Meditations (Web)Church

A year (and a bit) in the life of NewSpring's first Web pastor

Archive for the ‘evangelism’ Category

Web Church challenges, part 3: Is it dangerous?

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Part 1, of this blog series bidding goodbye to web pastoring focused on the Biblical warrant for only physical church planting. And Part 2 questioned whether web churches might be helpful in discipling believers into local churches.

In this final post, I reach the end of my thoughts on web church – and the end of my time as NewSpring web pastor – praising God for the opportunity to learn so much in such a short time about pastoring in an environment that will define our world over the next 50 years.

I also want to honor the many serious and astute pastors and church leaders dedicated to the cause of Christ who are seeking to “pioneer” the new mission field of the Internet. I was one of them, and I saw instantly the tremendous need to connect with the “lost sheep” in our communities who would never find their way to a local church, or who might not be willing to give faith a chance were it not for the easy on ramps and off ramps that the web offers.

My contention is simply this: The web church doesn’t solve any problems that Jesus hasn’t prepared and equipped the church to handle in the past, the present, or the future by physical means. In fact, the Web church may, in time, cause problems for the larger church that are harder to fix than the original problem of the declining evangelistic power of our physical church communities.

For perspective on a similar effort to analyze “online church,” I would refer to Paul Steinbrueck’s series of posts, although I was not aware of it until after writing.

So far, the argument for online church has tended to revolve around whether we can constitute churches in the online space with a kind of “functional equivalency” to the real thing to the do the work others can’t or won’t.

I would question why we wouldn’t work to invest in and improve the original disciplemaking “machine” — physical church as defined by Romans 12 and Corinthians 12 — rather than settle for a simulation?

I see a disturbing trend of online church attenders, if they are not also connected to local churches, behaving like “super-consumers” chasing the best teaching or the best worship or the convenience of the web church every week. Few of these people are “churchless” in any true sense of the word. They’ve decided their local churches simply aren’t good enough.

The danger is as obvious as it is serious: web church “gatherings” could create an even more deceptive path than “lone-ranger Christianity” for the unchurched and the dechurched to sidestep the sometimes ugly but always sanctifying realities of true church membership. And all the while, they may believe that this partial experience is, in fact, reflective of true Christian community.

There’s a chilling bonus danger, too: Physical churchgoers who attend online churches only for extra teaching, might also, almost imperceptibly, begin to question their commitment, participation and submission to their local church.

One of the intriguing aspects of the web church was the potential for the Internet’s powerful network effects to bring people together, expose them to values and beliefs, and provide a supportive environment for faith. I saw the possibility of the web overcoming the isolation and disruption of physical community in especially modern, western, urban societies, which has aggravated the decline of institutional churches over the last 150 years.

But it occurs to me that these network effects, while real, may be too open and fluid for them to produce adequate spiritual formation over the long haul. And they may be too distributed to create the epidemic-style effects of true community revival.

Only physical relationships anchored in time and space — and now perhaps leveraged through the web — can provide the relational density and relational layering over time to maximally expand the reach of our faith and, most importantly, deepen the lived-understanding of our faith needed for orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

I know I haven’t thought this through nearly enough, but it seems to me that there’s just a spiritual power to proximity and “locality” that we must continue to pursue — and that Jesus meant for us to pursue.

Again, the bottom line is not whether the Web Church can do anything spiritually fruitful.

My question is whether all the effort in the Web Church reflects a Biblical missiology that is likely to produce the kind of rapidly growing, robust, orthodox Christian communities of faith long term that will leave the church healthier than it is now.

What do you think?

Written by NickCharalambous

March 14, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Web church challenges, part 1: Is it even necessary?

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My reflections on my year as NewSpring’s Web Pastor have focused on what I see as the Web Church’s three potentially strongest contributions to the greater church: proclaiming the gospel and enhanced pastoral care and empowering personal ministry.

The deepest challenge for the web church is to clearly define what kind of space it’s trying to be, and warn people about what it it isn’t.

Andrew Conard was asking himself that question as I was writing this blog, so I’m going to borrow a useful four-part typology he found to help think through his church’s efforts

  • Religious identity – “online community” committed to each other through their shared faith and common religious expression.
  • Spiritual network – “online community” purposefully designed and initiated by God for a specific purpose.
  • Support network – “online community” providing a spiritually and emotionally supportive atmosphere.
  • Worship space – “transmission tool” for transmitting spiritual activities.”

It’s obvious that religious identity, support and worship space could be healthy and potentially legitimate ways to look at online church. What I’m wary of is the “creep” from those three modes that could surround and take hold as a “spiritual network” — which is a direct counterpart to the body of Christ and neatly explains what’s at stake.

It’s hard to tell how many online churches are claiming the status of “spiritual network.” But if they are — explicitly or implicitly — I think the burden is on them to justify why groups of people who only ever gather online for “church” should exist at all if the Bible is our ground for church practice?

The early church faced far more formidable obstacles to the spread of the Gospel than any of us can imagine, and yet it was in precisely these circumstances at the fullness of time, that God came to die in human so that we could live to build his church, his chosen “tool” to fill all the earth with “God glorifiers.”

Believers faced persecution and potential death to gather physically, even though their faith taught them that they belonged to one God in the spirit “over all, through all and in all.” The message of the Gospel itself traveled on the feet of believers, not mere emissaries, across unexplored, harsh and dangerous terrain for the sake of establishing not mere “propositional truth believers” but actual communities of a lived-out faith.

If the early church believed so powerfully in the primacy of physically planting the gospel, what circumstances are so pressing that they give us the right to seek an alternative method for building the church today?

It feels a lot like the online church “movement” as much if not more driven by technology and opportunity than proper missiology.

Location awareness is already maturing as a way to organize physical information and relationships on online space. I’m anticipating that, if properly led, the online spaces for religious identity, support network and worship could be very fruitful way for the church to connect scattered believers and bring them together as local bodies of believers where they can proclaim the Gospel, apply the sacraments and live out grace-giving community.

Perhaps the Internet was given as a gift to us by God for the very purpose of church planting? Where are the scriptures that indicate we will be held to account because we didn’t use another method?

A common objection will be that if “one person” receives Christ as a result of online-only church, it’s worth it. I am not downplaying the eternal difference that has been made to individuals all over the world from online-only church communities, but we need to remember that in God’s sovereign will and purpose, the health of his church overall is necessarily connected to the proper fulfillment of God’s promises.

I am sure there are some believers who live in circumstances where there are no churches and the web church presents a lifeline, but why wouldn’t we lead that believer in gospel planting, rather than giving them the sense that web church is enough?

Difficult, dangerous and painful are never sufficient grounds in our Gospel for us to shrink back from God’s plan for his creation. How does Jesus respond to Peter, the foreman of the biggest glory-organization project in human history?

Written by NickCharalambous

March 10, 2010 at 2:35 am

Web Church reflections, Part 2: Proclaiming the Gospel

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This is a blog series of personal observations from my year as NewSpring’s web pastor. Read Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4. (In all references to “web church,” it’s simply a shorthand for the (re)creation of a worship environment online. There are other weighty aspects to “being the church,” and I’m not dealing with them here.)

The most powerful justification for any use of technology by the church — printing, radio, television, internet — is gospel proclamation. I saw and heard countless encounters involving people who never would have experienced “church,” whether for salvation, or in discipleship, prayer or guidance, had it not been for a tweet, a Facebook status update or some other providential coincidence in our hyper-networked world.

Bottom line No. 1: Web churches live on a continuum with podcasts, vodcasts and livestreaming — and radio and tv church before them — as an effective way of maximizing exposure to the Gospel.

Every church that is financially able (and that should be pretty much every one) should be using one or all of these new mediums. At least 20 to 30 percent of church attenders are skipping one or two messages a month, so for that reason alone it’s worthwhile.

And if we do believe that the church is a community that has its fullest expression in physical gathering and action, then let’s state clearly what classifies as a healthy use of these “private” worship mediums. I think Tim Keller’s disclaimer on his web site is a good place to start. In fact, why aren’t more people doing this?

Bottom line No. 2: I’ve seen our own stats on our church’s use of Facebook and Twitter, and the traffic they drive across our various resources, and the power of these two social networks alone is simply staggering.

Given the limits of communicating in print and the pitiful number of true conversations that happen inside our atriums, social networks offer every one a way to get people informed and engaged in a place where they have everything they need to integrate Biblical “one anothering” with their day-to-day lives.

The churches that are wary of engaging in these media are, to put it bluntly, clueless. The risks associated with opening up conversations inside your church and exposing your church and your people to their friendship networks (in both directions) is the same as fearing what people would say when they’re talking at the YMCA or Bojangles.

Are you so insecure about your church’s discipleship or are you so lacking in confidence in the supremacy of Christ that you can’t handle that?

There are some wise practices to follow. Lead through them. Just don’t be chicken, for Christ’s sake.

Written by NickCharalambous

March 7, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Is community more broken than we think?

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Eastern Orthodoxy sees the church as “truly the Ark in which mankind may be saved from the flood of corruption and sin.”

It’s more than just a family. It’s literally the “mothership.” It’s actually part of the design and construction of Eastern Orthodox churches to have the long, tall building resemble a ship, “journeying towards the kingdom with Christ at the helm.”

As the “always reforming” New Calvinists like Matt Chandler and Mark Driscoll make bold moves in redefining how we view belonging to a church and being the church, I think even Protestants are moving to a higher view of Christian community.

But it strikes me that the “weak link” is how difficult deep fellowship appears to be, the kind of abounding “love for each other and for all” that Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians as pre-requisite for being “blameless in holiness.”

How do we get along with, live alongside and love our brothers and sisters in Christ? Not very well, if you consider the common complaints in every church.

The response to Perry Noble’s preaching this Sunday on “judging others” touched a lot of raw nerves, for sure. And Ed Stetzer’s Lifeway research found that “not feeling connected to the people in my church,” ranks as one of the Top 10 reasons that 18-22 year olds leave the church.

I’ve spent a lot of time defending the potential for online “community.” But it seems to me that those critiquing the shallowness of the fellowship shouldn’t be throwing stones.

I think a Jewish teacher put it well in drawing analogy about seeing the speck of sawdust in another’s eye and missing the plank in one’s own eye.

The question is not: which methods do we use to fellowship?

The question is: how does the church lead its people in fellowship? The kind of fellowship that is apparently not only a great witness but also fundamental to keeping Christians afloat in the Christian life?

Isn’t it time we moved beyond concerns or fears about holy huddles and koombayas?

What say you?

Written by NickCharalambous

July 14, 2009 at 10:03 am

Posted in evangelism, ruminations

Everybody wants to change the world … so why can’t we?

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Unless you’re a really hardened cynic, I think it’s fair to say that most everyone wants to do good, even if don’t always act on it or even if we don’t really know what that is

It’s obvious that social good is hot right now. Google’s All for Good, Twitter’s Twestival and all sorts of micro-sites are tapping to that desire for people to “contribute.” The web’s core values of collaboration and creativity; its smart, curious, and socially savvy users; and its astounding network effects have created fertile soil for social activism that dares to change the world.

So why don’t we do more as the church to embrace Jesus command to do good to others as an evangelism opportunity?

I’m convinced that when people stand shoulder to shoulder with sold-out believers “working out” their salvation, that the gospel will get preached in dramatic ways. In fact, I think the church should choose personal missions above financial mission work wherever possible for this very reason.

One of the most joyful moments of my life as a newspaper editor was my decision in 2005, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to send a curious, spiritually seeking reporter to Hurricane-Katrina ravaged Mississippi with two Christian congregations who were ministering there.

She returned with a deep, profound, life-transforming understanding of Christ that led her to become a member of her church, be baptized in Christ and eventually become a part-time children’s ministry worker.

I think there’s plenty of opportunities for us to engage with people who want to do good locally, since who knows local communities and there needs better than local churches? Why are we leaving this to the United Ways and the Rotary Clubs of the world?

Mission activity energizes local congregations, gets them focused on the point of living for Jesus and gives us an opportunity to talk about Jesus — and build the relationships with non-believers who may later be interested in finding out a little more about why we choose to live such other-focused and sacrificial lives.

We can start by registering what missions opportunities we do have on search engines like All For Good. And then we can start designing and executing high-contact, flexible and inspiring missions opportunities in our local communities.

What’s stopping us?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 24, 2009 at 8:47 am

Can churches deny human choice?

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A lot of the critical and necessary debate on this blog comes around one way or the other to: How does the church handle the rising tide of consumerism in its expression?

It’s not an accident: The web has empowered the individual like no other time in history, and the act of accomplishing ministry in this context is bound to flirt, sometimes dangerously, with abetting the self-seeking, vain, prideful human heart without God, rather than calling it to repentence in light of the manifest glories of God.

It seems to me that man has always seen himself at the center of all things. This is not new. What is new is the extent to which man can now do it in almost all phases of life. And the remedy for this heart sickness is and always will be the cross of Jesus.

So here’s my question: When God calls you to salvation, do you really have a choice to “opt out” of the body of Christ? Is it not one of the most magnificent promises of scripture that it’s not possible?

Only “Christians” with unregenerate hearts go shopping for God “experiences,” rather than surrender to him.

Only “Christians” with no understanding of Lordship believe that God is a vending machine of blessings.

Only “Christians” who have never heard the truth will allow themselves to be swayed by every wind of doctrine.

Is it not the gospel, the good news, the freedom from captivity, that human agency, human choice, for the regenerated heart, is always for good?

Our hyper-consumerist society is still relatively young, probably 100 years old at best. And for the church, for thousands of years a local phenomenon, our history with it is even shorter. Perhaps 50, if that. And i think that, if anything, there is a reckoning coming for the church as it wrestles with this, which probably explains some of my passion for the Web Church: It accelerates the urgency of figuring this out.

I submit that the battle is not between consumerism and whatever some Christians think can control it — authority structures, whatever. The battle is to get anointed, gospel-saturated teaching that places the supremacy of Christ above all things into earshot of as many dead hearts as possible so they can be convicted and awakened to life in Christ.

We need to make sure that people choose the church rather than Oprah, Dr. Phil, Tom Cruise and every other self-help guru who is leading people dancing and singing straight to the gates of hell.

Only then will they know difference between a true and false gospel.

Only then will they know the difference between a life that glorifies self and a life that serves God

Only then will they know that Jesus’ call to total surrender can not be resisted except with tears.

And only then will the Holy Spirit magnificently insist that the appetite for seeing, savoring and treasuring the joy of Christ be fed insatiably.

I ask again: Where does the path lead for Christ-centered churches who work in this “crooked and twisted generation” without an understanding of choice?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 23, 2009 at 8:25 am

Web church success may be tied to customization

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I’ve been looking at the Hartford Seminaryanalysis of megachurch attenders because I think it could be useful in understanding the Web Church’s potential mission field and how it can extend what we’ve learned from modern church methods. You can read past posts in this series here, here and here.

One of the study’s most dramatic conclusions was that:

involvement at these (and perhaps all) churches may be less about creating an idealized plan to move someone toward commitment and more about providing many ways by which people could craft their unique, customized spiritual experience to meet their needs.

It’s logical that the Web Church respond to this apparent desire for customizing church experience. Web culture, after all, is about empowering individual choice, and letting you set the terms of your engagement with content and people.

Many NewSpring Web Campus attenders are already actively engaged in designing their own path to spiritual growth and assembling the building blocks of an online church life, spurred on by the breathtaking amount and quality of podcasts, books, and blogs that fan the flames of someone’s spiritual fires on demand.

There’s no reason to think that wouldn’t extend to all aspects of church life as they migrate online. Someone could choose one church’s online worship experiences, another’s online small groups, yet another’s online discipleship program etc. and another’s online outreach and missions program.

I think the megachurch lesson here is that offering many paths for spiritual exploration and engagement and involvement could be the Web Church’s supreme value proposition.

That could include providing social guides or personal recommendations toward other trusted, high-quality content. Or it could be offering opportunities for spiritual growth in partnership with regional, national and international ministries. It could even be providing the support systems, resources and “open access” to the Web church’s people to build new ministries and recruit for them across the web.

A believer’s attachment, then, to a Web church might not be traditional “membership,” but in the personal relationships with individual believers as they come across them in different ministry area.

What do you think?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 18, 2009 at 8:08 am