With the advances in technology, a new concept has taken hold in multi-site churches. This is the Internet church campus. In this article I will discuss the obstacles, how to overcome them, and how your church leadership and members can eventually work toward accepting it as an authentic outreach and ministry tool.
In my article about online ministry, I tried to emphasize that the internet is a viable platform for ministry. You may feel you are ready to step outside the safety zone of social media, email, and other digital communication methods. Several multi-site churches created these experimental Internet church campus with varying degrees of success. Here I will share what I have learned as to what you should consider before launching one.
If the idea of an Internet church campus is to reach those who cannot attend your church in person, who are they? What demographic would like to worship with you and hear your messages? Are they the elderly in retirement homes, incarcerated prisoners, parents with sick children, overseas military, geographically separated family members, and/or foreign missionaries? The list is astoundingly large. Your church leadership needs to determine the scope of your target audience, often depending on how large your church is and what your resources can handle. Although you will allow everyone to view your services, you can target those specific audiences through content and interaction.
You have three options when it comes to timing an internet church campus. First you can live stream a church service as it happens in your sanctuary. Second you can record it and broadcast it regularly throughout the week. Lastly you can do a combination of the two. I would recommend the second option as you can create an experience specifically tailored to your online audience. There may be pieces you have not figured out, do not feel comfortable with, or wish to change for your online attendees; such as communion and offerings.
I imagine a strange combination of video and chat solutions come to mind, but there is a simpler one. I would steer you toward Church Online. The initial funding and development was carried by several large churches around the United States, who have in turn released it for free distribution. It undoubtedly offers the greatest number of features and services, yet I do not want to limit anyone’s imagination. If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment on this article.
Who will monitor and guide the service? This is different than your ushers and greeters since talking and responding during the service is encouraged. Because videos are often recordings and can be revisited; stopping to ask for prayer and counseling right on the spot is possible. This also poses some problems as you may encounter people who think the online chat feature is just a new social gathering to meet their next date; which brings me to my next point.
The Church Online platform has methods of segregating potential troublemakers into a private chat space where they can get the attention they need. Remember, the most troublesome people are in the most need of Jesus’ message and forgiveness. The staff you have monitoring these spaces need to be adept at talking with people and handling these delicate situations.
If you have any monitors or displays in your church, consider showing who is online. Let your in-person members know that their participation and resources are helping the Gospel reach souls around the city and across the world. If you have online visitors respond to altar calls or decide to become regular members, celebrate with your on site members offline. Consider where you can take things a step further with virtual groups. With these smaller, more focused, and typically invitation only events, a tool like Google Hangouts would suffice. Activities such as Bible studies, support groups, and even small / community groups can be accomplished despite someone being geographically separated.
Do not shy away from an Internet Campus because of all these considerations. Start off slowly with methods mentioned in my online ministry article and see what your response is. You will most likely find that you have an audience, but not the resources and staff to go all out. Prayerfully consider what you can handle and move toward it. You just might find that some members will actually prefer online church because of the instant interactions and communities that can easily evolve over time.
Note: This article was inspired by Episode #11 of the Social Media Church Podcast, featuring DJ Chuang and Jason Morris
Photo courtesy of Manu Mohan and Nick Yee