But now they’re a lifeline, whether for worship, tithing, small groups, or prayer.

More than 1.4 million prayers have been created since the Bible App launched a new prayer function in early March. Though the app doesn’t track the topic of prayers, it’s clear what users are reading: Philippians 4:6–7 (“Do not be anxious about anything …”) trended into the top five verses, while searches about anxiety, hope, and fear multiplied. Overall, last Sunday tied for the highest number of shares in a single day for the app, reaching a record set last Easter.

Topics related to the end of the world, disease, and fear have spiked on Bible Gateway, with searches for Psalm 91 (“Surely he will save you … from the deadly pestilence”) tripling and becoming the most-searched passage on the site. Searches on 2 Chronicles 7:14 increased ninefold from the week before: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Church Online is gearing up for another record-setting weekend and hopes to support many more congregations going forward.

“Obviously as followers of Jesus, we’re not going to sit in despair or fear, but there are naturally human emotions that come with the isolation,” said Gruenewald, who spent 14 days alone in quarantine after he and Life.Church senior pastor Craig Groeschel were possibly exposed to COVID-19 in Germany last month. Just as he was released, the rest of the country began its coronavirus crackdown, canceling personal plans and forcing his team to pivot to develop a suite of new resources, including a midweek devotional service launching at Life.Church and special prayers around coronavirus for the Bible App.

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Source: Christianity Today

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