Poster Presentation
International Leadership Association
25th Global Conference
Cultivating Leadership for a Thriving Future


As more and more US Christian churches are closing, church leaders are exploring digital communities as a means of reversing the trend. It is unclear, however, whether and to what degree these efforts have been successful and what lessons have been learned.  Drawing on both the author’s own experience and emerging literature on the topic, this presentation seeks to examine how leaders foster authentic engagement within digital church communities, with consideration given to ethical issues.

Digital Church Communities: Fostering Engagement Ethically
Poster Presentation

The church is shrinking and has been for decades. The percentage of US Americans who identify as Christian has been steadily declining for many years now, and could very well fall below 50% by the year 2070 (Pew Research Center, 2022). Fewer Christians translates to fewer church members and attendees (Krejcir, 2007). The COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to temporarily close their doors, exacerbating an already tenuous situation. In light of this attrition crisis, church leaders have been investigating strategies to encourage church engagement for some time now. One strategy that increased in momentum during the pandemic is the use of a digital community. Post-pandemic, some churches have continued to maintain these communities, and of those, some have even extended their digital offerings, in the attempt to create a true sense of community as a means of reversing the exodus which had already begun prior to the pandemic. However, there is limited research as to whether these digital communities are successful in creating engagement amongst church attendees. This poster presentation will examine engagement in digital church communities and their related ethical considerations. It will also include three streams in the literature on the topic: attrition, growth, and digital community. In addition, deficiencies in the literature will be identified for further exploration, the significance of the study will be mentioned , and the purpose statement and research questions will be included.


In order for church leaders to foster engagement in their digital communities, they need to have an understanding of what they are hoping to accomplish. Namely, what is engagement? How will a church leader know if their congregants are actually engaged and content in their digital church community experiences? It is thus necessary to define engagement. Engagement can be defined as involvement in planning, designing, governing, and delivering of activities and services that collectively comprise a community (O’Mara-Eves et al., 2013). The connotation is that engagement not only includes active participation, but also includes being involved in the direction of the conversation, and even deciding what gets discussed. Markers for engagement will be identified later.

Ethical Considerations

As church leaders strive to define engagement in digital communities for their congregations, it is crucial to remain vigilant of ethical considerations. At the intersection of several different ethical considerations and categories lies the emergent concept of Digital Media Ethics (Ess, 2017). Digital Media Ethics, as a subcategory of applied ethics, explores the ethical use of digital media technology as used on a daily basis. In order to forge a digital community which is a viable option for all stakeholders, church leaders cannot be passive in providing ethical oversight for their digital communities.

Safety and Privacy and Fair Oversight

Church leaders must ensure that the digital communities for which they provide oversight are safe, protected spaces where congregants feel safe enough to be vulnerable and communicate more intimately than they would in more public arenas (Carter et al., 2023; Fuss et al., 2021). Leaders of the digital communities will need to strike a balance between providing oversight to remove lewd, violent, and similarly inappropriate content, yet not be stifling and overbearing in governance. Participants in digital church communities should feel safe to communicate openly, and without fear of being harassed by other participants—but yet no participant should feel overly sanctioned. Striking this ethical balance will foster a digital community in which engagement and meaningful communication can happen.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Digital communities provide an arena in which anyone can participate with less chance of bias or discrimination or judgment, and church communities are no exception. Individuals who may experience some form of discrimination when they attempt to be a part of an in-person community, may find digital communities to be more accepting and inclusive. Organizations which are in the position to maintain a hybrid presence for their members are particularly well-positioned to offer a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment in which their members are able to experience a sense of belonging (Marabelli et al., 2023).
Mental Health

Churches have been instrumental in providing mental health support and resources, and when churches were forced to close their doors due to the pandemic, a marked increase in despair and depression was evidenced (DeSouza et al., 2021; Watson, 2023). As a result of not being able to physically interact in a community, many experienced loneliness (Choi et al., 2012; Fuss et al., 2021). Since loneliness has been linked to a decrease in mental health wellness (Loneliness and mental health, 2023), making use of alternative strategies for engagement such as digital communities when physical communities are not possible is of vital necessity.


Church leaders concerned with creating an ethical digital community must necessarily be cognizant of accessibility. It is ethically imperative to provide accessibility to those for whom accessibility to the digital or in-person community is limited or unavailable (Carter et al., 2023). Some congregants are not able to attend because of various disabilities (i.e., visual impairments, intellectual disability, autism, neurodivergence, physical disabilities, hearing impairments). Others face accessibility challenges due to limited financial resources (McMenemy, 2022; Stelitano et al., 2020).

Review of the Literature


              The first stream of literature related to this study discusses the problem of church attrition. As stated above, the American Christian church is declining and has been for decades. There are at least two main reasons for the decrease in church attendance. One reason for the attrition has been that new converts are simply not staying. Out of every four new converts to the faith, only one becomes a part of the church and remains; the other three leave (Arn, 2021). A second reason why people are leaving the church is because they do not feel a sense of belonging, or connectivity, or community (Bogle, 2020; Krejcir, 2007; Wilson, 2014). Since the 1970s, if not earlier, church leaders have been working to find new and inventive ways to counter the exodus from the church (Arn, 2021), which indicates the exodus is not new, and has not gone unnoticed.


            The third stream looks at church growth. Despite the dismal outlook, there are actually some churches that are growing. While the overall number of churches and church attendees is trending downward, some churches are not only maintaining their numbers, but they are increasing. Two themes in the literature emerge as a means of explanation. First, in examining the demographic and religious characteristics of attendees and clergy, it was determined that doctrinal conservatism is a factor contributing to church growth (Haskell et al., 2016). The second theme was that of using Biblical principles and strategies employed by the apostles in order to encourage church growth (Wilson, 2017).

Digital Community

            The third stream of literature looks at the use of a digital community to counter the problem of church decline. A possible solution in the campaign to stop the exodus from the church is to offer an alternative means of in-person church attendance. Even prior to the pandemic, churches were exploring ways for members who could not or would not attend in person to continue to be an integral part of the church community (Campbell, 2020a). During the pandemic, almost everyone was required to stay at home, and the online church garnered more interest overnight (Campbell, 2020a). It is highly likely that churches will have to maintain in-person and online communities in order to survive. The hybrid church model is here to stay (White, 2022). There has been some resistance to using the internet to create faith communities that are an extension of a church’s in-person offerings (Giese, 2020). This resistance is not unlike some 19th century theologians’ initial opposition to the introduction of organ music into their services. Yet, just as the organ is now a mainstay, so are hybrid churches, too (Cormode, 2020). Technology can and should be used to support the church’s in-person ministry. After all, even the Apostle Paul utilized the technology of his day (letter writing) to maintain a virtual presence with the churches he planted and visited, thereby becoming the first “cyberapostle” (Dixon, 1997, cited in Campbell, 2005).

Central to the notion that a digital community can be beneficial for churches is accepting the possibility that an online-based option even has the potential to provide value. Speech act theory (SAT) analyzes language use “in terms of actions and their effect in a speech performance” (Cho, 2020, p. 15). In essence, speech prompts action. The relevance of SAT to digital church communities lies in the fact that wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, whether in a church building or online, its power is no less impactful, and those who corporately gather either physically or virtually can hear and experience its transformative power. 

Churches have not only worked to create an online presence but have also worked to engage their congregants and create a true sense of community, seeing that it is not enough to simply livestream Sunday morning services on social media (“online church”). Instead, a church must use technology to its advantage to form a true sense of community (“church online”) (Campbell, 2020a; Chow & Kurlberg, 2020; Cooper et al., 2021; Giese, 2020). A number of desired traits of an online community have emerged: relationship, care or support, value, connection, intimate communication, and fellowship with like-minded believers (Campbell, 2020b). When congregants experience these markers, they are engaged in their communities, as was mentioned previously. Yet few specifics, if any, exist that solidly indicate whether these desirous traits are widely recognized by church leaders as indicators of engagement or goals for fostering engagement.

A term which was mentioned repeatedly was koinonia, a Greek term found in the New Testament to indicate the state of Christian worship and fellowship (Chia, 2020) and community (Cormode, 2020; Musa, 2020). Community and commonality of purpose both exist within the body of Christ, regardless of geographic location. Before the existence of the internet, even before the Christian Church became well established, New Testament believers were engaging in koinonia (Jenkins, 2019).

Deficiencies in the Literature

There were three deficiencies in the literature that were detected during this review. First, prior to the pandemic, the literature was limited because the number of churches with digital communities was limited, particularly since the technology to create such communities was still relatively recent. Second, the pandemic has only recently ended. This means that the amount of research conducted on the use of post-pandemic digital communities in general, and with conclusive findings in particular, is thus limited. Third, while there are studies that examine online churches, there appear to be very few that examine churches with true digital communities—church online—and specifically whether churches with digital communities foster engagement.

The Significance of the Study

This study will make two major contributions of significance. First, it will fill a gap in the literature on whether church leaders can effectively foster engagement in their digital church communities, which may have applicability on a larger scale for churches with a declining number of congregants. Second, the recommendations proceeding from this study will prove beneficial for academic researchers in non-church digital communities.

Purpose Statement and Research Questions

The purpose of this study is to determine whether church leaders can successfully foster engagement in their digital church communities. The main research question is, how do church leaders foster engagement in their digital church communities? Related questions include: Is age a factor in digital church community engagement? Does the size of the church impact engagement in digital church communities? Did the churches have an online presence of any kind prior to the pandemic?


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