As executive pastor of church expansion at Central Christian Church in Henderson, Nevada, Kurt Ervin is overseeing one of the most innovative forms of evangelism and discipleship the church has ever seen. While Central has expanded to seven physical campuses, the campuses with the potential to turn the world upside down have no physical locations. Central’s online and Facebook campuses have eight different weekly services and reach attendees around the world. The church’s goal is to have 300 new campuses or churches in the next 10 years, and the online campuses are key to fulfilling that vision. Central has a base of 10,000 online attendees from all 50 states and 47 countries.
To see what it’s all about, visit http://centralchristian.com/onlinecampus/.
What is an online campus?
A virtual church. It’s a church that meets completely online. We live in a day when people shop online, bank online, go to school online, and date online, so we provided a venue for them to go to church online.
How is an online campus different than just listening to a sermon on the Internet?
What we’re providing is different than a podcast. You’re attending an online church with a live community of people logged in from all around the world, watching the same service at the same time as you are. There’s a lobby where people can chat with other viewers. We have ushers and greeters and we take an offering. If someone logs on to our online campus for the first time, a live greeter will welcome him or her and say, “Welcome to Central’s online campus! My name is so and so.” There’s a live prayer option, so if someone has a prayer need he or she can click that button and chat live with one of our prayer team volunteers.
How many volunteers does it take to staff the online campus?
We need between 60 and 80 volunteers to staff our eight services weekly.
How many of them are based in Las Vegas?
About 30 percent.
How do you recruit them?
It’s all been done through social networking—volunteer recruitment, volunteer training, all of it. We’ve never spent a dime marketing that campus.
What does an online campus pastor do?
He basically is pastor to that affinity world. In my opinion, it’s easier to connect with people online through chats, Skype, or Tokbox, and pastor them and help them. Just this past weekend we had eight people at our online campus give their lives to Christ. They were led through the plan of salvation all through chat.
How do you lead someone to follow through with the physical act of baptism in the online environment?
We do baptism a couple of different ways. One, if we know of a church in the person’s area, we will try to get them plugged into that physical body of believers. We don’t see the online campus as the end result in someone’s spiritual journey. Second, we will talk them through inviting a believer to their house and getting baptized in their home.
What about Communion?
We do Communion online. We instruct them to get wine or grape juice and bread and we talk them through it.
How do you get people to take their faith beyond the online venue?
One of the coolest things we’ve done is an online campus mission trip for our audience. We got them together from all around the world on a Saturday and we played a prerecorded video at the online campus. We told everyone with a Facebook account to go to Facebook and chat with friends and start a spiritual conversation. We instructed them on what to say and how to begin the conversation. One of the cool things about having an online church is people are so spread out; it’s a place to connect with someone you went to high school with and invite them to attend church with you online.
What about getting away from the computer and connecting with people in the real world?
Another type of mission trip is a “random act of kindness day” worldwide. We encouraged everyone who attended our online campus to set aside three hours on a Saturday to do a random act of kindness and invite a person to our online campus. We provided them with T-shirts and options for where and how to serve. We had more than 500 people that day, worldwide, practically meet the needs in their community in the name of Christ—from Ecuador, South Africa, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and 37 different states.
Is an online campus more a form of evangelism or discipleship?
It’s more a form of evangelism, but we now have the beginnings of the discipleship strategy plugged into it. To me, it’s a more complete global mission strategy than most churches do. We’re identifying people and connecting them online with people in their community. We put them in small groups and then start a new church with them.
So the connection to Christians in their area goes beyond an Internet connection?
We’re doing three things. Because part of our vision is to start 300 churches or campuses worldwide, our front door for doing that is our online campus. For example, a Stadia church planter in New Orleans contacted me. We have people from New Orleans who attend our online campus, so I can establish a partnership with him. I will find people in New Orleans and let him know how many people in New Orleans attend our online campus. Then during the host time of our service, I’ll address the New Orleans crowd: “We’ve partnered with a guy who is planting a church a lot like Central. Here’s his name and his church’s Web site.”
What if you don’t have a specific local church connection in the area?
The flipside of the coin is, when we have a city with a lot of people, like Dallas or Mexico City, we will actually fly there and do a live service on a given night. We’ll gather people together and at the end of the service start physical small groups for them in that city. So we have Central small groups meeting in cities where Central doesn’t have a location yet. They can do Communion with their small group, be baptized by their small group leader, and when it’s appropriate we’ll use those small groups to plant the church.
How do you find people to come to the online campus?
They find us. On Easter Sunday we had 411 people outside of Las Vegas attend our online campus for the first time. They found us through Google search. They searched “Easter” and found us on the Internet and came. If it was not for our online campus, those 411 people may not have heard the gospel on Easter Sunday.
How did you get Central Online to show up when people did a Google search of “Easter”?
We paid for an ad so when people Googled “Easter,” our online campus came up. People clicked on that ad from all over the world: 72 people from Canada, 159 from Mexico, a bunch from Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Libya. We had 2 from Anchorage, 160 from Phoenix, 109 from Los Angeles, Portland, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids. It’s kind of all over the place. We had 23 people from New York City.
How do you track them?
We use Light Cast Media as our video server. It has servers all over the world, so if you’re in San Francisco watching, you pull a video stream from the server that is closest to you in San Francisco. Every week we get a report from all the cities where the servers are that tells us how many people viewed the service.
How do you monitor doctrine to ensure the small group leaders you attract from around the world don’t go off on a tangent?
Out-of-state small group meetings are restricted to using our video small group curriculum which involves our staff doing the 10- to 15-minute teaching, and then the small group leader facilitating discussion out of the small group guide we send them.
Don’t you run the risk of having some people who are really “out there” leading things in a dangerous direction?
It’s pretty messy, but so is physical church. People are people. In my experience they tend to be more authentic online.
In what way?
They seem quicker to open up, quicker to share their needs or their struggles. Part of that is they feel anonymous when they’re online. If they use a screen name, there is a perception you really don’t know who they are.
Maybe they’re trying to hide. Wouldn’t revealing their identity be more authentic?
They may hide behind the screen name, but the issues are authentic.
Do you understand why some people would be skeptical of how you could make disciples without seeing them face-to-face?
Yeah, I can see that angle, but my answer to that is twofold: (1) at least we’re doing something; and (2) if any church in America heard about a mission field of 100 million people (Facebook), that speaks our language, you can meet them where they are and you can plug them into church, all for an investment of less than $10,000, wouldn’t we want to go to those people? We see the online world as a mission field that is very accessible and very affordable to make an impact.
What’s the next online step for Central?
In the fall we’re looking at launching an online campus completely in Spanish. In the same way we leverage our online campuses in English, we would look to plant churches all throughout Latin America.
Are there other digital avenues that support all of this?
Yes. The whole other side of it is using the platform of social networking as an on-ramp to our online campuses. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—”socialnomics.” People don’t go looking for stuff, stuff finds them. At the same time they click on it, they’ve joined a community of people.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, ministry development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.