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.