I love the idea of an online church campus. Maybe it’s the idea that people from all around the globe can take part of our worship service. Or the fact that this is a great way to reach our shut-ins and people who aren’t ready to walk inside one of our campuses.
As much as I love the idea, I still have questions about online church campuses that remained unanswered. Are there limits to online campuses? Are there some things that online campuses can’t replace?
When it comes to the value of online church campuses, I’m in the undecided camp. While I have friends on both sides, there are enough concerns that have caused me to hold off from launching an one for our church.
Before I jump into why we don’t have an online campus, I first want to classify three approaches to online campuses:
3 Approaches to Online Campuses
1. Worship Only – This is what majority of churches have. It’s a stream of the worship service that airs live (as worship is happening). There’s no chat or interaction with the audience, just a live stream. It’s the modeled followed by NorthPoint, Church on the Move and us (Brentwood Baptist). To be honest, I’m not sure this should be considered a “campus” since it’s really just a stream of the worship service.
2. Worship Only with Interaction – This is a live stream that’s accompanied by some sort of chat feature. There are some great tools out there that you let embed chat and interact with your audience. By interacting with your audience, you can answer questions and possibly encourage people to visit a physical campus. This is used by Granger Community Church.
3. Worship and Small Groups Online – In this approach, you can not only watch a worship service online, but you can also attend a small group online. This approach is used by LifeChurch.tv. With this approach someone could “theoretically” become a member of the church without ever stepping foot inside the church building (I use the term “theoretically”, since I don’t know of any churches that offer an online-only membership, however I see at some point churches that have online campuses offering this option) .
While these three approaches are not exhaustive, I think they cover a majority of churches who have an online component to their worship services and even small groups.
So Why Don’t We Have an Online Campus?
Before, I dive into why we don’t have an online campus (for the rest of this post when I say “online campus”, I’m referring to option #3 on the list above), I know that for some churches online campuses a part of their ministry strategy and I don’t want to imply that they’re doing ministry “wrong”. Rather I want to share some concerns that I believe are the reasons why an online campus is not a fit for our church.
Worship Needs Contextualization
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman points out the conflict of having sermons on TV. For example, when the worship service ends on TV, it will most likely roll to a commercial. So can you imagine a meaningful worship service that’s concluded with a commercial from McDonalds? In other words, the context in which worship is conducted is important. That’s why we try create the right lighting and aesthetic in a worship center. We understand that the environment adds context to the message.
I think the same thing occurs with online worship. There’s a disconnect when we can watch a worship service and then select to different browser tab to see the sports score while the worship service is still going one. Of course, you’re still listening to the sermon in the background, but you’re not really engaging in the worship service.
You can also argue that the same thing happens inside our churches, when people look at their cell phones during a worship service. While that may be true, there’s still something about being totally immersed in a worship environment. An online campus can’t provide that.
Anonymity is a dirty word on the internet. We all know of anonymous internet trolls that have Twitter accounts or leave comments on websites. It seems that with every online platform, there’s an opportunity for anonymity.
This applies to online campuses as well. While anonymity may allow a visitor to check out a worship service without being noticed, if that person keeps being anonymous then there’s little opportunity to greet that person and hopefully invite them to join the church or a small group.
Again you can say the same thing about a physical church. Someone could attend your church and not talk to anyone week after week. However, I believe that at most churches that person would be at least greeted at the door and possibly during worship. Churches with a quality first impressions strategy will have tactics by which to make visitors feel welcome. In other words, in a physical environment there’s a greater chance of eventually that person becoming involved in the church.
Entry Point or Destination?
I believe that an online campus is a great way to give potential visitors a sneak peek of what worship at your church may look like (option #1 above). An online campus should an entry point into your church. I think the issue is when online campus becomes the destination for the visitor.
By “destination”, I mean the online visitor never moves beyond watching or interacting online and attending a physical campus. If you offer two of major the elements of your church in an online format (worship and small groups), what’s the motivation to actually attend a physical campus?
Face to Face Interaction
We know that Paul discipled churches through his letters, but we also know that he wanted to physically be with each congregation (Romans 1:8-13). There’s something about face to face interaction that makes it harder to put up walls or portray yourself in a different light.
You’ve probably read an email from someone where you misinterpreted their emotion or intent. You didn’t mean to, but that’s the problem with email. It’s not always clear when someone is being sarcastic, funny or serious. Email makes it difficult to read social signals.
That’s why face to face interactions are so important in a small group context. A good small group leader can sense when a member doesn’t feel involved or if the mood of the room has shifted and the Spirit is leading the group to another topic. These are things that don’t happen in an online environment.
So What About You?
As I stated in the beginning of this post I have friends who run online campuses for their churches and I know that that online campuses may work them. But for us, we’ll continue to drive people to our physical campuses where we can hopefully meet with them face to face and help them in their journey with Christ.
So what about you? Is your church using an online campus? If so, what’s your strategy? Do you allow people to become members online? Do have a plan to move vistors into a physical campus? Click here to share below.