Archives For online church

Yesterday, I received a link to the first issue of Inspiren, the newsletter of the Christian Web Conference.  It contained an article by Matt Anderson with an argument against online church. “What!” you may say, “the Christian Web Conference is against using the Internet for church?” No, the conference is not against online church. But the conference DOES want to promote discussion about the appropriate uses of the Internet (and technology) for ministry, with one of the highlights being a debate between Matt Anderson and Andrew Jones on the ability of online church to build community.

As many of you know, I have been somewhat critical of online church. You can see my posts here and here and here on that.  A summary of my arguments, which Matt alludes to, is that there are some components of “church” that cannot be fully accomplished online and that it is important that Christians understand the value of physical contact and face-to-face interaction.  However, in Matt’s article, he brings up a different argument that I am not sure I can fully support. Matt’s main point is that putting church online automatically excludes a large segment of those to whom we should be trying to reach. From the article:

It is important for the church to minister to the poor as the church¸ and to bring the poor into the church community. Some missionary agencies, for example, proclaim the gospel through and after meeting the physical needs of the impoverished, a strategy I think most effective. At best, it seems counterintuitive to include the absence of a computer and reliable internet connection as one of those physical needs.

While I do see this as a consideration against online church, to me this is not a primary argument. Be sure you read his full article here.

Let me take the other side and give some reasons in favor of online church. Though I fully believe that those who exclusively attend church online are shortchanging themselves and are not fully obeying the commandment to fellowship, there are still reasons for churches and ministries to be developing ways to use the Internet for church.

  • First, to address Matt’s argument, as with any new technology, it is going to be those with means who will first embrace it and integrate it into their lives. This is a large segment of American society (not to mention many other countries) and is a large enough group to make this an extremely large mission field.
  • Christians need to be on the forefront of technology. We cannot afford to not understand how to best utilize technology. For this reason, we must constantly be pushing the cutting edge and understanding the best way to communicate the message of Christ. I applaud lifechurch.tv and others for their work in this area.
  • The adoption of mobile technology is moving quickly and is already the primary communication technology for a vast majority of the world, including those without means.  The next big evolution in online church is mobile church, and we must be ready to communicate Christ in new, innovative ways.

There are many other arguments in favor of online church, but these jump to mind after reading Matt’s article. Again, let me point out, I am firmly in the camp that church cannot be fully realized online and will be supporting a lot of what Matt has to say in the debate.  To me, it is acceptable to put some parts of church online, but the online service should always be accompanied by a strong encouragement for those participating online to find a local body to join.

I will be leading a session at the Christian Web Conference this fall, will I see you there? I encourage you to participate in the conference, register now!

sb-icAs many of you may know, Saddleback Church (you know, Rick Warren’s church in south Orange County, CA) recently launched its own “Internet campus” last month.  In doing so, they have joined many other churches exploring new ways to reach the next generation of churchgoers.  According to Digital@Leadership Network, as of April 12, 2009, there are 27 churches with an Internet campus (including Saddleback’s). For those of you not familiar with the idea of an Internet campus, they are…

… more than having a live streaming video — it’s adding live interactive features like lobby chat room, message notes, communication card, raise a hand, say a prayer, and even online giving. Some have on-going ministry during the week with attenders by forming small groups or service projects. (description from Digital@LeadershipNetwork).

I have written many times in the past, often critically, of churches trying to fit the square peg of a full church service into the round hole of the Internet.  Instead of re-hashing those arguments here, let me point you to a couple previous blog entries here and here.  You may also want to check out my interview with Shane Hipps, who has written on this topic. The bottom line of those arguments is simply that the complete experience of church (as exemplified in Acts 2) cannot be done online and, more importantly, churches that offer an online experience should have as their goal the integration of all participants into a physical church body, whether their own or another church’s.  Which leads us to Saddleback… Continue Reading…

lifechurch-onlineLast week, I began a discussion about LifeChurch.tv and their implementation of an online “campus” for their church.  That post grew out of ongoing discussions we are having in my Internet Ministry class at Biola, where my students are working to develop a philosophy of Internet ministry.  In that post I discussed how skeptical I was about trying to do ALL facets of a church service online. Many churches will post audio and video of their services, but they do not even begin to claim that experiencing church through the website is the ideal experience.  To be fair, LifeChurch is not the only church doing this, there are others. But they seem to be the most innovative and prominent of the bunch.

Now, before I go on, let me just stop and say that I think that LifeChurch is doing an absolutely amazing job of utilizing the latest technologies and working to understand their implications. From blogs to video to Twitter to Second Life, they have all of their bases covered. And I have no doubt that they are changing lives and impacting the world in a positive way for Christ.  They are an absolutely amazing ministry.  They now have thirteen physical campuses serving several different communities across the United States.  Each location is unique, but yet united together through the transmission of the main message via satellite. As their “About” page says: “Through satellite broadcasts that enable all of our twelve locations to be connected as one, LifeChurch.tv is a multi-site church that transcends metropolitan regions.” Their innovation is not just with technology: they also make all of their media resources available to other churches to use, at no charge. This is truly an amazing ministry with amazing people that God is using for His glory.

I ended my post last time by asking the questions:

…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 probably some of the most compelling reasons to put church online. I know of several people who would never want to go into a church building with me, but would be willing to check out a service online. And I would feel very comfortable telling them about LifeChurch’s online campus. But I would also be sure to follow up with them and encourage them to become a part of a local church body (whether mine or another).  This discussion was brought up in our class during a conversation with Matt Anderson, the author of a chapter in one of the books we are using in the course. When asked about this specific question (“what about those who would never go to church otherwise?”), he responded that he understood this line of thinking, but also cautioned: “what we save them with is what we save them to.” In other words, if someone gets saved via an online church they will also see that church as “normal” and will possibly never move beyond that church experience.  Matt went on to state that Christianity is a physical religion: Jesus became man and interacted with us in the flesh. We are commanded to fellowship with each other. A Christian who “forsakes the assembly” is shortchanging themselves and disobeying God.

It comes down to this question: is a physical presence necessary in order for fellowship to happen? Shane Hipps, pastor and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, thinks so. In an interview I had with him for my class, he stated that for authentic community to happen, four components must exist: a shared history, permance, proximity, and a shared imagination of the future. He said that the Internet, primarily, can provide the last of the four, but is really limited in its ability to create the first three. He went on to say that “there is something energetically, spiritually that happens to a relationship when you are in the same room. And it’s fundamentally different than a disembodied relationship [via the Internet].”

Let me conclude by saying that I applaud what LifeChurch is doing overall. Their innovative work on the Internet is paving the way for other ministries to get online. Their willingness to share resources is inspiring.  Where I differ with them (and other churches with Internet campuses) is their decision to try to implement the full church experience through their Internet campus. Online church services provide a valuable service to those unable to attend a physical church and to those who would never enter a church on their own accord. But these folks must be directed to find a local body of believers, real flesh and blood, and it must be made clear that the online church service is never to replace attending physically.

I know that there are those who disagree with me. This is the place for a healthy debate. My students are wrestling with this issue as well and all comments are welcome.