The Ethics of Pastoring Online
Technology is a wonderful tool, but we should not embrace it uncritically
Amid COVID-19 restrictions, most pastors became televangelists. We took our preaching and teaching online in some form or fashion in an attempt to keep communicating the gospel and connecting with the people of our churches.
Pastors quickly reported high online viewership, often much higher than their pre-COVID attendance. I celebrate that many people tuned in, heard the message, and responded by putting their faith in Jesus.
Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, many will look back on this season as the time Jesus radically transformed their lives. And for that, all of heaven celebrates.
On the other hand, we also know COVID accelerated the trends of people shifting from in-person to online church attendance and visiting multiple churches online.
We used to call people who frequently attended different churches “church hoppers.” The idea and the phrase carried negative connotations in church circles. But now, it seems virtual church hopping, and virtual attendance in general, are becoming commonplace.
Early in the pandemic, a Barna Group survey of practicing Christians who had attended church at least once a month found the following:
- 35% were still only attending their pre-COVID church (in person or online)
- 32% stopped attending completely (both in person and online) in the weeks following the pandemic outbreak
- 14% switched churches
- 18% began attending multiple churches online
Two-thirds of regular churchgoers radically changed their attendance patterns during the pandemic. That’s a really big deal, and it’s impossible at this point to know the long-term implications of this shift. But it does raise a few ethical questions ministers need to answer.
These questions strike at the very heart of what it means to be a pastor.
1. Is pastoring a church the same as simply streaming sermons online? To answer this, we need to answer another question: What is a pastor? Biblically, a pastor is a shepherd to the people of the local church and community.
First Peter 5:2–3 says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
Likewise, Paul told church elders in Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Shepherding in these passages implies more than just feeding the flock; it also encompasses all other activity required to sustain, protect, and care for them. We must consider whether we can do these things adequately with an online audience.
2. Is simply watching a church’s online service the same as being a part of that congregation? To answer this, we need to think about what it really means to be part of a church. Some critical components include being in covenant relationship with others, serving, tithing, and having someone to call in a crisis or pray with during times of illness.
Membership in a local body of believers is an ambiguous concept when there’s no personal connection, and when that congregation is not truly local.
3. Should you attempt to pastor viewers who attend another church? The increase in practicing Christians who now attend multiple churches online should cause us to ask what responsibility we have to them and their other pastors.
The way we do church should never send a message that contradicts Scripture.
We need to start by defining our online audience. That means knowing as much as possible about who is logging on — where they live, their spiritual background, and whether they’re new to faith, new to church attendance in general, or simply new to our church.
Additionally, we need to discern whether these individuals consider themselves part of our church online or just casual viewers who actually attend and participate with a different church.
Knowing who is watching informs how we interact with them. We should encourage those who attend another church to be faithful to their local body.
The pastor, in biblical terminology, is a keeper of the flock. The very language and metaphor assume boundaries. Just as one shepherd does not ordinarily tend another’s flock, one pastor should not tend another’s congregation.
You cannot control who watches your service online. But you can take action with things you can control. You can control what you say, the culture you create, and the expectations you set. When you encourage believers to be faithful to their local church, you honor congregations and pastors and promote unity in the Church.
4. What responsibilities do the church body and the church attender have to one another? Pastors should help people understand what a church is supposed to be. That includes talking about and modeling the church community’s responsibility to them and their responsibility to the church community.
The way we do church should never send a message that contradicts Scripture. And we should not promote models of ministry that compromise the long-term effectiveness of the Church.
Our discipleship — online and in person — should include teaching about church and individual responsibilities.
The local church has a responsibility to offer congregants care, biblical teaching, spiritual leadership, prayer, edification, discipleship, and opportunities for worship, fellowship, and participation in church ordinances.
Congregants have a responsibility to pray and care for one another, give tithes and offerings, serve, support and love their spiritual leaders, and bring people to Jesus and integrate them into the church family.
These are not unimportant issues. Yet they can get fuzzy at best, or totally lost at worst, in a situation where people attend online and are only loosely connected to a local church.
Nearly a full year removed from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors are still asking, “Where is my congregation? Who is my congregation? Will my people come back? Have they, or will they, start attending another church online or in person? Will they continue to attend my church, but only online? Or will they stop attending church altogether?”
Technology gives us the ability to scale up the communication and presentation of the gospel message quickly, but we have more work to do to see how — or whether — technology can allow us to scale up the other equally important aspects of church.
As pastors, we must be aware that it is possible for the breadth of our ministry reach to outgrow our ability to provide spiritual care. It is possible for our charisma, growth strategies, evangelism strengths, and, yes, technology, to carry our message to audiences who do not have access to our discipleship processes.
Technology is a wonderful tool, but we should not embrace it uncritically. Ministers have an ethical responsibility to be aware of the potential ripple effects of its usage, take steps to mitigate the negative side effects while leveraging the benefits, and faithfully execute the biblical mandate to shepherd God’s flock.
This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.