ChatPray White Paper - The Internet and the Future of Christian Fellowship

Summary        3

Introduction        4

The Impact of Technology        5

Current Reach and Future Growth        6

The Sweeping Implications of Zero Cost Distribution        8

The Efficiency of Centralized Spending        8

Worldwide Reach        9

User Generated Content (UGC)        9

Low-Cost Start - Easy Scaling        9

The Attention Economy        10

The Tendency Towards a Few Large Companies.        10

The Nature of Community        12

The Implications of the Internet for Christian Fellowship and Church Meetings        15

Online Fellowship        15

Worship-From-Home        16

Strengths        16

Weaknesses        17

Future Trends        17

Possible Responses        18

Characteristics of a Useful Platform for the Christian Community and Churches        19

Gaining Attention        20

The Weaknesses of Existing Online Tools for Churches        21

Building Tools Locally or Centrally        24

Maintaining Local Ownership        25

ChatPray - A Unified Solution        26

Solving the Attention Issue        27

Making Social Media Better        28

Making Prayer Fundamental        28

Incorporating the Structures of Church        29

Providing Tools for the Church        29

Low-Cost Experimentation        29

Conclusion        30

Summary

The exponential changes[1] ushered in by the Internet are providing significant challenges for the church. Whether we like it or not, the conventional idea of what constitutes a “place” or a “community” has been altered by technological change. On average people now spend more than two hours per day on social media[2]. The widespread adoption of video streaming during the pandemic has brought the challenge of the Internet to the church sharply into focus.

This whitepaper explores the ways in which the Internet is driving social and cultural change and how the church and individual Christians can respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by it to build genuine community in virtual, as well as physical spaces.

We introduce the ChatPray app and explain how it can both give shape to virtual Christian community whilst also supporting the ministry of the local church.

Introduction

Christianity is based around meeting together in groups - from the “two or three” upwards. Christian meetings were originally held in public spaces or homes. But in the second century dedicated church buildings started appearing, a trend that was massively accelerated when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. The result has been that dedicated church buildings have been the standard meeting place for Christians for the last 1,600 years.

However, with the advent of social media platforms and more recently video meetings, the idea of what can constitute a “meeting place” has shifted. During the pandemic, many of us became familiar with meeting for church in Zoom and other virtual spaces. These virtual spaces have some advantages - they are vastly cheaper than physical buildings, and they allow people to attend from any distance without travel, and therefore at low cost. They also have significant disadvantages; principally the loss of fellowship, and the enriching human connection that comes naturally in any in-person meeting.

At the same time, Christians, like the rest of the world, are spending more and more time on social media - currently more than two hours each day on average
[3]. Whether we like it or not, virtual meetings and other online innovations such as the “metaverse”[4] are set to grow for the foreseeable future as technology continues to improve. The younger generations already spend much of their life online, and take meeting virtually for granted. Against this backdrop, the Christian community as a whole needs to think carefully about the future of fellowship, and about its meetings and meeting places. Specifically about the facilities and tools needed to best enable worship and ministry in an online/offline world.

Before we consider the various options in more detail, we will briefly review some of the developing technical and social background.

The Impact of Technology

The economics of communication have always had significant implications for how the work of the church is done. Roman roads helped speed the spread of the gospel. The printing press transformed the nature of the transmission of the word, making it possible for anyone to have their own Bible. In our time the Internet has already had far reaching consequences on communication. Most recently it has ushered in video meetings. However, its capabilities are still advancing rapidly. So it is important to be thinking strategically with regard to its implications for the future of church community and church meetings.

Current Reach and Future Growth

Sometimes dubbed the “exponential age”[5], the speed of change ushered in by the Internet is unprecedented. The iPhone was only launched 14 years ago in 2007. Already more than 80% of the world’s population owns a smartphone. Facebook was launched in 2004. Social media is now used by 4.65bn people globally more than 80% of the world’s 5.81bn[6] over 15 year olds. Prices for connection continue to fall. Internet technology is still improving, and this rapid improvement is expected to continue for many years to come.

Because the technical and economic changes are so rapid, society and organisations are struggling to keep up. Before discussing how these changes impact the church it is worth pausing to consider the ways in which Internet economics differ from what has gone before, and to try and unpack some of the implications of those differences.

The Sweeping Implications of Zero Cost Distribution

The Internet allows digital information - text, audio, and video - to be distributed in real time at zero cost. The implications of zero cost distribution are extremely hard to grasp. Fundamentally it enables exponential growth. As we discovered in the pandemic, the speed and power of exponential phenomena are always hard to grasp.

The Efficiency of Centralized Spending

Just fifteen years ago Amazon launched its cloud computing service AWS. It realized that once distribution was free, it was vastly more cost effective to spend heavily to build one enormous centralized computer store and rent it to everyone as needed, than for everyone to have their own local storage. This simple strategic decision, and the enormous cost savings it has provided for businesses large and small, have been so successful that AWS now makes up more than half of all of Amazon’s profits. AWS is by itself worth $500bn (i.e. more than 6x the size of General Motors).

This principle of large capital spending at the centre and widespread zero cost distribution has powered all the large Internet businesses (Google, Facebook, Netflix, Uber etc).

There are a number of further implications of zero cost distribution:

  1. Worldwide Reach

Any single business can now quickly address all 7bn smartphone owners. Where in the past it took a century to build a customer base of 1bn (Coke, P&G, Kraft-Heinz), now it can take only a few years. TikTok has reached 1bn users in 5 years.

  1. User Generated Content (UGC)

Another implication of zero cost distribution, combined with low cost computing power, is that content production for anything that involves text, audio or visuals can now be done, often to professional standards, by people at home and shared with the world. The sheer volume of material produced in this way makes it much harder for professionals, and especially less tech savvy older people (e.g. church leaders), to command attention.

  1. Low Cost Start - Easy Scaling

Businesses are much easier and cheaper to start. In the past they would need large amounts of capital to buy computers or other equipment; now they just pay pennies to rent only what they use, knowing that if they are successful they can automatically scale. This ability to start at almost zero cost and to quickly scale has allowed tens of thousands of entrepreneurs to start new businesses. This, as we shall see, has implications for churches too.

The Attention Economy

Since distribution and reproduction of electronic information - text, audio, video - is now essentially free to anywhere in the world, the quantity of information available to everyone has skyrocketed. Where philanthropists once gave money to build libraries so the poor could have access to information, now anyone with a phone can read almost anything they want.

The result is that the limiting factor in getting information to people is no longer access to the information itself but rather getting people’s attention. When there is an ocean of information, getting people to pay attention to your message is much harder. The money and effort that was once spent on producing and distributing information now has to be spent on getting people’s attention. Websites and emails that once commanded attention no longer do in the era of WhatsApp and TikTok.

The Tendency Towards a Few Large Companies.

Now that attention has become the scarce resource, a lot of focus has fallen on how people’s attention can be gained.

The first lesson has been that people will only
attend to a small number of platforms or channels. If you are not one of those few platforms it is hard to get attention. When this is combined with the fact that any one business can now cheaply reach the majority of the planet, this leads to self-reinforcing monopolies - or at least oligopolies - of attention. Once a given business has more attention than their rivals, they can spend more on improving and marketing their product making it harder and harder for rivals to compete.

Social Networks, and the Drivers of Attention
The second thing that leads to natural oligopolies is the social factor.

  1. Firstly, social connection has shown itself to be the most important driver of attention. The three things that have been found to drive attention online more than any other are receiving messages:
  1. From a friend
  2. At random frequency
  3. With a payload of unknown value

    To give a concrete example, the most likely to be opened is a) a random message b) from a close friend, c) which you cannot see the contents of without opening it, but which may be important..
  1. Secondly, a channel needs to be sufficiently active that users get into the habit of looking at it frequently for updated messages. The most economical way to do this is with user generated content (UGC). Large news organizations spend millions to have newsrooms capable of generating even twenty stories a day. User generated content is free to the network and on any reasonably sized network produces large amounts of new posts. This is one reason Facebook is now worth 18x what the New York Times is.
  2. Thirdly, social connections by their nature form a network. But a network with few other users is useless - a telephone is no use without others to call. If my friend is not on the same platform as me, I am less likely to use it. Therefore the larger the network, the more likely my friend is to be on it, and the more likely I am to use it. Again this leads to natural oligopolies. A small number of large networks where I am likely to find my friends e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram etc.

The Nature of Community

What makes community? This is a more complicated question than we can consider here except at a very superficial level.

Christians are ultimately members of the heavenly community, the family of God. An ultimate, but invisible reality. This is, of course, meant to be reflected on earth.

There are many ingredients that make
up earthly communities. We may think initially of geographical community. Common physical geography entails repeated interaction with a group over an extended period. Then there are all kinds of communities of shared experience, behaviour and belief. The common feature of all these is that no community “feels” like a community unless it is sustained by caring interaction between the community's members.

Virtual communities are now common on the Internet. They share features of physical communities; interaction with the same people over an extended period. And the same limitation too - that there is no community without caring interaction.

Physical and virtual communities each have advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Physical communities enable a vast range of relationships and subtle social cues that we take for granted but which are extremely hard to reproduce virtually.
  2. Physical communities are “rooted”. Historically it was difficult historically to relocate to somewhere else. So relationships were built up over time. This has broken down to some extent as cities have grown.
  3. Physical communities are extremely expensive to build and maintain
  1. A town in the US costs somewhere between $100k - $500k person to build[7]. So a community of just 3,000 people would cost between $300m - $1.5bn to build.
  2. A church in the US costs approximately $3,500 per person to build[8]. So to accommodate the same 3,000 people in church in an average US location would cost approximately $10m.
  3. For comparison, TikTok was developed in 200 days at an estimated cost also of $10m[9]. Within one year it had 100m users[10], growing to 1bn, 5 years later.
  1. Virtual spaces have marginal costs that are close to zero. For each additional person joining a virtual space it costs almost nothing. In physical spaces it alway costs the same to add the next person.
  2. New virtual communities can be trialled at extremely low cost. Obviously most virtual spaces fail to attract the kind of usage that TikTok has. But likewise it is unnecessary to spend $10m to try. If the attention issue (see below) can be solved, new communities can be trialled for $’s.

The Implications of the Internet for Christian Fellowship and Church Meetings

Online Fellowship

Much Christian fellowship now takes place online. Whether it be chatting with friends or organising groups, much of it now takes place on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram etc. However, these platforms are far from ideal from the point of view of Christian fellowship.

The metrics used by social networks (likes etc) incentives communication that rewards attention rather than connection
[11]. Social network’s algorithm’s moderation and prioritizing of posts that are divisive has also become extremely controversial[12].

These platforms are often not safe or if they are (eg WhatsApp), they are not porous to newcomers. Also none of them are designed to enable the major elements of the Christian life - prayer, fellowship, pastoring, and meeting for worship. This is leading to an increasing separation between church life and life online.

Worship-From-Home

The pandemic has led to a huge increase in churches running online video services/meetings. This trend will continue and grow after the pandemic, but has both strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

Weaknesses

Streamed video can also unintentionally reinforce a model of church where laity are simply the audience.

Future Trends

What seems undeniable is that attending church remotely will continue to grow. Just as work-from-home is becoming normalized so too will “worship-from-home”. Not just for the sick, transport, or work constrained, but also for the busy mother with babies, the sluggish teenager and increasingly for those not geographically close at all - possibly in other countries. Given this trend, how should churches respond?

Possible Responses

As mentioned in the introduction, the church has essentially three options:

  1. Discourage “worship-from-home” as far as possible and make sure church members can only attend physically.
  1. This seems to fly in the face of all the work churches have done to improve physical accessibility. To deny accessibility to the sick seems wrong.
  1. Continue with in person services as before but use existing platforms as best as possible to broadcast to those with accessibility constraints.
  1. This helps those with accessibility constraints but doesn’t take advantage of the possibilities that new technology offers.
  1. Develop tools either locally or centrally that improve the experience of remote fellowship.
  1. This will require significant spending on at least one platform. But if a good experience results, this cost can be defrayed over hundreds of thousands of churches.
  2. This will in turn open up the possibilities for experimenting with and developing new forms of church online at extremely low cost.

Characteristics of a Useful Platform for the Christian Community and Churches

A new platform would need to:

  1. Solve the attention issue
  2. Change in-platform metrics to encourage connection rather than narcissistic attention
  3. Change algorithmic selection to make it transparent / controllable
  4. Provide for the social / fellowship needs of church members in better ways than existing online tools.
  5. Provide all the tools needed by churches:
  1. To run services and other meetings.
  2. To manage all the boundaries, transitions, and tricky issues between visitors / regular attenders / “members”.
  1. Explicitly model the characteristic structures of church
  1. Pastor / pastored.
  2. Groups within groups - small group > local church > diocese > denomination.
  3. Inquirers and members.
  1. Include prayer as a fundamental category.
  2. Make it possible to experiment with new kinds of church online at low cost.

Gaining Attention

The first and hardest of the issues to solve is how to get and keep people’s attention online. As we noted above, messages from friends are the best way to get and hold people’s attention. There are two particular difficulties for aspiring social networks. First there is the problem of gaining a large enough audience when starting small. To make a network valuable it needs plenty of others on it. Second, there is the problem of having a distinctive offering. A new platform has to offer something better or different than what is available elsewhere. Obviously, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc are all excellent platforms with billions of users. What can persuade people to use another platform?

Despite these difficulties, in the last few years, a number of new platforms have disrupted incumbents by offering distinctive functionality (Telegram vs WhatsApp, TikTok vs Instagram, SnapChat vs Facebook). There has also been a rise in networks focussed on specific communities (e.g. Strava for cyclists, Twitch for gamers, Gettr and now TRUTH for the right wing, Raya for high trust relationships, Sphere for groups).

So for a new platform successfully to gain users attention it should be:

The Weaknesses of Existing Online Tools for Churches

Churches use three different categories of tool:

  1. Generic tools not designed for churches - Email, websites, WhatsApp, Facebook, Youtube, etc. These are well developed. However, email and websites are increasingly ineffective at commanding attention. Social apps have high engagement but the problem with the social platforms is that though they provide for friends, and groups none of them provide for the basic relational structures of the church:
  1. Pastors and pastored.
  2. Groups within groups.
  3. Inquirers and members.
  1. Church management systems. CMS’s help administer such things as attendance, membership, accounting, small groups, giving, etc. Though CMS’s can greatly aid the administration of churches they a) don’t address the attention issue and b) don’t directly address the relational needs of pastoral care or fellowship.
  2. Streaming platforms built for churches. These are essentially presentation platforms. Again they don’t cater for the relational structures of church and so have no engagement outside of service times.

The table shows how well or badly some existing online tools match with typical church needs.

Good for...

Website

Email

Whats

App

Social Media

CMS

Video

Streams

Chat

Pray

Engaging members attention

Trust and safety

Prayer

Basic church information

Announcements

Likelihood messages are read

Visibility to Gen Z and below

Social interaction

Organisation of groups

Visibility of groups

Membership management

Building Tools Locally or Centrally

Churches are always keen to do their own thing locally - largely to maintain distinctiveness and ownership (see below). In this spirit, a few churches have built their own apps but these have all struggled to get engagement. Many churches and ministries assemble their own apps from pre-built templates. However, these too struggle to get people’s attention because the social group is far too small to command attention - even for the largest churches.

Community spaces are only interesting to visit if there are others there - an empty church is unappealing. However, this is even more true for virtual spaces than physical. Virtual spaces need large numbers of participants to make them interesting. Our estimate is that a virtual community needs to be about 160x bigger than the equivalent church community to have an equivalent level of interaction
[13].

From what’s already been said about the economics of zero cost distribution, and the way that social networks function, building centrally and distributing is the only solution that is likely to be successful.

Maintaining Local Ownership

Churches usually place a high value on maintaining ownership and control over any platform they are on. This desire is a combination of wanting to:

These desires have been one of the main drivers for churches trying to develop their own solutions. The problem is that in a desire to remain safe and distinctive churches have massively underestimated the difficulty in getting and holding users attention.

ChatPray - A Unified Solution

ChatPray has been designed from the beginning to:

  1. Solve the attention issue
  2. Encourage connection rather than performative posting
  3. Work towards feed selection transparency / controllability
  4. Provide for the social / fellowship needs of church members in better ways than existing online tools.
  5. Include prayer as a fundamental category.
  6. Explicitly model the characteristic structures of church.
  7. Provide all the tools needed by churches.
  8. Give churches ownership of their space.
  9. Make it possible to experiment with new kinds of online church at low cost.

Solving the Attention Issue

Many Christian’s find the idea of deliberately setting out to capture people’s attention distasteful - a kind of trick. Their feeling is that if the content is good, that people will attend to it.  But Jesus “called out in a loud voice”[14] when necessary on the “last and busiest feast day”. The result of this distaste can be that churches agonise over carefully worded websites but not over whether anyone will ever visit it.

The first part of solving this problem is to actually recognize that in an era of digital distribution and oceans of information, attention is something that needs to be thought about as much as content.

As described above, social media attracts attention more than anything else. This truth has been exploited by Facebook and others to show users advertising. However, social connection is potentially a good thing from a church point of view, but even better if it can carry the gospel rather than advertisements.

Making Social Media Better

Existing social media has a number of shortcomings from the Christian community’s point of view:

  1. The drive to profit has led social media to be careless with the safety of its users. ChatPray, by integrating online community with actual offline community, and by other design choices, has the opportunity to make it a safe and trusting place.
  2. The drive to profit has led social media to encourage through metrics and algorithms behaviours that are corrosive to connection. ChatPray aims to work towards solutions that are encouraging to health connection.
  3. Though the Christian community is always open to new members, it has relational needs that are specific to the family of God - e.g. prayer, fellowship, marriage, etc. ChatPray isn’t designed for everyone but for believers and seekers.

Making Prayer Fundamental

Existing social media does not recognise prayer as a primary form of communication. ChatPray weaves it all through the app.

Incorporating the Structures of Church

Social media is not interested in the structures of the church designed for its members' blessing. In particular:

ChatPray makes all of these explicit in its design and organization.

Providing Tools for the Church

ChatPray will gradually roll out all the tools necessary for running a church online - but in a social context.

Low Cost Experimentation

Planting churches is largely constrained by cost factors, especially related to buildings, housing, and other physical infrastructure. Making all the tools necessary to operate a church online can provide ways to experiment with church planting, new forms of gathering, etc. This can allow expensive decisions about physical infrastructure to be delayed until a viable economic size is achieved.

Conclusion

The advent of virtual “places” presents both significant challenges and new opportunities to a church that has been based around dedicated buildings and geographically local communities for 1600 years. ChatPray is an attempt to provide an online platform in which to create online “places” that incorporate many of the building blocks of both Christian community and church structure.

Confidential - ChatPray, Inc. ©2022                                                                 


[1] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/exponential-age-azeem-azhar

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/433871/daily-social-media-usage-worldwide/

[3] https://www.statista.com/statistics/433871/daily-social-media-usage-worldwide/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/technology/what-is-metaverse-2021-10-18/

[5] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/exponential-age-azeem-azhar

[6]https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Files/1_Indicators%20(Standard)/EXCEL_FILES/1_Population/WPP2019_POP_F07_1_POPULATION_BY_AGE_BOTH_SEXES.xlsx

[7]https://www.capitalfrontiers.com/single-post/2018/06/10/how-much-would-building-a-new-city-cost

[8] Assuming 20 sq ft per person (includes sanctuary, classrooms, and offices) x $174 per sq ft (https://www.rsmeans.com/model-pages/church).

[9] If a team of 100 worked for 200 days at a daily rate of $500 = $10m

[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TikTok#:~:text=So%2C%20going%20global%20is%20a,billion%20videos%20viewed%20every%20day.

[11] https://philpapers.org/go.pl?id=NGUHTG&aid=NGUHTGv1

[12]https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

[13] Virtual spaces are “open” 24/7 whereas churches are used for say 4 hours a week (1 morning and one evening service of 2 hours each) which is only 2.4% of the time. So a virtual space would have to be 1 / 2.4% = 40x bigger to have the same level of activity spread out 24/7. I.e. a church of 200 would need a virtual community of 8,000.

Only about a quarter of social media users are content creators. So we would have to multiply the 8,000 number by 4 = 16,000. This is an estimate of the number of social media users we would need to replicate the social interactions of a church of 200. So for a big church of 1000 the number rises to 160k people. This number is larger than all but 3 churches in the world.

[14] John 7:37 “On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and called out in a loud voice”