It’s no secret. Weekly church attendance is down. Where did everybody go?

A local pastor gave me two simple answers to the question. He said his “regular attendees” may show up just once every six weeks. That’s the definition of “regular” these days. But that conduct certainly depletes the numbers on any given Sunday.

Answer #2. The pastor said some attendees stay connected between infrequent in-person visits. How? They listen to his sermons online. It’s more convenient, eliminates the need to get the family ready to go to church, and fits anywhere in a busy weekly schedule.

This is one of the major trends affecting congregations today. The digital world of online sermons, preacher podcasts, and streaming worship services are significantly changing how people “do church.” Is that good news or bad news for the church? Well, it depends.

Churches that know how to leverage technology are reaching lots of people regularly. Jason Caston, author of The iChurch Method: Digital Mission Field, urges churches to embrace a 24/7 ministry mentality through their internet presence. He encourages churches to include their people’s digital interactions as a real component of weekly “attendance.” Online access gives people the opportunity to find spiritual help at the time they’re experiencing the need, he says. By the way, Caston will be offering his practical insights (and a free book) at Group’s upcoming Future of the Church summit. Find details on how you can join in here.

There’s a potential downside, however, for the church when more and more people connect primarily through their digital devices. The sense of community, of the Body of Christ coming together, of knowing and caring for one another, can evaporate if people no longer physically gather.

And here’s the sad unanticipated backstory. The contemporary American church has built its model around its weekend services. The budget, the buildings, and the attention revolve around those weekend services. And the admitted main ingredient of those services is the sermon.

The typical sermon is a lengthy lecture, a one-way form of communication, in front of a passive audience. And it’s that very medium that is now easily transferred online. People are discovering that if they want a sermon–a message–they can find it more conveniently on the internet. And they can always find a more polished, nationally renowned speaker online than they’ll find at the local church on the corner.

And that’s the growing danger of banking on the local preacher’s sermon as a church’s ultimate draw.

It’s now time to have a conversation around the true purpose of the local church. What can the gathered people of God do together that is not duplicated or surpassed elsewhere? How can a truly relational ministry offer something that no one-way performance ever could?

Certainly, technology and digital tools can play a significant role in a healthy ministry. But as Jason Caston says in this week’s Holy Soup podcast, these electronic means should supplement, not supplant, a well-rounded local ministry.

Listen to the fascinating conversation with Jason Caston here: