Meditations (Web)Church

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

Posts Tagged ‘community management

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 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

Parting thoughts on my year as NewSpring’s Web Campus pastor, part 1

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(Update: You can read the other three parts of this blog series, here, here and here.)

A new chapter in NewSpring’s web ministry begins Sunday with the launch of NewSpringLive, a live streaming webcast of each of our four Sunday services on the Anderson campus.

The new webcast replaces the “Web Service,” which was launched in February 2009 as an experiment in “online church” but evolved quickly to become an environment focused on leveraging web attenders and seekers toward local churches.

The webcast continues to allow us to serve attenders of our physical campuses who cannot make it to church and to offer an extra teaching resource to the broader movement of the gospel in the world. What it doesn’t do is make any promises — real or implied — that this can or should replace physical church attendance over the short, medium or long term.

It was humbling and, frankly, scary to have the opportunity to begin my ministry career in such a pioneering role. I learned quickly the healthy desperation for God’s guidance that every good pastor needs. This blog now stands as an archive to the values, ideas, and debates that framed my work in this area of ministry.

Some of what I wrote now makes me wince because of its naivety. Some is no longer relevant given the changing online environment. But I believe some of what I wrote may have been written with prophetic force that may remain useful to church leaders and pastors who are only now engaging in this area.

Over the next few posts, I plan to offer some personal observations about the “Web Campus” phenomenon and to suggest a few ways we might be able to evaluate its spiritual health.

The change to a pure “webcast” is, I think, another triumph of NewSpring’s “simple church” philosophy, a reflection of our pastor Perry Noble’s single-minded desire to stay focused on the vision God has given him as well as a demonstration of the humility we try and bring to everything we do for Jesus’ fame.

Technology offers the church amazing opportunities to bring God glory. But when it comes to the church Christ died for, there’s no reason to doubt that the Biblical bedrock of all our efforts to multiply the faith is the planting of real, physical churches until the glory of God covers the earth.

We can and should discuss how churches must remain culturally relevant.

We can and should explore ways to extend onto the web the relational bonds that are the basis of disciple-making.

But I don’t see anything in the history of civilization or technology that warrants departing from the priority of preaching the Gospel of Christ within local, physical bodies of believers under right authority and rightly administering the sacraments.

More than 1,000 people on average joined us for one of our interactive “Web Services” each week during the year that NewSpring experimented with the video-chatroom form of online church that has been popularized by and inspired many others.

We recorded more than 120 decisions for Christ.

We enabled hundreds of conversations that reminded people in need of the hope in Christ.

And we were used by God in his sovereign glory in many thousands of instances to bring his children one step closer to him.

But as great church leaders such as Perry Noble have discovered through the ages, the mark of our surrender to Christ is when we are willing to sacrifice our ministry success for the sake of surrender to God’s plan for His church; when we forego the good idea for the God idea.

Written by NickCharalambous

March 5, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Church, online or off, is about the middle

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I’m a fan of Seth Godin’s pithy wisdom along with thousands of other people.

I like him most when he pops bubbles, as he did with this comment over the weekend on The Paradox of the Middle of the Market.

The middle of the market is a paradox because of the inherent contradiction between the ease of reaching the nerds and the geeks and the need to reach the middle.

The solution, if there is one, is to enter a market to the enthusiastic cheers of those in search of the new, but to build a product/service that appeals to those in the middle. After the initial wave of enthusiasm, you hunker down and ignore those that first embraced you, obsessing instead on the needs and networks of the middle. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s the only one that works.

Ultimately, you end up disappointing the hard core that first found you, but because of their initial enthusiasm (and more important, because you designed your work for the masses in the first place), your product crosses the chasm and reaches a larger group. The formula starts with a service or product that’s purple enough to spread, but not so hyper-fashionable that it merely entertains the insiders.

Over the first several months of the NewSpring Web Church experiment, there’s one common denominator I’ve observed:

Almost all the people who are committed attenders, volunteers and those who depend on the Web Campus as their only form of church aren’t techno geeks.

Most are ordinary people who “need a job done.”

Most are, in a lot of ways, old school.

They’re not into pioneering a new form of church. Or rebelling from traditional church.

They’re just craving the word of God preached passionately, and they’re wanting to live out their faith in whatever environment helps them do that best, and according to the personal situation they are in.

That’s why our team works hard to resist adding layers of bells and whistles to the NewSpring Web Campus.

And why I personally think about my mother-in-law before I even make any suggestions about changes. (She is a new believer in south Louisiana who never thought about using twitter or Facebook or chatrooms until it became vital to living in Christian community on the Web Campus.)

How simple is too simple? How techie is too techie?

And how do we know when we’ve struck the right balance?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 30, 2009 at 10:45 am

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The rise of net campuses: Are local churches on the ropes?

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Andy Stanley’s NorthPoint Community Church yesterday joined other progressive, nationally-known ministries in jumping on the internet campus trend.

I think it’s safe to say that what started out as an outreach experiment has quietly become a “standard” part of the modern technomedia church, which includes vodcasting and podcasting, streaming video of sermons, multi-site video teaching and the various social media efforts, including twitter, facebook, and community infrastructure.

Not only am I pumped for the good folks at NorthPoint, including John Saddington, Jeff Henderson, and Los Whittaker who are behind the initiative, I think having several heavyweight ministries exploring this terrain is only going to speed up our learning about how best to grow strong churches online.

This tweet about the news did catch my eye Tuesday, and I thought was worth commenting on:

Lifechurch, Central/Vegas, NewSpring, et al w/ net campus; now Saddleback & Northpoint…local churches better figure out a reason to exist. @BrianConard

For the record, I don’t think local churches will ever be replaced by cyberchurches.

But I think it’s already true that ubiquitous access to skilled, accessible and powerful preaching from the super-ministries of Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, Andy Stanley, Matt Chandler and Francis Chan and others, along with their church “life” that can be shared through and in other media and online venues, are transforming people’s expectations of how a local church fits in the modern Christian life.

Especially if that local church is mediocre, passionless and tone deaf to the culture we live in.

I think it will “raise the game” for every church, since every demographic is adopting technology at a rapid pace, and the acceptance of modern worship (including web worship) is accelerating daily.

If anyone wants to bet against this culture shift, they should take a lesson from the demise of the newspaper industry, speaking as one with a foot in both cultures. (The traditional church and the traditional media are both presumptuous about how well they know their “audience” and are meeting their needs. Both have a deathly tendency toward believing that their audience isn’t smart enough to know what’s True and what’s good for them. And both like to arrogantly assume that their people “aren’t going anywhere,” despite the mushrooming number of choices around them.)

Small local churches will close. Large ministries will grow larger.

Only the excellent will survive.

The bigger question for the health of the church is how well this bridge generation — US — will develop the new leadership structures and new community structures that will provide the bone and sinew of “membership” of a “body of believers” in this new era.


Written by NickCharalambous

June 3, 2009 at 10:55 am

A Web campus: More than a podcast with bells and whistles

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Web Campuses or Internet Campuses or whatever you want to call them are all the rage.

And as the Web Campus pastor for NewSpring Church, I’m blessed to have a small part in leading the Big C church to rightly embrace the web for church, broadly defined, as an environment for worship, a vehicle for community and discipleship, and a medium for evangelism.

I take what I do seriously enough that I’m always sharpening my theological understanding of what we’re trying to do through the web campus. So, inspired by this page on Rick Warren‘s Saddleback Church Internet Campus, i thought I’d share here my internal vision statement for the web campus that has been in place since before we launched.

It’s aimed at getting my ministry team and volunteers on the same page. It’s a work in progress. It’s not proof-texted. It’s not officially endorsed by my church leadership. But it is I think a healthy approach that recognizes a web campus as something far more than a podcast with bells on.

Come on. You know you want to help critique it. 🙂

Our mission is to make Jesus famous one person at a time, helping people worship God, grow in faith and live in Christ-centered community online.

We believe the web campus can follow the model of a Biblical church. It provides a venue for worship of God, Biblical teaching, and opportunity for community, discipleship and evangelism.

For the lost, it can be a very powerful tool in welcoming spiritual seekers to hear the word of truth in a setting that may not be as intimidating as physically attending a church.

For those Christians who are not fully committed to a local church, it can be a more open and inviting path to involvement in a local body of serving, discipling, evangelizing believers who are passionate about Jesus and obedient to his word.

We believe that online attenders can and should participate fully in the life of NewSpring Church, which considers itself one church in many locations.

As with every NewSpring campus, our online attenders will be strongly encouraged to get baptized by immersion after a decision for Christ, give, serve each other and the church in online and offline venues and proclaim the good news as the Lord gifts them and leads them. Periodically, we also will celebrate communion together, rightly instructed by a pastor, with online attenders gathering and taking their own elements. (See our five purposes below)

Attendence of the Web Campus should never be viewed as a legitimate way to “go to church” while avoiding the challenges or the commitments involved in faithful participation of a local church body. We do, however, believe that full, consistent, surrendered worship among a body of believers on the web campus is to be preferred to infrequent attendance of a local church and membership of it in name only for whatever reason.

We believe that online social and communication tools can be used to ensure that we are “meeting together” in worship and in Christ-exalting relationship with believers as well as serving as a witness to God corporately. But as the body of Christ, each with a role in discipling, serving and evangelizing within “communities of grace,” our success can only come through deep investment in individual lives and communities that must include some element of offline, bodily interaction.

Although we donʼt believe that physical presence is the only way we can fulfill our role in the body of Christ, we do want to strongly encourage people to gather physically wherever possible, such as by viewing the web campus in physical groups.

Overall, the web campus is more than just a podcast with a chat room. In fact, we recognize that some podcasters may be using our media to create a personal church experience that risks isolating them and tends toward a false understanding of the Christian life as private and solitary, rather than public and communal. The web campus offers a chance to lead podcasters toward a more complete experience and participation in church.

Our theological conviction is to offer attenders a 360-degree church experience: communal worship experience realized through our chat room or in physical gatherings, pastoral guidance from me and other NewSpring pastors, and abundant opportunities to take “next steps” in their walk with Jesus. I think you’ll agree that taken as a whole, the web campus can serve as someone’s church home, should they need it.

We want out attenders to:

  • Worship God through time, talent, treasure and prayer.
  • Grow Biblical relationships that spur greater communion and connection with God, the church and each other.
  • Grow spiritually through Bible reading and study and other resources to develop their spiritual understanding, gifts and leadership abilities.
  • Serve their church and community by meeting needs in ministry and missions
  • Share their faith with unchurched people by sharing testimony and inviting people to worship services online or offline.

Written by NickCharalambous

May 13, 2009 at 9:02 am