Webcam Worship
Spiritual formation in internet church.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter called "Internet Campuses - Virtual or Real Reality?" in the bookA 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.

July 06, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

Robert Angison

July 08, 2009  12:09pm

I truly hope this conversation and all its implications is being heard by major influencers and practioners. We stand at a place where we can offer some tremendous connection points through the facilitation of the internet. Yet the Church stands in a unique place in a society that pushes people to the margins to call people back to physical proximity. We absolutely have idolatrized growth. Perhaps my biggest question (coming from a distinctly, and proudly, Baptist theological background) is about the autonomy of the local church and why satellite churches aren't spun off to create an independent, autonomous body within a few years. Otherwise we are simply becoming Rome. Because "satellite" churches are exactly what Rome did for the first 1500 years (or so) of Christianity. Each local parish was a "satellite" of the Church in Rome. They had the same liturgy (i.e. worship set) and sermon (i.e. the lectionary.) I'm absoutely for using appropriate means to allow groups to study curriculum through internet facilitated video on home tvs. I'm absolutely for allowing individuals to create a unique path of online discipleship classes that are available for their unique calling and gifting. This is where we make the difference. I just think that in a time where people are, gladly, pushed/ing away from common, shared physical space that we, the Church, should be promoting intentional, sacrificial commitments to gathering in a shared space. Also, I shudder to think that we could lose the ability of a local pastor to discern the movement of God within his flock and be able to use the sermon to speak from Scripture to affirm and guide the flock he has been entrusted to shepherd. Maybe we need to return to why the headquarters of the Body of Christ is every local church. You are the Church! Robert Angison

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Ernest Goodman

July 08, 2009  11:13am

Churches that are not engaging people online are missing out on a huge opportunity for influence. A large portion of people's social interaction takes place online. This is true not only in the big cities, but in every part of the country (and the world). Insisting that people interact with us on our terms (realspace) is like trying to be a missionary without living among the people we want to minister to. I don't think online church is enough. I think the church needs to be teaching people to interact socially/relationally at every level. In some ways, though, let's be honest- virtual relationships can be more honest than face-to-face ones. Most of the concerns stated in the comments here are equally true of brick-and-mortar churches too- "If you don't like the sermon, you can find another," "No accountability," etc. Part of the problem is the culture gap- church leaders don't realize how "real" and influential virtual relationships are to so many of their people.

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Prophetik Soul

July 08, 2009  7:34am

One of the inherent problems with online Christianity is a lack of accountability. If I am uncomfortable with an online sermon, I can find another online sermon. This fits perfectly with our individualistic consumer faith. What ever happened to sacred physical spaces? How do you create sacred space in a place that is virtual? That space can disappear randomly at any time if there is a computer malfunction. I understand that the church is people but imagine a church that moved to a different locationa every week. People would stop coming because there would be no sense of cohesion or normalcy. I dont deny the possibility of using technology to reach people but it has its limits. We must be discerning in our creativity that we dont circumvent the gospel. In a physical church community, I must wrestle with how to talk to the pastor about his sermon. It seems like physical church community is being overspiritualized and devalued more and more. The Book of Acts and some of Paul's letters are good examples of physical church community. Although he sent letters, it seems like his first desire was to BE with the flock. If Paul wanted to, he could have just sent letters to people and not traveled at all. I have ministered in low income minority communities for years and would challenge them to become a part of a fellowship (sunday service, bible study, etc) where they could see God at work among other Christians. For many of them, their response was that church for them was watching televangelists and ministers on TV on Sunday. As a result, their Christian faith was very lopsided and perpetually adolescent because they did not have to wrestle with ideas in real time in real space in the presence of others who may disagree AND they were not developing their gifts and talents for the benefit of themselves, the church and others. It seems like I hear more about technology reaching people on Mars than people talking about engaging the people right outside their home or in their community. Why is that?

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Kyle Strobel

July 08, 2009  6:57am

Thank you for this, it is an interesting discussion. I am struck though by the parallel examples we all intuitively seem to use when we come across this kind of phenomena. As we compare it to our own evangelical church experience, we can't find much of a difference other than location, and maybe this is the actual problem. I wonder if the question should not be, "Is this new reality ok?" as much as it should be, "What does this new reality tell us about our ecclesiology?" In terms of spiritual formation (my personal blogging interest), again, I have further questions. Is claiming to push people through a series of preconceived steps "spiritual formation"? It seems to me, from my somewhat naive position to this conversation, that the idea of "church," classically understood, has been lost and has been replaced with "organization to help people improve." I just wonder if we have idolatrized growth, rather than focused upon the reality of being Christ's body (and all that might entail about the kinds of relationships and interaction we should have).

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Allen

July 07, 2009  8:10pm

I think online media is going to revolutionize belief in Christ, though it does lead to interesting questions, such as if you are watching video online of past services or reading transcriptions of services, does that still count as a church-going experience? Does our interaction with God and other people need to be a live experience? Perhaps we really need to be working on making our Live services more appealing to worshippers, if we don't Satan may win. I recently made a video for a church contest dealing with Satan and boring churches. Check it out and see what I'm talking about. http://www.ekklesiadetroit.com/contest/?p=71

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Steve Davis

July 07, 2009  6:45pm

I had my first true iWorship experience Sunday. (On vacation from our church.) Let me start by saying I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy. More the practical type. My thinking was, watch some worship and listen to a good sermon. Maybe do some research for when we want to add an iCampus. Started off at the 9:30 service at Seacoast and (surprisingly) really felt the presence of God during the worship. (Didn't sing along, but I'm not much of a singer at my church, either.) Enjoyed the message. Matter of fact, enjoyed the whole experience. So, both to double up and do some more research, went to another well-known church's site for the 11:00. Again, felt the presence of God during worship. And that's when things got weird. Wasn't getting much from the guest speaker, so I switched over to the OnePrayer site and watched Andy Stanley's excellent message for that series. But as soon as I got there I felt, well, I guess the word is 'alone.' After listening to the message, went back to another iCampus for closing music with the same result as before. The sense was so strong (and remember, I'm basically Baptist) it even got me leaning toward another word, Community. I know this is just one person's flawed opinion, but is it possible that when Jesus said "two or three are gathered" He wasn't limited to physical space? Not at all sure, and I know this isn't scientific, and I still don't believe online community is as rich as person-to-person, but I'm beginning to think it's not as distant a second as I once did.

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E

July 07, 2009  2:25pm

Good points Robert, but isn't there some truth to the idea that you are only as accountable as you choose to be? Whether attending a live service, or watching a live service online? I think the assumption here, and perhaps an incorrect one, is that those who attend online or mulit-site churches ONLY engage in a church activity in that PARTICULAR setting. Perhaps I am mistaken, but the few multi-site and online churches I know of have extensive cell groups, home groups and other more intimate settings to round out one's church experience. You might "tune in" online, but there are opportunities to engage in meaningful face-to-face Christian community throughout the week and through other face-to-face venues. Depends, I suppose, if your definition of "community" is sitting side by side staring up a pulpit every Sunday. Seems a lot like staring straight a head at a computer screen...don't you think?

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Robert Angison

July 07, 2009  12:51pm

The prospect of having webcame worship and virtual baptism is pretty sexy but I wonder if it meets the ultimate test...its faithfulness in regards to Scripture. With all of the momentum in contemporary ecclesiological practice pushing multi-site and virtual campus experiences the small remanant who ask legitimate questions about these trends are being drowned out. I wonder, really do wonder, how long the practioners of these new venues and methods have sat, reflected, prayed, and meditated over the deep spiritual, personal, and theological implications of their actions. How can we exercise true community, corporate worship, and church discipline without being able to uniquely engage in others' lives. I'm all for using technology to extend the reach and impact farther with certain aspects of the discipleship process. But sooner or later you have to think theologically about our actions. I just don't believe this is happening and we are going to see a wave of apathetic tune in for one hour a week and live like the devil the other 167 hours because there is no accountability. You are the Church! Robert Angison

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E

July 07, 2009  10:58am

There is an emerging culture, in their teens and even younger, that build much of their life experiences online. I believe this will only continue into their adulthood and beyond. We can critique that, find the flaws and faults in it, but nevertheless, it still happens. For some, online experiences, are community. Through games, or chat, or webcams, community (to them) is happening. In my mind, online community seems pseudo, but my opinion doesn't change the reality that is happening around me. The church can either engage that, or ignore that. Wouldn't you agree, that the online church experience is really only targeting a small portion of the population? Couldn't the online church be just another expression, like contemporary worship services, or traditional? Do we have to stand and judge whether it is 'real' church or something else? Just because it isn't my preference, does that take the relevance away for someone else?

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Prophetik Soul

July 07, 2009  7:13am

You know, souls coming to Christ always sounds great but the more we individualize the Christian experience, the more the local church will become irrelevant. Internet campuses sound comfortable and convenient and the gospel is neither. Technology should be a tool used for the gospel, not the other way around. Streaming a local gathering is better than reaching people via internet whom you will never see. But even that has its issues. How do local gatherings develop a sense of trust if a camera is peering in on their development all the time? How can authentic relationships develop when voyeurism is a temptation? I am always baffled by these discussions of reaching people through the internet because the first question I ask is, where do these ministers live that they cannot walk out their front doors and engage their neighbors and/or be an example to them? If they live in Siberia, why dont they move to more populated areas? I guess the local church isnt sexy anymore.

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