Is Online Church Really Church? Absolutely.
Is Online Church Really Church? Absolutely.

IN THE ARENA:

In the arena of ideas and opinions, there needs to be a place for Christ-centered and Christ-honoring debate of nonessential issues. We will occasionally feature a debate like this in Christian Standard. Jon Weatherly’s article “How to Debate Debatable Issues” gives great insight on how to disagree in a godly way.

We apply the principles Jon describes in our first debate between Jerry Harris and Barry Cameron (click here to read his article). These two men are great friends who have differing views and opinions about online church.

Read their articles and then tell us what you think. Comment at the end of this article or Barry’s article, or email your take to cs@christianstandardmedia.com.

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By Jerry Harris

Pastor, author, and leadership speaker Carey Nieuwhof makes annual predictions of church cultural trends he sees gaining traction in the coming year.

In “7 Disruptive Church Trends that Will Rule 2018,” a web post at careynieuwhof.com, he underscores trends related to online church in both his first and second predictions.

He begins with “A Move Beyond Church in a Box,” which identifies culture’s expectation to have access to whatever it wants, anytime and anywhere. He points out that we live in a culture that is used to 24-hour access. He says,

There’s never been a greater need in our culture for community and connection. The church isn’t going away anytime soon. So what’s the rethink here? Future churches will have a building . . . they’ll just reach far beyond it. You’ll still need a facility, a broadcast location, a school or theater to rent—some space in which to meet. But you’ll need to think way beyond it.

His second prediction is “The Digital Will Become Real.” A number of churches in our tribe are starting to count their online attendance. It’s not stopping us from adding physical multisite locations or planting new churches, but in increasing numbers, churches are recognizing this new online audience.

Even with all that, the church is starting to question whether their digital space “counts”—whether it’s real. Here’s Nieuwhof’s response: “In 2018 asking whether people who watch church online ‘count’ is like Sears asking if Amazon counts. It’s like New York City cabs asking if Uber counts or Lyft counts. Of course they count.”

 

Proclaiming the Gospel in a Changing World

There’s no doubt our world has changed. The whole world exists online today. We date by swiping left or right, we get degrees online, we have our meetings online, we do our Christmas shopping online, we Skype, blog, vlog, text, FaceTime, tweet, Instagram, Facebook, game, buy tickets, bank, pay bills, tithe, diet, book rides, make reservations, find entertainment, GoFundMe, organize, and even sin online. The average person spends 10 hours a day in some degree of online activity.

The best way to proclaim the gospel of Jesus is in any and every way possible and as much as possible. When Jesus’ message goes out, people can and will change. This may be the strongest argument for the necessity and validity of an online worship experience.

 

Responding to the Concerns

Relational Engagement. The main concern with online church lies in the uncertainties of developing relationships with those who are viewing and worshipping. It’s in relationship, after all, that new people are invited, discipleship happens, shape is discovered for service in the kingdom, and the discipline of giving is nurtured.

Physical churches provide holistic ministry for children, students, and adults, pastoral ministries for those needing counsel, weddings, funerals, and hospital visitation. Physical locations become hubs for doing life together. How can a church fulfill ministry in such areas with a person who simply logs on? Concerns of this type need satisfactory answers and solutions.

Before we seek to answer the question of online relational engagement, let’s ask a more pointed question: Just how many people in a physical location are relationally engaged?

At the church I serve, less than half of the congregation is involved in any type of regular ministry and less than one-quarter give in a way that could reasonably be defined as tithing. The majority don’t engage in a small group. Regardless of that, if a person drives in and parks, takes a seat, and listens to a sermon, we count them. Sometimes we count them twice if they serve during one service and attend a different one! Therefore, substantive engagement is really a fallacy for the vast majority of those we count.

While engagement with people in an online format is substantially lower, in general, compared with engagement of those who attend a physical location, the primary reason might be that we haven’t yet figured out the right way to engage them and hold them. That’s how it is with any pioneering in ministry . . . first, it is almost universally panned, then it is accepted only by those on the fringes, and by the time it catches on with the majority, the wave has already passed.

Restoration Movement Ideals. Is it possible to have all the elements of a Restoration Movement worship service in an online format? My answer is yes.

It has never been easier to broadcast a sermon online. Life.church has created the Church Online Platform (churchonlineplatform.com) for anyone who desires it, and it is absolutely free. It can be adapted for any church, incorporates chat rooms and prayer rooms, and tracks and provides information about viewers.

A viewer who responds by making a personal decision for Christ can be directed to the person who manages the platform in real time, and together they can make baptism arrangements. The church can provide information about how to prepare Communion and can even send prepared Communion elements to individuals or locations. Giving to the church can be handled in an online or text format.

Worship. The bigger issue is how to provide the highest-quality worship experience. Metrics show us not only how many log on, but how long they stay on, and there is a big difference between online services where people stay on an average of 3 minutes versus those who stay on an average of 30 to 40 minutes.

Another issue is worship engagement. Will people in an online format join in singing? My answer to that is also yes, but a quality worship experience must be delivered. A “house mix” may not be good for an online participant. Our church records worship in a smaller setting and couples it with live preaching. We also invest in both Apple TV and Roku channels so that online venues can view the service on larger screens or projected video.

Discipleship. One of the most difficult practices to achieve may be how we disciple people online.

I’m sure there were bumps early on with online education, especially with instructor-student interactions. Younger generations are amazed at how difficult it is for some of us older folks to engage in relationship in an online format.

The church workers hosting an online service are constantly making decisions because of the chat and prayer rooms. While a typical churchgoer would wait for the invitation to respond, or else find someone to talk to after the service, an online participant can respond immediately. They can instantly be plugged into a live online discussion group during the week too. The participant can even sign up for online classes offered by the church.

My church—The Crossing (Quincy, Illinois)—seeks to coalesce people into a micro-site where they can worship together and maybe even eventually birth a physical location.

Children’s Ministry. What about children’s ministry? This probably is the biggest challenge of all, but only because we have such a limited view of the online format.

Nothing is keeping a church from recording their children’s services and doing a second online platform just for little ones. This means that kids can be on one device while their parents are on another. Before we scoff at the idea and cite limitations in socialization, we should recognize that online learning is common in homeschooling.

Many churches use the 252 Kids curriculum by Orange (part of the reThink Group); this curriculum can be recorded and coupled with live teaching facilitated by a children’s online leader. Since online platforms can pinpoint the viewers’ locations, groups could form from those contacts to start multisite locations or new church plants.

Pastoral Ministry. Some pastoral opportunities convert into an online format better than others. And just as a physical location can do some things that online can’t, the opposite is also true: There are things online can do that a physical location cannot. Online ministry transcends distance while physical locations are bound to a geographic location. Our online services allowed us to go into prisons, jails, youth detention facilities, group homes, and step care facilities. It’s watched by people in hospitals and by those who are vacationing.

Finances. Online ministry transcends costs as well. As an example, take your church’s budget and divide it by the average attendance. If average attendance is 200 and the budget is $200,000, the average cost is $1,000 per person per year. Let’s compare that with a church that has an online format. Last week, we had 3,300 people join online, and our annual cost for staff and technology is less than $50,000. That projects out to about $15 per person per year, or about 1.5 percent of the cost of a physical location! Smaller locations could greatly reduce these costs if there were a heavier reliance on volunteers and simpler equipment.

 

Counting People . . . and Opportunity Costs

So how should we count them? When we examine the metrics at The Crossing, we know we’re looking at devices, not individuals. Some devices that connect with our worship service have more than 20 people viewing, while others might have only one. We average 2.4 people per device, so we reach our online number by looking at those who log on and stay on, and multiplying it by 2.4.

People today are choosing to drive less and rely more on online capabilities. By doing this, they remain in the safety and security of their homes while enjoying more quality family time, but without neglecting worship.

Before you get out the torches and pitchforks, understand that online church opportunities show no signs of going away. On the contrary, online church will continue to grow and those who make use of it will discover even better ways of meeting very real needs of connecting people to Jesus and a church family.

I don’t think online will ever replace physical church locations, but I think church leaders should consider what the future looks like and how the church of today meets that future.

Two quotes in Nieuwhof’s article about church trends struck me. The first was, “The gap between how quickly you change and how quickly things change around you is called irrelevance.” The second was, “Too many church leaders are perfectly equipped to reach a world that no longer exists.”

My twofold hope for our churches is reflected in Scripture. First, we must be like the sons of Issachar; we must understand the times and know what to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). Second, we must do as the Lord commanded through  the psalmist: “[H]e commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands” (Psalm 78:5-7).

Read Barry Cameron’s opposing viewpoint.

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