Technology-Mediated Ministry: How Far Is Too Far?


The twenty-first century has presented pastors with many challenges, among them the use of technology in the church.

Recently, my colleague Bryan Barrineau, a NextGen Pastor at FBC Enterprise in Alabama, and I completed a new study on the use of technology in the local church and its implications for church assimilation and discipleship.[1] On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches began to emerge from the shadows of isolation and distant discipleship (most widely in the form of digital ministry), attempting to discern what their new normal might become.

For some, when the doors opened and people were able to reassemble in-person, livestreams ceased and their attention quickly shifted back to embodied assemblies and face-to-face ministry priorities.

For many others, however, the idea of “doing church” had shifted dramatically. What once had to happen in real life, among physical gatherings of actual believers, could now be disembodied and happen on screens and digital devices from the comfort of one’s couch.


Though questions about the biblical validity of “online church” have circulated for over a decade, few have explored the empirical implications of technology and its implications on the “reach and teach” (Matt. 28:19–20). The pandemic added another twist and turn to this already complex maze of philosophical, pragmatic, and theological convictions by exposing the masses to an even more convenient building with comfortable chairs—their own homes.

In 2021, Outreach Magazine published a “revisited” report, which included 2019 and 2020 lists of “Fastest Growing Churches in America.” For the first time, the report included online viewership data.[2] In short, these churches experienced notable “growth” during a season of church closures, mandatory lockdowns, and the proliferation of online and social media-driven ministry efforts. Most of these churches had been seeking to leverage technology for years prior to the pandemic and were well-positioned to expand their digital reach more seamlessly than other local churches.

As we began our research on the implications of technology on assimilation and discipleship, it became apparent that very little scholarly data existed and very little terminology had been established to guide this discussion. Sure, everyone knows what a livestream is and how to navigate a church website, but what we discovered was a lack of understanding with regard to the church’s historic use of technology. We quickly found ourselves speaking different languages based on the generation, region, and doctrinal convictions of the various leaders whom we were researching.


With a heart for clarity and historical continuity, we established the term “Technology-Mediated Ministry” (TMM). The church has always employed technology for the advancement of our Great Commission task. From the Apostle Paul’s use of letter writing to the technological marvel of the expansive first-century Roman system of roads to the Reformation’s use of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, the church has always leveraged the prevailing technology of the day for ministry effectiveness.

TMM transcends our understanding of “online church” and connects the eras of Spurgeon and Moody (telegraph) to the ministries of R.R. Brown and Barnhouse (radio) to the television reach of men like Billy Graham. Furthermore, the notion of TMM not only helps us better understand the use of technology in generations past but also leans forward into new innovations of virtual-reality ministry, the church’s presence in the metaverse, and any other technological developments on the horizon.

No one in our generation looks back and criticizes the way early church leaders discipled the diaspora of Christians across the Roman empire. Yet today, we question the appropriateness of the church’s use of technology. Why? Why do we struggle with the use of the Internet and digital technology to expand the reach of the church to the known world?

The answer is simple: proximity.


No other era of TMM has allowed individuals to engage synchronously with the church from anywhere in the world. Though the church has always found ways to spread the message of the gospel with a wider and wider reach, this is the first generation where people can virtually reciprocate in real time and be seen and heard from anywhere on the planet.

In the first-century, Christians responded to Paul’s letters, yet not simultaneously, nor did they view themselves as members of the churches from where his letters were generated. Christians in Rome or Thessalonica did not consider themselves members of the church of Corinth. The believers in Colossae didn’t identify as members of the church in Rome. The early church was expressed in local collections of Christ followers who were gathered by proximity and conviction.

Today, Christians or those interested in Christianity have access to a smorgasbord of “services” to engage with the church like never before. Yet just as American readers of Spurgeon’s sermons would never think to identify as members of his London church, neither should we presume to be members of churches we don’t regularly attend, even as we avail ourselves of various ministries. That is what our data collection reveals. TMM may be an effective method for cultural engagement and evangelism, yet it works against the Scripture’s teaching on proximity-based, meaningful church membership.


Church leaders recognize that attendance, giving, serving, discipleship, community groups, and missions are all measurable elements of successful church member assimilation. However, few churches (less than twenty percent) actively measure these key markers with their online church participants. For instance, consider the idea of “online membership.” One purpose of church membership is accountability. Yet most churches with online “members”—in fact, ninety percent—have no ability to articulate an actual process of accountability for those who attempt to engage the church through virtual membership.

It’s worth asking the question: how far is too far? Our research offers some clarity on this. It’s “too far” when TMM attempts to replace active and embodied involvement with a local church. TMM can be a tremendous resource to reach the lost and engage with our culture. Technology can be an effective tool for reinforcing a church’s discipleship efforts. Technology can also benefit those providentially hindered by the momentary challenges of life. But certain forms of online and virtual technologies can also dilute the Christian life by devaluing and undermining a Christian’s regular and meaningful involvement in a local church.

Scripture instructs us to gather (Matt. 18:20, 1 Cor. 14:26, Heb. 10:24–25), and these gatherings anticipate our future eternal gathering (Rev. 7:9–10). Scripture also commands us to take part in the reciprocal imperatives of the Christian life (1 Cor. 12:25, Gal. 6:2, Col. 3:13, which cannot be adequately expressed or obeyed through technology-mediation, “online churches,” or “online church membership.”

We should feel free to use technology wisely and share the gospel through every platform made available to us in this generation. But we must never sacrifice the value of our local gathering by reducing its value and importance for the sake of technological relevancy. The Word of God is true, and local church membership is too important to be mediated by a screen.

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[1] R. Bryan Barrineau, “Technology-Mediated Ministry and Its Implications for Local Church Discipleship: A Mixed Methods Study,” (Ed.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Fort Worth, TX, 2022.

D. Heath Woolman, “Technology-Mediated Ministry and Its Implications for Local Church Assimilation: A Mixed Methods Study,” (Ed.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Fort Worth, TX, 2022.


Heath Woolman

Heath Woolman is the Lead Pastor of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in St. Johns, Florida.

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