Can Online Churches Create Offline Connections?
Can Online Churches Create Offline Connections?

Three Churches Share Stories from the “Wild West”of Worship on the World Wide Web

By Justin Horey

From smartphones to social media, Facebook to FaceTime, the Internet and the tools we use to access it are often advertised as ways to help people relate to one another. Dating apps and websites aim to bring people together in person, while social media platforms and videoconferencing were created to help people stay in touch when they can’t be together in the same room.

Technology experts and ordinary people alike love to debate the effectiveness of relating with online tools, but these tools are pervasive and proliferating. Naturally, churches around the world are seeking to use the Internet to spread the gospel and create Christian community. But what is the purpose of “online church?” Is it to bring people together face-to-face or to provide virtual relationships for people who can’t be together in person?

It depends on whom you ask.

First Capital Christian Church: Digital Life Is Real Life

First Capital Christian Church of Corydon, Indiana, is a congregation of almost 2,000 in a city of just 3,000 residents. That kind of impact would be remarkable for any congregation, but engagement pastor Tyler Sansom says it’s particularly noteworthy because First Capital has what he calls “the worst church location imaginable.” The church’s physical campus is located at the end of a dead-end road, without so much as a sign pointing the way to the building.

Rather than working to improve the visibility of the facility or drive more people to attend services on site, First Capital decided to expand its reach by launching an online worship service in 2015. The first live broadcasts were humble, streamed from the worship leader’s cell phone. After a year, the church started what Sansom describes as a legitimate online service.

While it’s difficult to determine exact attendance figures, Sansom estimates the number of people participating in the church’s online services could soon exceed the Sunday attendance at the physical church building. But at First Capital, online worship services are just a part of its Internet ministry; the church also offers online videos, question-and-answer sessions, Facebook Live broadcasts, and more—all overseen by a care team dedicated to reaching people with the gospel on the web. That broad online ministry is not a bridge or a funnel designed to convince people to attend Sunday services or midweek small groups in person. In Sansom’s view, digital life is real life, online relationships are real relationships, and online ministry is complete ministry.

As evidence, Sansom shared the story of Betty, a 78-year-old shut-in who recently passed away. The online care team from First Capital had been in touch with her nearly every day during the final months of her life, and Sansom spoke at her funeral, though he had never met her face-to-face before she went to be with Jesus. Like Betty, anyone who is a part of online church at First Capital is a part of the church. Full stop.

Crossroads: Church Anywhere

Crossroads Church in Cincinnati has been offering online services since 2015. The church calls it “Crossroads Anywhere,” and the name is appropriate because roughly 20,000 to 40,000 people participate in those online services each week—watching and interacting via the web from locations all across the United States. Lena Schuler, the Crossroads Anywhere community pastor, says Crossroads wants to be “the easiest church for people to be part of in the whole country.”

Unlike First Capital Christian Church, Crossroads places a high priority on bringing online attendees together for face-to-face interactions. The church even promotes those opportunities during online worship services, regularly showing videos of online attendees watching the service together or participating in other offline experiences like informal get-togethers.

“People are never going to want what they can’t see,” Schuler says, “so we show them what community looks like.”

Crossroads offers many groups for online attendees: Sunday morning watch parties, monthly dinner parties, and one-off events. Most ongoing groups and gatherings meet in people’s homes, though some meet in public places or larger venues, as needed. Crossroads also encourages online attendees to develop friendships and deeper ongoing relationships by taking steps to become more involved in each other’s lives, by meeting for coffee, going out to lunch, or attending one another’s birthday parties.

Despite the emphasis Crossroads places on face-to-face interactions, it can be a challenge to bring people together when the congregation is reaching individuals in nearly every state. Schuler estimates that only about half of the church’s online attendees live near an existing group, which leaves many people without a local community to join. Crossroads currently offers more than 100 groups for online attendees, but it isn’t enough. The church is constantly adding more groups in more locations.

Schuler and the Crossroads team see endless opportunities to reach the lost using online tools, and they are willing to do almost anything to achieve the goal of making Crossroads easy to join.

“We’re going to do anything—short of sin—to reach people.”

Northeast Christian Church: An Online Church Built for a City

The online campus at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is brand new, and Northeast approaches its online ministry differently than most other congregations. Adrienne Feldmann, online campus pastor, says Northeast Christian Church exists to reach and serve the people of Louisville—and the online campus is no exception.

Northeast’s singular focus on the city of Louisville makes the church’s online ministry attractive to locals. Every week, Feldmann says the church staff meets first-time visitors who tried out the church’s online services before visiting the main campus. (Feldmann calls it a “test drive.”) It happens so often that in the pre-service video shown before the online service, she invites people to come and introduce themselves to her if they do choose to attend worship in person.

The online service is not necessarily designed to attract people to Northeast’s physical service on Sunday. But Feldmann is clear that she and her team want people who participate in Northeast Online to spend time together offline one way or another.

“My end goal is for people to be face-to-face—even if they are never physically in our building,” she says. For that reason, the church offers microcampuses, where people can watch the online service together, as well as small groups for online attendees.

Because Northeast is “a Louisville church,” online attendees are encouraged to participate not only in local small groups, but in local service projects as well. Last August, when the church canceled its normal worship services for one Sunday to serve local schools in preparation for the start of the new academic year, Northeast also canceled its online services and invited online attendees to participate in the service project. Church members from the online and physical campuses joined together that day and served 34 area schools by painting railings, planting flowers, and completing other tasks to maintain and repair the facilities—all in the name of Christ.

The Wild West of Worship on the Web

Feldmann compares online church to the Wild West because digital ministry feels like an adventure. Unlike the American frontier, however, online church in the United States is not marked by territorial disputes. In fact, Feldmann says most congregations are “very openhanded” about their online ministries, freely sharing ideas and information with one another. Oklahoma-based Life.Church, currently the largest online church in the country, has been particularly helpful to the team at Northeast.

By collaborating with other congregations, Feldmann has discovered that “what works for one church’s culture isn’t going to work for another church’s culture,” and she is learning to adapt her own ministry to fulfill Northeast Christian Church’s specific mission. She encourages other churches that are considering online ministry to begin now rather than waiting for “the perfect time.”

“There are people—very real people—you meet in your online campuses who need Jesus,” she says.

Whether or not those people ultimately meet in person, the churches using the Internet to reach the lost agree that online ministry is worth the time and technology it takes.

Besides, Feldmann adds, “It’s really fun!”

Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.

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