Meditations (Web)Church

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

Posts Tagged ‘evangelism

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 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 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 LifeChurch.tv 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

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 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