Meditations (Web)Church

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

Posts Tagged ‘community

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 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

“Online church is sick”

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A little while back, I mused about whether my two reformed heroes, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, considered the Web church blasphemy.

Mark Driscoll responded in the last 8 or 10 minutes of his Advance ’09 talk on What is the Church? recapping his arguments (direct link) in Vintage Church.

Now it’s John Piper’s turn to weigh in, and he doesn’t mince words. Here’s the full transcript of the question, “what are your thoughts on worshiping and being part of Christ’s body through an online church?” sent in to “Ask Pastor John.”

“If the question means, “as your only experience of worship,” it seems sick. We are created in bodies, not just in minds. And there is something docetic about this. That may not mean anything to a lot of people. Docetism was an early heresy that said that the body is not very important, and that life in the flesh and the created world is not very important, and that Jesus Christ only seemed to have a body. And usually material is evil.

God made us with bodies. He made us to give holy kisses to one another—embraces, handshakes, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation. He made husband and wife not to have imaginary video sex through Skype. He made them to go to bed together in the same bed. He made them to raise children in the same house, with hands-on hugs and spanks on the bottom and love. And he made churches to get together to hear each other sing, and to look at each other and talk to teach other, and minister to each other and help each other die well.

So to dispense with the entire bodily dimension of togetherness in order to substitute a video dimension of togetherness—like this right now—would, I think, be spiritually defective, would be contrary to Christ’s understanding of the church, and would be hurtful to the soul.

There are mysteries here in human relationships that we can’t quantify. And I don’t think that they can be replaced by electronic symbols.”

I think this critique, like Pastor Mark’s, takes the Web church too literally. The NewSpring Web Campus and other churches are actively encouraging relationships in the real world to complete the web campus experience.

But he also is clear that communal worship must be physical and is not sufficient if it is only a sense of communal gathering, as would happen in a chatroom.

What’s your take?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

Posted in community, web campus

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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

Web church as “safe space” to explore Christian faith

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This is my last post exploring the fascintating conclusions from Hartford Seminary’s groundbreaking study on megachurch attenders and what the web church can learn from it. You can read posts one, two and three and four if you missed them.

One of the more fascinating parts of the study showed that:

some people intentionally don’t want to establish friendships, even if they are highly committed to the church. Certain people come because they can be, and want to remain, anonymous. … almost a third of those at these churches over five years still report having very few close friends there. For some attenders even long-term participation in the megachurch is about something other than having a network of close friendships.

Let’s face it: “community” can be intimidating to some people, especially those who may only be just starting to live the Christian life.

That’s where the Web church’s perceived weakness — its so-called anonymity — might prove to be one of its greatest assets.

To begin with, it might provide a private, anonymous, low-commitment way to experience Christians and Christian teaching. But there’s also a clear path toward Christian community for those who want to explore it in a controlled environment, calibrated along a continuum of casual conversation, friending, commenting, messaging and physical meetups, to name just a few.

From a theological standpoint and a practical standpoint, discipleship occurs best in a community context, and the Web Church could provide that safe, community space in a believers’ formative years.

Thoughts?

Written by NickCharalambous

June 19, 2009 at 8:30 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