July 6, 2009
Spiritual formation in internet church.
The following is an excerpt from a chapter called "Internet Campuses - Virtual or Real Reality?" in the book A Multi-Site Church Road Trip: Exploring the New Normal, by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon, and Warren Bird (Zondervan, 2009). This picks up mid-chapter; so to bring you up to speed, we're talking about the strengths and weaknesses of internet campuses as they relate to spiritual growth and formation.
Even if a church does a good job of creating an engaging and life-transforming online worship experience, it may not be enough. What about the rest of what it means to be the church? When I pressed Troy [Gramling, senior pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Florida] with this question, he said that both physical and internet campuses are trying to do the same thing: help people take the next step from where they are to where God is calling them. "The first step is accepting Christ," Troy explained. "That can happen anywhere. The next step is baptism, and we have discovered that can happen anywhere as well." Indeed, in 2007 Brian Vasil baptized a new believer online for the first time. They didn't use virtual water or a cheesy clip art graphic. It was the real thing.
A young woman from Georgia who had never attended any of Flamingo Road Church's physical campuses gave her life to Christ during a service on the internet campus. She wanted to be baptized, so she contacted her campus pastor, Brian, via email. He spoke with her on the phone about her decision to accept Christ and about her desire to be baptized. Then he helped coordinate the event. She was baptized by her mother-in-law in the family Jacuzzi tub with the Flamingo Road internet family watching via webcam and rejoicing in the significant moment for one of their peers. That's taking the next step. For those involved with the church, it was the real thing.
Troy indicated that the church's internet team gets emails and calls all the time about similar decisions in people's lives. He emphasized, "It's cool when you see people take those steps. Even though it is online, it provides the experience of being part of the community."
The next steps people are encouraged to take are bringing their lost friends to church and serving. The value of the internet campus in evangelism is immeasurable. And there are plenty of opportunities for people to serve, both virtually and in the physical neighborhoods of internet campus attenders. Online at Flamingo, people serve as greeters in the chat rooms. They pray with people following the services, and they do visitor follow-up during the week. These are just a few of the many opportunities to serve.
Some churches have even created scenarios that allow them to share in the sacrament of Communion online. Other churches are developing additional facets of ministry beyond weekend worship services. Some of the most promising initial developments have been in the direction of online small groups. Flamingo Road's online small group ministry comes live from Brian's home. Other churches have established online student and children's ministries where kids, students, and parents are engaging in the life of the church.
In a bricks-and-mortar church, leaders can limit distractions and use a variety of tools to create experiences to connect people emotionally to the music and message. With an online church, that is much harder to do. The people attending your church online might be doing a million different things in the background while the service is in progress. Or they might be in an environment filled with distractions. The growth edge for internet campuses is their need to move their attenders to full engagement. Perhaps the most challenging part of the internet campus idea is the reality that when people aren't physically in the room, as they are in a church sanctuary, you can't control the environment.
Some of you may still be skeptical (as I was before I experienced church online). The question asked most often is, "How do you know that disciples of Jesus Christ are actually being made?" When I asked Troy, he brought me back to his definition of church as a process of taking one step after another along the faith journey. As a church, Flamingo Road measures growth and discipleship through steps taken. Baptism is a discipleship step. Financial giving is a discipleship step. Serving is a discipleship step. Inviting friends to church and talking to them about Christ are also discipleship steps. Many of these discipleship steps are no different than the steps used to gauge growth at a church with a physical campus. In some cases they are even measured or tracked in the same way.
Troy sees the use of internet campuses as an outpouring of his pastoral heart. He views them as a tool to reach and disciple people all over the world. "Now it's hard for me to say I don't care about what happens in Oklahoma or Idaho or England or Peru," he says, "when I have the technology in my hands that can help me reach people in those neighborhoods."