“Church online? That sounds crazy!” As soon as the average churchgoer hears about LifeChurch.tv’s Internet Campus, currently the only one in the U.S., the questions begin to race. Is it a legitimate way to do ministry? Don’t believers have to meet together … physically? What really makes a church?
If you’re asking these questions, I’m here to explain. Let’s start by looking at Acts 2:46-47, one of the most-quoted scriptures on the Church: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Notice it doesn’t say anything about big buildings or stained-glass windows. Just people, joining together to worship God. Lifechurch.tv’s “temple courts” are pretty unconventional, to be sure, but in the last year, our Internet Campus has been developing fully engaged, fully devoted followers of Christ in a biblical, Acts 2 church model.
It works like this: Visitors can go to their computers and register to engage in a live worship experience on Saturday night or Sunday morning. They can fill out communication cards or hang out in the virtual lobby after the service to chat with other worshippers via Webcam or instant message. They can also join our LifeGroups, many of which meet together physically, and serve online by helping answer technical questions or going on virtual missions trips.
If you’re shaking your head, muttering, “That’s way too weird for me,” stick around. I’ll break down the top 10 reasons to start an online church.
1) It breaks through barriers. Throughout history, the Church has experienced major turning points when someone questioned and changed the methods of ministry while keeping the heart intact. The printing press, for example, allowed the Bible to be placed in the hands of the common man, a once-heretical concept that had radical impact. And the revolutionary John Wesley claimed the world as his parish, riding on horseback all over the country to preach the Gospel outside the church. In much the same way, the online church is breaking through barriers of time and distance to communicate God’s grace to the world.
Our story: In the last few years, an increasing number of people began telling us what God was doing in their lives through the LifeChurch.tv messages we posted online. Clearly, God was already doing something significant on the Internet, so we decided to join Him—and create a direct ministry link to that audience through an Internet campus.
2) It harnesses the power of the Internet. The Internet is now capable of streaming video to users worldwide, and unlike television, the Internet also allows us to interact with and track our users. No previous telecommunication technology is more powerful. And it provides us with a limitless opportunity to spread the Gospel.
Our story: Thanks to technology, our Internet Campus offers an interactive experience rather than a passive one. During our services, people take part in live worship, hear directly from a live campus pastor, and take polls or raise their hand (virtually) in response to a question posted by a speaker. We also developed the Lobby Chat, a multi-user chat where people can talk with other worshippers from all over the world via Webcam or text.
3) It cuts costs. Not only is the Internet the most powerful telecommunication technology available, it’s also the least expensive. Initial equipment costs are a fraction of the cost of constructing a building.
Our story: Our overhead costs are next-to-nothing. Campus equipment consists of switchers, encoders, a few plasma screens and three cameras, and it all fits in a small room. That’s because our attendees use their own restrooms, have their own seats, provide their own sound system and control their own lighting.
4) It takes church out of the building. Instead of asking people to go to a building with us, we take church to them.
Our story: One week a young woman found our Internet Campus through one of our ads on MySpace. She came to the live experience, accepted Christ and talked to me about her new decision in the Lobby Chat. She did all this from her home in Louisiana—she never left her house.
5) It reaches a bigger audience. Currently, more than 1 billion people have Internet access, and more than 217 million have high-speed connections, up from 5 million in 1999. The Internet is the fastest-growing telecommunication technology to date, adopted by the public more quickly than the television, telephone, cable television, VCR or cell phone. Now, ministries targeting specific cultures, races or ages can easily locate the people who resonate with their vision.
Our story: People from more than 30 countries have visited our Internet Campus in the last eight months. We have a volunteer in Indonesia, and LifeGroup participants in Japan, Canada and South Korea—people we could never reach through our physical campus. Moreover, people all over America who fit our unchurched or dechurched target audience have visited and committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
6) It redeems technology. Admittedly, the Internet has a less than stellar reputation. You’ve probably seen the alarming online pornography statistics, and news stories of sexual predators using chat software to find and communicate with victims. New social communities, like MySpace, have gotten bad press for valid reasons. But what if the Church, which has the greatest message in the world, used all the Internet technologies available to their fullest potential? How could we change people’s perceptions of technology and its use in our world?
Our story: At Lifechurch.tv, we’re redeeming the technology at our fingertips to reach the world for Christ. I already mentioned the multi-user chat tool—used by many dating sites—that we use for our online LifeGroups and Lobby. We also integrate live-support software, used by many businesses to increase customer service and profits, to greet new visitors and give live help at our experiences. And we just introduced www.lifechurch.tv/open, which offers our high-quality series graphics, introductory videos, supporting videos, messages and outlines free for churches to download. All these things refocus technology on noble goals.
7) It accelerates vision. If you accept the Internet as a tool to be used by the Church, it can accelerate the vision God has already given you—but technology should never drive your vision. Technology is just a vehicle. Start by asking yourself, How can the Internet enhance what God is already doing in my church?
Our story: As we created the Internet Campus, we wanted to stay true to who God made LifeChurch.tv to be, so we carefully and intentionally translated our identity and values to the Internet. Thus, the Internet Campus is simply a vehicle for furthering LifeChurch.tv’s ultimate vision.
8) It builds community. The Internet has demonstrated powerful community building potential through sites like MySpace and eHarmony. You don’t have to push people to connect via cyberspace, because they’re already doing it. So as churches, we simply have to use the Internet to leverage unchanging principals that create strong, biblical community.
Our story: Our Internet campus builds community through LifeGroups that meet both in physical locations and online throughout the week. I am still blown away as I see God using this tool to build incredibly tight communities. For example, we have an online women’s LifeGroup called the Online Chics. They love each other deeply, pray for each other and encourage each other, even though they live across the country and the world.
9) It provides unique mission opportunities. With such amazing reach, diversity and community potential, the Internet holds a myriad of untapped mission possibilities. The question is: How will your church use this tool to reach the masses?
Our story: At each of the LifeChurch.tv campuses, we conduct what we call micro-missions—inexpensive, local missions trips that serve as effective community builders and Gospel in-roads. To perform these in our unique context, the Internet Campus sets up MySpace micro-missions. People sign up and meet in our Lobby at a specific time. We pray about people we could individually reach out to in our online communities: Facebook, MySpace, e-mail, etc. LifeChurch.tv provides graphics and tools for participants to invite their friends to the Internet Campus. Then we go into our respective Internet communities and make contact for an hour.
After this time, we meet back in the Lobby, discuss what God has done and close in prayer. At the end of one of these missions, a missionary asked us to pray as he was talking to someone about Jesus using an IM tool. He led that person to Christ while we prayed.
10) It provides new ministry opportunities. When you buy into the concept of online church, you can assign it resources and staff. Start an Internet ministry, and develop creative ways for volunteers to get involved. When people are actively involved in God changing others’ lives, they will be changed in the process.
Our story: At Lifechurch.tv., we now have three full-time staff members who minister directly to the Internet campus community, as well as LifeGroup leaders who lead groups online and in physical locations. We also have prayer volunteers who respond to campus prayer requests; greeters who send a welcome graphic and talk to our visitors online; guest services volunteers who answer questions and provide prayer; and lobby hosts, who facilitate discussion in the Lobby. Each of these people has the privilege of participating in God’s life-changing work at our campus.
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