Should we do it all online?

February 12, 2009 — 6 Comments

As many of you know, I am teaching a course in Internet Ministry this semester at Biola University.  Most of you reading this cannot attend this class, but have told me how interested you are in the topics of the course.  In the spirit of Britain’s Open University and MIT’s Open Courseware, over the next few weeks, I will use this blog to share with you some of the highlights of the course and what the class is learning.  As of today, the class has met two times and we have already had some good discussions regarding the role of the Internet in ministry.

Lifechurch serviceProbably the most interesting topic so far is the debate on which areas of ministry can be performed effectively on the Internet. The first day of class we started defining the term “ministry”.  By using the early church as described in the book of Acts as our example, we found many types of ministry performed:  teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, worship, ministering to the poor, evangelism, fasting, hospitality, and miracles. The discussion then led to the question: which of these areas of ministry can be done online? And the followup: which of these areas of ministry should be done online?

I asked my students to attend a church service at Lifechurch.tv between our first and second meetings. Lifechurch is a multi-site church that extensively uses the Internet as a means for ministry.  They have even created an Internet “campus” which attempts to provide a complete church experience for those who “attend” one of the services. It was this Internet campus that  I asked my students to attend. In class the next week, we recounted our experience there and compared it to our experience attending a church service physically.  We reviewed the different activities performed in a church service, such as worship, taking offering, preaching, prayer, and fellowship.  We all agreed that, from a technical perspective, Lifechurch does these quite well.  For worship, they show their band playing, with the words to the songs appearing on the screen as they are being sung. At one point in the service, offering is taken where a short message on the importance of giving is presented and the opportunity to give is presented (though you can give at any time via the “donate” button at the top right of the screen).  The Lifechurch pastor, Craig Groeschel, gave a Biblically-sound topical message in his latest series, called “True-ish”. Prayer happened throughout the service and at any point you could click “live prayer” to contact someone to pray with you. Finally, fellowship was provided through the “chat” window to the right of the screen (see image), where you could interact with each other in a text-based format. The chat window was lively and had quite varied topics going all throughout the service.

But after agreeing that the technical aspects of the service were well done, we started asking the harder questions. Was fellowship that was handled via “chat” sessions really fellowship?  One of my students noted that true fellowship is not just getting together only during Sunday mornings for a conversation, but it is seeing the hurt in someone’s eyes as they are leaving the service or running into someone later in the week and talking about what they are doing.  And what about worship? After agreeing that the music was quite moving and the musicians were talented, a student asked, “but did you find yourself singing along with it?” In other words, were you merely being entertained, or were your thoughts turned towards glorifying God?

As my students work towards their first assignment of developing a philosophy of Internet ministry, these are the types of questions that must be answered.  What parts of ministry are better handled offline, in the physical world? How do you integrate the online and the offline? As you may be able to tell from this blog post, I have my reservations about what Lifechurch is doing with their Internet campus. Their commitment to giving someone 100% of the church experience online, without directing that person to a local Christian fellowship, in my opinion, shortchanges that person and does not give them the full Christian experience and, more importantly, leads them away from fulfilling their duties as a Christian.

“HOLD ON!”, you might say,  “isn’t an ‘incomplete’ Christian experience better than no Christian experience at all?”  There are many who would never go to “church” (or are unable to for some reason) but would be willing to attend a service online. Doesn’t that make it worth it?  These are great questions that are difficult to answer. I will leave that for an upcoming post.

Dave

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Online ministry researcher and educator. Associate Professor and Director of Innovation for the Crowell School of Business at BIola University. Author of Ministry in the Digital Age.

6 responses to Should we do it all online?

  1. Hi Dave

    Some interesting questions – I have commented on your posting on Internet Evangelism Day’s new blog at InternetEvangelismDay.com/blog

    It will be interesting, as you work through your list of the biblical areas of ministry with the students, to find equivalents online for each area in the list, and also analyze whether they are attractional (like an online church service), or incarnational (going out an meeting people socially, and/or within an area of common interest or felt need/problem.

    Blessings

    Tony

  2. Hey Dave (and class),
    It is great to have a Biola class checking this out and working through some great questions. I am an alumni of Biola (MA in Christian Apologetics) and I am glad to hear you all visited online.

    I think these are good questions to continue to wrestle with. One way I have tried to phrase what is happening is like this, “We do not want to create church online. Instead we want to facilitate the church using online tools.” I think any ministry you are talking about should have the non-changing principles that God intended. The church can not change. It is the same as when God set it up. Any tool we use should be used to accelerate the vision that is already there, not to create something new and shiny. The internet represents an incredible communication tool for the church.

    I know it has been quite a journey for me personally as I have walked through this ministry the last 3 years. Continually praying that God would guide what we could do and what we should do in regards to the online tools. Through out all the questions and challenges, I have personally been a part of 100′s of stories of people who have surrendered their life to Jesus. I have always thought that these tools have just allowed me to be a part of God’s stories in lives all around the world that I would have never had the opportunity to share. It has also showed me the questions are worth seeking, and that Jesus can be trusted.

    I hope that your discussions and further insight will further Jesus fame in a healthy way using any tools we have the opportunity of using.

    God bless!

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