When it comes to “Church Online” one of the biggest obstacles to figure out is how do we duplicate the in-person experience digitally?
Church is much more than just a sermon, so why when it comes to Church Online, do we only focus on live streaming the preaching?
To fully offer digital online ministry we need to include preaching, worship, and the sacraments.
You may be trying to completely do church in a digital way, as some new church plants are exploring, or you may be forced to go digital-only temporarily, like during the COVID19 outbreak. We also should take into account the people who watch online who can’t make it in person for various reasons, such as illness or disability, military service, or location.
Whatever your reasons for doing Church Online, offering a way to offer baptism and communion while people engage with your church digitally is something worth exploring.
The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is a memorial celebration of belonging and community. Originally, Jesus took an annual traditional meal (kind of like the American Thanksgiving meal) and turned it into something sacred. Whenever anyone adds Jesus to the mix, it changes it
into something meaningful. He had an uncanny way of making the ordinary, sacred. It’s not by accident that we all need to eat to live, physically—just like we all need Jesus to live, spiritually.
In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was something that was celebrated often (daily, in some cases) and in the context of tight community. It was also a meal. Meals are usually expressed in community regardless of culture or ethnicity. If you share a meal with someone, generally it expresses relationship whether it’s the Sunday family meal or a first date.
What makes the Lord’s Supper such an important part of church life is that it expresses the unity we all have in Jesus and with each other.
That sense of belonging and family is all the more important online.
The online expression of the Lord’s Supper can get a little tricky though, depending on how formal and how centralized it needs to be according to your particular church’s tradition. In our church, we don’t place spiritual gravitas on the elements or the ritual, but rather on Jesus who makes the ordinary, sacred. So, we can have a decentralized, open, and free-form approach to the elements, since it’s Jesus who makes it special.
Not every church expression is like that, however, so here are some ideas—on a spectrum of formality—for how to perform online communion.
Centralized and formal
If the elements of communion are important in your church’s tradition and they need to be administered by an approved minister, there’s still a way to accomplish that online:
- Order communion elements to be shipped to your church on a schedule. Have a minister bless the elements, then ship them out to people who are joining online.
- Add extras to the communion package, such as other gifts and resources to help the online person feel a part of the family.
Decentralized yet formal
If the elements are important but your church doesn’t require that a minister pray over them, then it gets much easier:
- Communicate in advance with your online audience when you’ll be celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and let them know where to purchase the elements on their own so they can prepare to join you online.
- Or ship elements to them in a care package. Include a schedule of communion and instructions about why the sacrament is so important, so they’ll always be prepared. (Extra goodies in this package go a long way!)
Decentralized and informal
If the elements just have to be edible and they don’t need to be administered by an approved minister, then the Lord’s Supper online can become something spontaneous and simple.
- Let people know at the beginning of the online service that you’ll be celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and recommend they get whatever elements they have on hand.
- As people receive the elements onsite, ask your online community to share, in the chat, what elements they’re using. We’ve had folks celebrate with us using a Life Savers mint and a can of Sprite.
- Take this time to teach people that Jesus makes the ordinary, sacred.
- Pray in the chat for each person who is participating.
- Tell your online community to wait so you can all partake together, then invite people to share a short phrase describing what Jesus’ sacrifice means to them. Sometimes, it can feel like a toast to Jesus. Something like, “We remember you, Jesus” or “We’ll never forget what you did for us, Jesus.” This interaction helps make online communion feel less solitary and more communal.
Generally, the simpler this particular sacrament, the better. It will make it more like what we find in the early church, and it’ll be easier to pull off online. Don’t be afraid to trust people in order to de-centralize. Jesus wasn’t.
Baptism doesn’t happen as often as communion since it’s a once-in-a-lifetime step of obedience that everyone remembers.
Here are some ideas for how to provide a meaningful baptism for people who join you online.
Have them come onsite
Since it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, invite folks to make a pilgrimage to meet, in person and face- to-face, their church family. (If we can do it for Comic-Con, we can do it for baptism.) If finances are an issue, sometimes helping with the cost of plane tickets or staying in an online church friend’s house can help overcome those obstacles.
In scenarios where meeting at your church building is not possible, arrange time once a month or quarter where you can meet in a park or other settings, solely for the purpose of fellowship and baptisms.
You go to them
If for whatever reason the person wanting to be baptized is unable to travel, make the effort to go to them. Get your online team together and do a road trip (or buy a plane ticket). Do the baptism in a pool, lake, or bathtub nearby. Make sure to get video of the event so it can be broadcast to the greater online community. Hopefully, onsite people can see it too, to rejoice in that step of obedience!
Even during times of quarantine, like we find ourselves amid the COVID-19 outbreak, it is completely necessary and can be deemed essential for a minister to visit the home of an online viewer who wishes to be baptized.
Find a believer nearby to do the baptism
If the person wishing to be baptized can’t travel and you can’t either, then have that new believer find someone else nearby who does know Jesus and is willing to do the baptizing.
This approach has the added benefit of allowing a new believer to get connected to an onsite community.
Most people have some relatives who are believers, or if it’s a child then their parents can perform the baptism (assuming your church allows that). If not, a local pastor usually loves the opportunity to participate.
It might be good to provide written baptism instructions and tips so that people will perform the ritual based on your church’s beliefs and specifications.
Make sure you get the experience on video, because it’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase to the church onsite how Jesus is building his church everywhere—even online!
Go completely online
This may be a last-resort approach, but in the case when neither party can travel and the new believer doesn’t know of any other Christians nearby, set up a Skype call for the ceremony.
Have the person baptize themselves in a pool or bathtub while you pray over them online.
Make sure you get a recording of this broadcast in some way so it can be a declaration of faith before witnesses online.
Now, there are ministries like VR Church who are doing virtual baptisms in virtual reality. It’s an option, but of course the legitimacy of this model is something you’ll need to wrestle with.
An Example of Online Baptism
Here’s an example of how a church can make an online baptism part of the life of the church. For this service, Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas asked everyone to join us online and no one came onsite. At 10:51 in the video, you’ll see how they showcased Jolene’s online baptism.
Jolene came to Christ online, was baptized online, leads others to Jesus online, and now manages volunteer teams online to do the same. She has never set foot on any of the church’s onsite campuses, and she’s a great example of what online ministry can do!