By Rusty George
“Church online isn’t church.” Yep, that’s what I used to say. Of course, I also thought texting would never last and Facebook was a fad. But hey, what do I know? I guess you might call me a late adopter. Needless to say, starting an online campus wasn’t at the top of my list. But six years ago we decided to add an online option at our church, and I’ve changed my mind about its importance.
The First Question: Why Mess with It?
It sounds like a lot of work when a simple website with service times listed seems adequate. After all, our goal is to push people toward the physical location, right? Yes. And that’s exactly why I changed my mind about online campuses.
Churches have always put a lot of effort and resourcing into creating a great first impression. We paint the building, pave the parking lot, beautify the landscaping, and then update the lobby. We swap out the carpet, paint the walls, and invest in monitors and creative signage. Some churches add coffee shops, bookstores, ministry tables, and an information booth for new guests. Whatever it takes to make a great first impression.
For years I taught a class for our first-time guests and I’d ask, “How’d you get here?” The number-one answer used to be “a friend” or “your sign,” followed by, “and then we showed up and the place just felt inviting.” But slowly I began to hear less of that and more of, “I’ve been watching online for months and decided to show up.” One day it hit me: The lobby has moved!
Most of us conduct online research of restaurants, movies, and hotels before we ever decide to visit. Our guests are doing the same thing with our churches. They are deciding whether to attend your church by watching a service online. Even if they are invited by a friend, the friend is most likely to say, “Check it out online” . . . and they do, and then they decide.
So, we had to ask, Does our current website help a first-time guest take a next step . . . or does it just help our current attendees navigate their next activity? Our website historically has been a place of insider information. But now that the lobby has moved, how should our website help a new person take the next step?
The Next Question: What’s the Next Step?
The next step may just be to attend a physical location. That isn’t a problem, except your church will be limited in reach to the communities nearest your campuses. Our church wanted to reach further. We felt the Great Commission called us to think beyond just our city.
We knew of many people who would invite friends from far away to “go to church.” So, our goal was to connect with people regardless of where they lived. Because of this, we’ve now heard stories of people “going to church” online with family members who don’t live anywhere near us. We’ve had guests come to a Christmas Eve service from out of town or other states, and then return home but stay connected by watching online.
At a baptism service one August, I met a man with a British accent. I said, “Where are you from?” He said, “London.” I said, “Oh, when did you move here?” He said, “I still live there, but I’m part of your online campus and flew here to be baptized.”
So, with this in mind, our next step for anyone attending online is to get them to engage in some sort of community. It might be at one of our physical locations, it might be an online group, or it might even be a church or group in their town.
The Big Question: Is It Really Church?
But is it really church? To answer that, let’s start with how we define church. Is church simply a building? We all would agree it’s more than that. Church is engagement . . . with the music, with the teaching, with Communion and offering, and with other people. An online campus can provide all of these things. In fact, in some ways it can be an even better experience.
For example, if you were in a physical building and decided to stand up and ask a question about something the pastor had said, you probably would be politely escorted out. But online, you can have an ongoing dialogue with the online campus pastor and other attendees while the teaching pastor is speaking. Recently our online campus pastor engaged in a conversation with a former Jehovah’s Witness who knew the Bible but didn’t know Jesus. They ended up meeting, and this man came to faith in Christ. Compare that with the guy who shows up late to a service, sits in the back, plays on his phone or sleeps, and then leaves early. Was he in church? Yes. But was he a part of church? No.
As much as we think this method of ministry is new, in some ways it dates back to the first century. Consider how the apostle Paul’s letters were used. He wrote them as a way to be in many places at one time. (See Jon Weatherly’s article, “How Paul Used the Social Media of His Time.”) They were passed about from house to house as a means to help “church” happen. Paul was the originator of multisite!
The Relevant Question: How Do We Start?
So, what are the best first steps to start an online church campus?
1. Start livestreaming your current service. Some churches broadcast their service on demand, some use Facebook Live, and others are trying Instagram Live. We’ve found so many people in our culture still think of Sunday as church day that the best thing is to livestream services as they happen. We livestream all three of our Sunday services.
2. Talk to the online audience. All of our communicators are taught to include the online campus by saying phrases such as, “We want to welcome everyone online,” or, “For those of you watching at home. . . .” With this in mind, you must make sure everything you offer inside can be offered online. For example, when you ask people to sign up for something and when you receive the offering. You can even give a shout-out to people from the stage—“I see you in Cleveland!”
3. Have an online campus pastor. He or she doesn’t have to be ordained or have seminary training, but a trained volunteer can chat with those who are online, pray for people, and help them connect with someone who can help. We actually outsource this to volunteers around the country who want to be involved.
4. Find ways to drive people to the online campus. One of the best things we did early on was to close our physical locations on the Sunday after Christmas. I know, that’s controversial, but due to the 10 Christmas Eve services we were doing, and the fact that most people are out of town that weekend anyway, we announced, “The only campus open next Sunday is our online campus. You can get some take-home Communion on your way out, and we’ll see you there next weekend!” We had a unique prerecorded service that people loved. And it taught everyone how to access it. Plus, it gave our regular in-person attendees a unique perspective on how Jesus can reach people in the 21st century.
People attend a physical location only 1.9 times a month, so offering an online option allows people to be a bit more consistent . . . even if they aren’t in the building. Through periodic surveys, we’ve learned that two people are watching per every online login. Since starting this, we’ve seen our online attendance grow from a couple hundred to nearly 2,000 every weekend. Our online campus is not only one of our biggest campuses, but also our fastest growing and least expensive!
Developing our online campus has helped us grow quickly and cost-effectively. I’m not sure how long this style will work, but then again, I thought Facebook was a fad.
Rusty George is an author and the lead pastor of Real Life Church Ministries in Valencia, California. For nearly 20 years, Rusty has provided visionary leadership and teaching to his churches in the Santa Clarita Valley and Simi Valley, California.