For Judah and Chelsea Smith, Online Church Has Been the New Normal for Years


In 2018, Judah and Chelsea Smith had a vision for City Church in Seattle, Washington: a new kind of church experience. This church would feature worship, teaching, community, opportunities to serve — basically everything common to the church as we know it, with one caveat: it’d be online. To the Smiths, this app represented a new kind of virtual experience that would offer church to a new generation more comfortable with digital relationships. They called it Churchome.The announcement was met with no small degree of skepticism at the time but that was then. Now Churchome’s style of Sunday service has become the norm for almost every church in the country. The coronavirus pandemic has flipped a lot of assumptions about what church can and even should look like on their heads, and whatever you think of Churchome, there’s no denying that it has become an accidental pioneer of our new normal.

RELEVANT sat down with the Smiths to talk about the strange position they’ve found themselves in, some lessons they’ve learned about online services over the years and why they don’t think church will ever be the same.

People are starting to think about the future — what’s on the other side of this pandemic. I know we don’t know how much longer it’ll be wise or safe to stay in lockdown but as restrictions do start to lift in some states, what would you say to people who are being encouraged to start going back outside — and that might include church in some cases — but are still afraid?

CHELSEA: I think your question’s really interesting. You talked about fear. I don’t think we should ever be motivated by fear, but instead wisdom and compassion. So for me, my dad is 70 and in stage four cancer. I probably have a year left with my dad. So we’re using wisdom instead of fear. I am going to make the best decision for this moment for him and for us. The same with Judah’s mom; she’s about to leave and we just used wisdom — not fear — but also compassion and love and relationships that really do guide and lead our lives, to make that decision in our own family.

JUDAH: Yeah. I think practicing empathy and compassion, there’s going to be and is an incredible practice, exercise and opportunity for all of us. The reality is we’re all going to be and continue to be kind of at a different pace. There are people who have lost multiple loved ones, there are people who don’t know what to do because their loved ones, family members, parents and spouses are on the front lines and they’re being exposed to extraordinary amounts of compromised individuals in terms of this disease. So what I’m saying is: I think there are multiple years ahead of some people still wanting to wear masks and we have to go, “That’s OK.” We celebrate and affirm you and love you and respect your conviction. Some will still want to create some distance.

Here, about three years ago, we started to change our name and it started to practice this idea of Church at Home, for a number of different reasons like our vision and God, and then just resources and stewardship. There are a lot of people who won’t want to gather, with 500, 1,000, 2,000 people and we’re going to celebrate that. Then there are people who, as you know, who are already are like, “Let’s get on with it. This thing’s over, let’s move on.” And I’m like, “Oh man, it’s, definitely not over.”

I wanted to ask about Churchome. When you launched your online church app, you got a lot of criticism. Now, we’re all doing it. 

JUDAH: Both Chelsea and I, when we first started dreaming about Churchome, no way, no how, no possible scenario did we imagine that Church at Home would become mandatory. I will say it’s added some confidence to some of our key leaders in our church. Just speaking gently, wow, maybe you, maybe you’re kind of hearing a little bit from God to an extent.

CHELSEA: I’m so proud of Judah because he hasn’t gloated, and he could have. Good job.

JUDAH: Yeah, now more than ever, would never be the time for that. The reality is we won’t have a full large gathering for quite some time now. It’s put an impetus on us to say OK, this Church at Home, this is our vision, and we…

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