As one of the two great still-extant medieval institutions, the church confronts the digital age with a mixture of trepidation and hope. Hope, because congregations and ministers with online presence can build up new types of community and remain in contact through a variety of media; trepidation, because the church, like any incumbent industry, looks with fear at the fate of travel agents, small retailers, and print newspapers. Having seen each industry fall to the likes of Expedia, Amazon, and the Huffington Post, the leaders of churches throughout the United States and beyond worry that some new digital entrant could eat their lunch.
Ministers, priests, and lay leaders are thus turning to Massively Open Online Churches. MOOCs offer senior church executives a way to position their institution to survive in the twenty-first century. Churches with established brand names have already begun to offer tentative first steps. In a wise move, many ministers of large and famous congregations have put the most important part of the church experience, the sermon, online. Online sermons, of course, are not bound by brick-and-mortar constraints; hundreds of thousands of people frequently listen to at least the first five or ten minutes of notable sermons, with as many as two percent of virtual congregants completing the sermons.
Some have wondered whether online sermons are a credible substitute for traditional, physical church attendance. Measuring church outcomes by sermon completion—the easiest metric to compile, and hence the industry standard—it seems obvious that virtual religious offerings need to be adjusted to better meet the needs of the medium. Physical congregants, after all, practically always listen to the entire sermon. Accordingly, a handful of churches have begun to bestow online badges on their virtual congregants who can show that they have completed listening to sermons. Some believe it is enough to take congregants’ words on faith, as it were; others insist that there be short quizzes to guarantee that congregants have heard and understood the sermon.
The rewards of such virtual congregations are easy to calculate for senior church leaders and religious foundations, the most important decision-makers in the religious marketplace.
Senior executives at prestigious religious institutions can be assured that, during their tenure, they can answer the concerns of donors and development officers alike that they are doing something in the online world. It is less an issue for such executives whether such online offerings succeed or fail, as long as they do not fail until a decent interval after they have begun to collect on their pensions. In the event of failure, such leaders can always say that the implementation of their online vision by their successors was subpar. If their successors’ competence is beyond reproach, they will instead point to the fact that some incumbents always fail to survive disruptive innovation through no fault of their own.
For established and prestigious religious institutions, the potential upside of online sermonizing is huge. Although there is little evidence that virtual congregants’ offerings will match those of physical congregants, the massive scale of online churching means that even $50 or $100 per congregant, multiplied by several hundred thousand (or more), will suffice to meet the operating budgets for church administrators and their staff, as well as the ministers who offer the courses. And savvy development officers note that prestigious churches will likely maintain their beautiful old buildings for the spiritual cultivation of the wealthy (and the well-screened middle class).
A handful of hidebound traditionalists, including the clergy who preach at the least prestigious 99.99 percent of churches, object that a wholesale conversion of physical churches into virtual offerings will dramatically change the employment structure of the religious industry. Pundits and online evangelists (in both senses of the term) reply that change is always hard, that there will still be dozens of jobs available, and that nobody chooses a vocation to get rich. Others worry that the content of such virtual churches’ sermons will be different, and perhaps less rigorous, than the content of physical churches’ sermons, pointing to the content of sermons and other religious material broadcast on the 700 Club and rural FM radio stations. Proponents of online churching respond that there will be a variety of sermons and other religious instruction available online, and point to the number of offerings in early noncorporeal churches, such as the 700 Club and rural FM radio stations.
A few critics have quietly suggested that there is more to church than sermons. But they have little quantifiable evidence and so nobody takes them seriously.