Meditations (Web)Church

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

Archive for the ‘social media’ Category

Web church challenges, part 2: Is it fruitful?

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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.

So if in fact the highest and fullest expression of “being the church” isn’t the disembodied spiritual network, but actually to be a physical body of local believers, can online churches serve a redemptive purpose in discipling people into local churches?

That “starter church” model, which we pursued at NewSpring after moving away from the “full campus” concept early, also surfaced a significant set of challenges.

The three biggest were:

  • An experience trap: Community, identity and connection comes from “co-laboring” for a common purpose. We developed plenty of opportunities for people to exercise spiritual gifts in serving one another, building up one another and advancing the kingdom. But the web environments, while collegial, couldn’t adequately capture the richness important in non-verbal communication of spiritual truths that come out in physical service. It didn’t allow us to transcend our private experience. Additionally, the need for specific tools and the medium’s over-dependence on cognitive and expressive gifts most definitely hobbles the notion that everyone could play a role.
  • A leadership trap: There was a dearth of spiritually mature people willing to lead others in exploring, developing and using spiritual gifts, and those that were spiritually mature were involved in other churches. This raises many thorny issues surrounding how a believer can properly function within a body with allegiances to “two masters.” More important still was that so few of our online-only NewSpring attenders were located in truly churchless area. That meant the growth path from discipleship to leadership within the church was logically contradictory: Our ethical obligation was to encourage those who can to be involved in and mature to leadership in a local church.
  • A transfer trap: Megachurches, with their resources, their visibility, and their gifted leaders can serve as extraordinary magnets for those who are spiritually immature. But once their spiritual appetite is awakened through the dynamic teaching and worship styles they’ve experienced online, they’re not eager to be pointed in the direction of local congregations unless they follow the same megachurch style. It was hard to show them the superior value of a local church, even if it was less “excellent.” On a related note, the informal church networks that are growing up around modern, non-denominational evangelicalism are growing fast, but don’t map nearly enough with the scattered geographies of attenders to improve the chances of matchmaking attenders with local congregations.

So where does all that leave us? A complex, time-intensive evangelistic outreach ministry with significant challenges to truly successful outcomes.

In response, some will argue that spiritual maturity can be properly achieved online and outside of a physical body of believers, given the development of the right tools, environments and leadership. There’s probably some truth that the online church can get better as our relationship to the Internet matures.

But my sense is that you can’t “copy” what doesn’t have an original. As the first digital church generation, we might be safe applying what we have learned and experienced in our physical communities of faith to “organize” and grow online faith communities. But what of those digital generations to come? How comfortable are we really in staking the future of the church on those digital copies-of-copies of Biblical physical community?

I honor my brothers in churches all across the world who are laboring in this important mission field who believe very passionately that they are following God’s will as they pursue online church.

But I still don’t see why the vast majority of those benefits can’t come from local, physical churches that are properly extended online. (See the previous blog series, Web church reflections, parts 2, 3, 4.)

Written by NickCharalambous

March 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Web Church reflections, part 4: Online discipling can be a difference maker

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This is a blog series of personal observations from my year as NewSpring’s web pastor. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Any references to “web church” are shorthand for “doing church online.” There are weightier aspects to “being the church,” and I’m not dealing with them here.

Social networking has produced an explosion in the amount of interpersonal interaction in our lives, and that represents an important opportunity for all churches to emphasize the power of personal ministry and see results.

Mentoring, accountability, caring or Bible study can all be leveraged by social media tools. Yet my hunch is that too many church leaders, lay and staff, fear “sending the wrong message” that online connections can replace or substitute for doing life together.

It’s an understandable fear, but it may be counterproductive when there are so many barriers to “one-anothering” that come from the increasingly complex and overscheduled lives of believers. Just the difficulty of setting up face-to-face meetings, let alone the cost of breakfast/lunch/dinner or coffee can become burdensome.

My conclusion is that we can’t afford not to use these tools for relational growth, such as small group gathering and one-on-one discipleship, but we should also educate people on how to use them within a healthy relational framework that’s grounded in physical community.

On the NewSpring Web Service, we saw that growing and investing in online relationships wasn’t as easy and it wasn’t “the same” as doing things in person, but it was still a difference maker.

Our largest experiment was with online groups. Overall, we were disappointed, because only a fraction of those who expressed an interest followed through with consistent attendance and a commitment to other group members. We also saw a surprising aversion to video groups, possibly because being instantly “seen,” especially for women, is instantly judged.

But those who followed through with consistent attendance also showed a commitment to other group members outside of group time, a sure sign of spiritual health, such as by praying for one another, holding themselves accountable to one another and engaging one another to offer or receive Biblical guidance.

All self-reported that the group — which is continuing — had contributed to their spiritual growth. Many had never before been able to make a group work, whether that was a result of scheduling conflicts or other practical issues that are all too numerous and all too real. And there was a very real sense in which it created a spiritual appetite for real physical group meeting if the circumstances were right.

From my own observations and the reports of volunteer leaders, one-on-one discipleship conversations, especially those via video, also displayed a high-degree of parity with offline conversations in so far as serious, genuine and open dialogue.

No one doubted that they could serve as a healthy supplement to face-to-face meetings between individuals or as a substitute method of “pouring into” someone from afar, provided that they were relationally engaged in other ways within a physical community of faith.

The biggest issue is whether the parties understand and abide by the expectation that each is fully present in the online space and not “multitasking.”

All of us have to make tough decisions about how many people we can properly invest in. If there are ways to explore smarter ministry, we should investigate them.

Written by NickCharalambous

March 9, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Web Church reflections, part 3: The Spiritual Power of Interactivity

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This is a blog series of personal observations from my year as NewSpring’s web pastor. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4 Any references to “web church” are shorthand for “doing church online.” There are weightier aspects to “being the church,” and I’m not dealing with them here.)

Christ’s call on us is a relational one, and as I used to counsel my volunteers on the NewSpring Web Service, every communication online is an opportunity to image Christ and minister his grace, with or without explaining the Gospel.

Live instant message prayer and open chat was the aspect of our web church experiment at NewSpring that most intrigued me: Would it be embraced by attenders? Would the Holy Spirit use it to apply healing balm to a broken heart or convict someone of their need to turn away from sin and to Jesus or would it simply serve as a giant distraction from more God honoring things?

I witnessed incredible moves of God in both environments. What was the learning point? The children of God are abounding in questions and needs, and they are starving for people to pour into them in a meaningful way when they are “harassed and helpless.

Bottom line: The most reliable way to spur spiritual growth is relational connection. Many churches spend vast amounts of money to bring people to their churches and put on classes or various sorts to handle a diversity of issues their congregations face, and yet too few have a “live” channel of preferably private pastoral communication to handle needs as they arise.

In-person pastoral counseling, and well-led serving and group environments are always the best ways to minister to one another.

But in my web church experience, too many people are too scared to speak to someone face to face (especially if they have relational equity at stake) or they need help too quickly for this to be always practical or effective. I know all churches have care staffs that answer phone inquiries or have “care lines,” but I’ve noticed that even phone calls appear to be intimidating or unappealing to some people.

Sure, some of that is poor discipleship, but cursing the darkness won’t make the light come on. In fact, there are some issues that I am certain would never have surfaced or been addressed without the “safety” of a cool and more anonymous medium like the Internet. Perhaps the Catholic confessional wasn’t a dumb idea after all?

The touchpoint doesn’t have to be a staffer or even an ordained pastor. There are plenty of mature believers with the gift of mercy and discernment and there are plenty of simple tools available to schedule on-demand live help nearly 24-7 if there’s a will to do it. I know there’s a need.

If we’re serious about helping our own people and the lost who come to our Web sites, we can do better than schedule an appointment or give people voicemail. If it’s not a commercial IM live support tool, maybe it’s a guaranteed “fast-response” through a church social media presence or email. Whatever. It’s an easy extra option with a lot of value and only needs to be adequately publicized.

We are way overdue in leveraging the web and our people for close-to-real-time pastoral care.

Written by NickCharalambous

March 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

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

Community is about doing something together

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Reading Mark Batterson’s recent interview with Neue Ministry on community rung so many bells it felt like a carnival in my head this morning.

Some choice snippets: (emphasis mine)

“To me, the greatest adventure is God inviting us into this thing called the Great Commission—how He didn’t call us to do something on our own. God loves the adventure of doing things together … We have a range of about 90 different groups, and they range from Bible studies to running a marathon together. They are so diverse; they’re as diverse as our leaders are. What it is, is just finding touch points. … I think one reason why God wants to be in commission with us is because nothing brings people together like common mission.

…. Ultimately, we want people to have a face-to-face, physical community, but we’re discovering that often starts with a virtual community

To me, my late-blooming fascination with technology, which resulted in pastoring the NewSpring Web Campus, is all about exploring how our social web tools can help us become visiable, powerful, contagious, “communities of grace.”

Slowly but surely, i believe we are building a community on the web campus. But i can’t shake the feeling that the more opportunities we give to our attenders to do something together, the more likely we are to building deep, lasting relationships — and far quicker, with far more of them.

For instance, the kind of lifestyle groups Mark talks about absolutely flourish online. Crafts, photos, music, you name it. It takes my breath away just thinking about the impact that one surrendered Christ follower can make in that kind of environment.

Do you have thoughts to share in crafting an online active community strategy?

Written by NickCharalambous

July 1, 2009 at 10:43 am

Is your web campus embracing your physical church attenders?

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A church would be foolish not to see a Web Campus as a key to its growth at physical locations.

And a Web Campus would be foolish to ignore its church’s physical worshipers as a way to be successful.

One of the most biggest realizations we’ve made through the first few months of the Web Campus ministry is that our campus serves many different audiences.

Our Web Campus primarily targets the unchurched and the dechurched. People who have been relocated from your church who can’t find a good, Bible-believing church near them. Maybe people who are searching for God or for a church and seem to “connect” to NewSpring’s vision and theology.

Then there’s the sizable number of our attenders who are connected to our Anderson, Greenville and Florence campuses and are sick or out of town or just aren’t able to make it to church that week. It’s wise not to overlook the power of that second constituency to the Web Campus ministry.

No. 1In the mobile society that we all now live, physical attenders are bound to have many family and friends spread across the nation without access to a church like NewSpring, and who have been impressed by the ministry during visits or through casual conversations.

As we know, the power of personal ministry is greatest in relationships of deep love and intimate connection, and it’s in these family connections that a web campus or web ministry can best flourish.

Each family member or friend can have a shared experience — whether during the service in the chatroom or private IM or in conversations after the service. And the friend or family member can provide the instant and extended support and ministry needed by every believer to flourish in the Lord.

No. 2. Those physical attenders exposed to the Web Campus, have a natural opportunity to share a “preview” of the NewSpring experience with those that might be skeptical, reluctant or intimidated so that they can then be invited to a physical church location.

And to prove this isn’t just theory, here’s a story that providentially dropped into my email box Sunday:

I normally attend the Greenville Campus and serve on the care team. I was really bummed this morning because I had a terrible migraine and would not make it ! Thankfully I was able to attend today’s 11:15 service on the web. What an amazing experience! It was awesome to have a chance to interact with everyone in a chat room environment during Perry’s message.

After the service I came into contact with two people who have been wanting to attend the Greenville campus but didn’t want to go alone. I look forward to meeting both of them there this Sunday!

I also posted a link on my Face book profile at the start of the service . I received a reply from one of my contacts thanking me for the posting. She and her husband attended the Anderson campus last week and were looking forward to this Sundays service. She had fallen ill and couldn’t attend. Thanks to the web campus they were able to hear Perry’s powerful message today! I never ceases to amaze me to see how God move’s in our church. I can’t wait to see what’s next !

Got a take on this? Got a story or several of your own?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 1, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Storytelling is about storymaking

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Everyone has a story.

But not everyone knows how to tell a story.

I want to do everything in my power to encourage a greater use of personal stories in my ministry here at NewSpring. But a key to success is recognizing that stories don’t just happen. They are made.

That’s media 101.

I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of “spontaneous” stories that we share about what God has done or is doing in our lives.

I’m not saying that stories are only stories if they follow specific narrative forms, like a personal testimony.

And I’m not saying that stories can’t be generated by ordinary people using ordinary tools everyone has at their disposal.

I am saying I think that we’re being naive if we think that our responsibility ends the moment that we ask people to share their story with us.

There are ways staff or trained volunteers can employ traditional media techniques to help people:

See their story. This is about recognizing when a private experience of God or a spiritual learning can carry a message of the gospel and/or help teach others about how to respond faithfully to his call on believers.

Express their story. This is about being a “midwife” to the story, making someone comfortable sharing their story, and helping them choose the best tools to capture the story in multimedia.

Shape their story. This is about framing the story by putting it in a context where it will offer the maximum impact and the maximum exposure. That could be focusing the message to speak to a particular topic or audience. That could be choosing the media for the story, the length of the story, or whether the story should be able to stand alone or whether it depends on its place within a wider web of information.

God commands everyone to tell of his good works. This isn’t optional.

In fact, the true richness of our faith and the true greatness of our God can only be captured by releasing the stories in the lives of every faithful follower.

And churches have a critical role to play in harnessing and focusing that storytelling — even, or perhaps especially, now that everyone has the tools to be a media creator.

Written by NickCharalambous

April 23, 2009 at 2:12 pm

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