Meditations (Web)Church

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

Posts Tagged ‘discipleship

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?

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Written by NickCharalambous

March 14, 2010 at 3:54 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

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

What about the one-anothers on the web?

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I dropped this note on the blog of my good friend, Nathan Edwards, who I met through this blog and the NewSpring Web Campus.

“One-anothering is the essence of church as the body of Christ … I think there’s a lot of traditional physical churches that are resisting innovation on the web because they worry that the one-anothering will be harmed. My view is that they have an outsized and unrealistic understanding of how much one-anothering can or will people do in person these days, and an undersized and equally unrealistic view of the possibilities of one-anothering online.” Comment on “Why the web church sometimes does church better.”

Discuss.

Written by NickCharalambous

June 4, 2009 at 9:49 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