The church online movement has gained a great deal of ground over the past few years and whether you’ve jumped on board to ride the wave or not, I’m sure you have wrestled with some of the tensions and questions that come with the idea of creating a virtual church experience.
Though it’s quite plausible that smaller churches may indeed have a greater digital reach than their physical congregation (through podcast subscribers and the like), I don’t believe going to church online has evolved to the point where a majority of people refer to an online experience of church as their sole church experience. I do believe as Internet church experiences rise, churches will need to address a variety of growing tensions.
Why do People Attend Church Online?
To begin addressing the tensions of an online audience and a physical audience we have to get into the minds of online church attenders. I believe the current mindset for attending a church online experience falls within five main categories.
- People visit because they are curious about the church online experience or are pre-visiting a physical church service.
- People attend to stay connected when they are traveling or unable to attend.
- Some will supplement their current physical church with online experiences throughout the week because they like the preaching, worship, etc.
- People who desire to serve the online community. LifeChurch.tv notes that there are many who view church online as a mission field and serve there accordingly.
- Lastly there are also those who are becoming more comfortable moving their social lives online and thus prefer to connect to church that way as well.
Most tension will come from this last category of people. Churches need to monitor their digital audience and be ready for the possibility of their virtual audience exceeding their physical audience. The idea raises the question: what shifts in thinking, preaching and production need to be made?
Thinking Tensions to be Wrestled With
- Is there a way to offer a legitimate holistic online experience for those who seek out church solely online? Should such an experience be sought after?
- What responsibility do churches accept for their online attenders?
Preaching Tensions to be Wrestled With
- Who becomes the main target audience? For whom are church leaders more responsible for?
- Do pastors preach to the camera and allow the physical audience to follow along? Is it possible to address both adequately?
Production Tensions to be Wrestled With
- How do churches create content that addresses (or is specific to) both audiences.
- How do churches handle sacraments like baptism and communion. (Example: Northland, A Church Distributed, tries to inform people early on in their online service to prep for communion in their own homes.)
- Your church may need to run a video production system for the physical location and another for the online location to speak to different audiences with different formats.
- Online platforms can change very quickly and may be completely different from one day to the next (Facebook is notorious for this).
Some Other Things We Need to Keep in Mind for any Church Online Experience
- Learn to exclude references to time of day or date specific events.
- Specifically address the digital audience and add additional content that speaks to them
- Create systems that plug them into local church experiences or small groups
How Two Churches Manages the Tension
It’s possible that the tensions to be wrestled with are less important than the values that guide them. LifeChurch.tv’s church online pastor, Alan George, works within the tensions by utilizing some key statements that guide the overall values of LifeChurch.tv. Here are two of them:
- We will do anything short of sin to introduce people to God.
- To reach those no one else is reaching we must do things that no one else is doing.
LifeChurch.tv has surpassed their physical audience as their church online experience already tops 3 million unique visitors in 2012 (there are around 100,000-120,000 unique visitors at Church Online each week). However currently there aren’t metrics for tracking those who only attend online and how often.
Northland, A Church Distributed’s second largest service is their online community with an average attendance of around 4,000 per weekend. Marty Taylor, executive director of media design at Northland says: “Realize what you’re building. We are trying to build an outpost for the kingdom of God as a whole in other places.” They approach church online with the understanding that church is not a spectator sport and can’t be approached that way, even online. As a result they attempt to find places to plug people in around the country through local service opportunities and have developed a house church initiative utilizing content from their online service.
There is no doubt that many of us haven’t come anywhere near blazing this trail in our churches but I believe they are questions worth asking for any churches who move their weekend experiences online in any form, so they can anticipate and meet the needs of the people they are trying to reach.
In what ways has your church handled the church online tensions? What tensions could you add to the list?
Read Part 2 to see some practical examples of church online in action.