It's Sunday morning at one of today's most innovative and fastest growing churches. Coffee is served. Ambient music fills the room. A screen displays a countdown clock announcing the service will begin in five minutes. People chat in the lobby while others sit in prayerful silence.
The worship leader appears and greets the congregation. A woman turns to her husband and says, "I can't hear. Would you turn it up?" He obliges, clicking his mouse to increase the volume of his laptop speakers. She gives a nod of thanks and settles in to worship.
Welcome to virtual church.
Recently a number of churches have made the leap beyond multi-site and satellite campuses. They have launched internet campuses, making every living room, dorm room, or coffeehouse with wi-fi an extension of the church.
The trend started in 2007 with a handful of churches and has grown to dozens of congregations today. Some are large and highly visible churches, such as North Point Church near Atlanta, while others are small, but the momentum will likely lead to the launch of hundreds of virtual churches in the years ahead.
Online church is not simply a streaming video of a sermon or a podcast. Worship services have scheduled times so that attendees engage simultaneously. Efforts are made to ensure the experience is more interactive and less passive than you might imagine. Brian Vasil, who oversees the internet campus of Flamingo Road Church near Miami, says the aim of their internet campus is identical to that of their physical campuses.
"We want to help people take steps toward Christ. We do not want them to just consume good teaching, but to engage and connect," he says. "Many people hear of internet campus and think that it must be pretty passive—people sitting in their pajamas watching a video. But we have leveraged technology to provide a chat room where worshippers mingle and talk with one another and with me, their campus pastor. We also have online Bible studies and online programs for teens and kids. Through the week, our internet campus offers forums, book studies, leadership studies, and small groups. We take prayer requests online—about 150 each week."
With any new movement, it is wise to ask questions and probe the underlying values, theology, and implications. Even church leaders who are not planning to start an internet church can benefit from these questions. For example, virtual churches force us to rethink long-held assumptions about what church is, the impact of technology on the soul, and what it really means to participate in a spiritual community. The advent of virtual churches may cause many traditional churches to reexamine their own ministry values.
One of the first to venture into virtual church was LifeChurch.tv. After being planted in 1996 near Oklahoma City, it quickly grew using a multi-site strategy. LifeChurch.tv now has over a dozen physical campuses from Arizona to New York. On Easter 2007, LifeChurch.tv went from adding campuses to multiplying them. With the launch of their online campus, they set into motion a movement that has allowed them to reach people anywhere on the planet with an internet connection.
Bobby Gruenewald is the one at LifeChurch.tv who helped launch their online campus and now oversees the expansion of their digital ministry.
"Church Online reaches about 5,000 people each week through 22 scheduled online experiences," he says. Like others in the internet church movement, he admits that exact numbers are hard to determine, but reports that each week there are over 50,000 unique IP addresses logging in, with roughly one in ten staying for the entire service.