The Art of Cyber Church
In August 2007, when Northland opened its main campus in Longwood, a $43 million, 3,100-seat building, church leaders kept the Internet in mind. Back in the control room in Orlando, five people monitor a room full of computers connected to hundreds of cables that send a live feed that makes the multi-site service possible. Pink, purple, and blue lights beam onto the Orlando stage as a 12-piece band leads the congregation—along with three other congregations and about two thousand individuals in front of their home computers—in "Blessed Be Your Name."
"Planting churches in the Western mentality is tremendously expensive and has a high failure rate," Hunter says. "Since we thought physical church plants would be an ineffective approach to church multiplication, we went with online resources that are much more efficient and less costly."
According to Leadership Network's book Multi-Site Church Roadtrip, in 2008 about 37 percent of megachurches used the multi-site approach, in which one congregation would videotape or stream the sermon to the screens of other congregations. The network's data show that on a typical Sunday in 2009, nearly 10 percent of Protestant worshipers in the United States attend a multi-site church.
Scott McConnell, associate director of Lifeway Research and author of Multi-Site Churches, says that Northland takes the multi-site approach to a new level.
"They really have it down to the second, so that they're showing a mouth at another site singing the same song," McConnell says. (During services, the Longwood site streams live video from the other sites to remind them that they are worshiping together.) "What they've been able to accomplish through technology is a small idea of what the church worshiping around the world looks like. You catch this glimpse that the church is bigger than my local church."
Hunter says this approach has allowed Northland to worship with believers around the world. In recent years, Northland has held concurrent services with churches in Namibia, Ukraine, and Egypt, and is planning to hold another one with an Argentine church later this year. Hunter says that after 9/11, the dual service held in Egypt was particularly powerful.
"The pastor came on, spoke to us as one of our own pastors, and said, 'I know the feelings you have. Don't return evil for evil,' " Hunter says. "That was an example in which the technology made all the difference in the relationships."
Cons and Pros
Not everyone embraces a multi-site approach.
Bob Hyatt, head pastor of the Evergreen Community in Portland, a nondenominational church that meets at local pubs, is one who has resisted. He insists that while he's not a Luddite (he spent eight hours in line for an iPhone—twice), he believes multi-site churches have a tendency to cultivate celebrity-driven church cultures.
"Leaders start saying, 'Bring me in, and I will turn this around [with video feeds],' and I don't see that model as good ecclesiology," Hyatt says.
In addition, since people rely on the main pastor with a multi-site approach, it discourages more people from testing their teaching gifts, Hyatt believes. "Video venues have the unintended consequences of killing teaching and the gift of preaching."