Online dating first emerged in the 1990s, evolving out of the shady world of newspaper ads, matchmakers, and video dating services of the 1980s. According to Pew Research, in 2005, 44% of people said that online dating was a good way to meet people, but just 10 years later that number had risen to 59%. Public opinion had also changed about the types of people who used online dating sites. in 2005, 29% of those surveyed felt that people who use online dating sites fell into the ‘desperate’ category, but by 2015 that number had fallen to just 23%. Online dating sites and apps are no longer relegated to the fringes of society. They are a mainstream and accepted part of romantic interactions today.
As technology changed, so the way people would interact and meet would change too. As is credited to famed communications expert Marshall McLuhan in 1967 (but was actually written by his colleague Father John Culkin), “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us”. We see that the tools of the Digital Age, in which we are now immersed, profoundly shape our view of ourselves, our relationships, and the ways we explore the world around us. This is perhaps particularly seen in the world of online dating- a phenomenon that highlights a number of practical things for the Church to consider in 2018.
So what can the Church learn from this cultural shift?
Online platforms such as Websites, E-newsletters, blogs, video conferencing and social media, like online dating apps, are a great opportunity for a church to meet people they would not normally meet in the physical world. It expands the potential reach of the church, within its local community and beyond. Churches can now reach people who it has been difficult to meet and to form a connection with.
Digital media is an amazing welcome mat for the local church.
When a relationship is formed between a local church and a potential member, digital media is an amazing tool to maintain a connection. Just as messaging apps and video calls can help a romantic relationship grow and thrive between people who can’t always be physically present, in the same way digital tools can give the church opportunities to connect with people exploring spiritual questions. These same tools also allow people to explore your church before they take the step of being physically present. In many ways the website and Facebook page of a church are already its new welcome mat.
Digital media is an amazing communication system for the local church.
Digital technology can make it easy to communicate quickly with your entire congregation, whether newcomers or long-timers. However, keep in mind that while digital tools help us connect, communicate and grow together in relationship, they should always be seen as an intermediary solution to be used between times of actually being together in person.
Digital media cannot replace authentic relationship with the local church.
We need to remember that just as it is the ultimate intention of all healthy people who use online dating apps to meet in person, so it is the goal for churches to have face to face relationships. Staying online forever is sad, a bit creepy, and ultimately leads to a lack of fulfillment in the relationship. Those who follow the church online but never actually get in a room with other Christians are not truly going to experience the fullness of Church, Eucharist, baptism, fellowship, worship, and more. It is in togetherness that we are deeply formed as Christians. Healthy Christians need to be physically engaged with other Christians, just as healthy romantic relationships require significant amounts of physical time together to be vibrant.
What are some practical applications for the church in 2018?
Use the online world as a continuation of the relationships we form and cultivate in our churches Sunday to Sunday.
Be creative and use the 167 hours between Sunday worship gatherings in a way that keeps you connected and growing together.
- Use an email list of those who attend your church, even if just occasionally, to regularly communicate upcoming events, prayer requests, or church news items. Just remember that in Canada you now need people’s permission to send them emails, e-newsletters, blogs updates etc. Mailchimp is a great service that will help you set up beautiful emails and track who reads them.
- Interact with members on their social media, or if they post a comment on your church’s account- reply back to them even if just to say “Thanks!”.
- Use digital tools to gather people together for training or other events. There are many digital training resources for churches these days like this Free Life.Church/training or Trainedup Church.
- Consider digital discipleship tools to help people in your church grow, or enhance what you are learning together on Sunday. ReadScripture is a fantastic app for studying the Bible or a portion of the Bible together as a community day by day, including engaging videos, ability to take notes, share conversation with friends, and set up reminders to prioritize bible learning each week between Sundays.
Meeting people online is accepted as normal social interaction in 2018.
We never know who might become interested in exploring some of their spiritual questions through events, programs of even digital platforms that you offer.
- Engage your neighbours. On Facebook, follow local businesses like the local burger joint or ice cream shop and like their images or comment on their pictures. Reach out to start a friendship with the owners via social media chatting and tell them you love that they’re building the community too.
- Check out hashtags for topics like #familylife or #socialjustice in your area and see who else is talking about these issues on Twitter. Join the conversation and make new contacts with those seeking to discuss and build relationships with others around these shared interests.
- Use the incredibly cheap ads on Facebook, Instagram, or Google Adwords to promote your church to new audiences you haven’t reached yet.
- Encourage your members to re-tweet or share posts from the church, ensuring that those in their social networks who are not yet connected to a church can begin to see the story of your church.
When compared to traditional advertising the bonus of these digital platforms is that you can actually measure the results and see how many people clicked on your ad to go to your website or video.
While society may have initially been suspicious of dating apps, many people now see those as a helpful way for people who share the same interests and goals to connect. Increasingly those who meet on-line are tying the knot in person. As your church expands its reach though the digital world, hoping to build long-lasting gospel relationships, may you too enable people to enter a relationship with the Living God and live “happily ever after”!