The Grossest Misconception of Church Online

by Paul on September 18, 2009

I would like to go on the record and say that I’ve never heard anyone leading the church online movement say that church online will replace church offline.  I’ve never heard anyone leading any expression of church online say that disciples in the digital space will not interact with each other and with the lost offline.

In fact, as you listen to stories of those involved in church online, you hear examples of obedience to God’s Word that cross the online-offline divide.  It is safe to say that most church online folks want members of their community to live in obedience to Christ online and offline, whether they are attending an online service/experience or are playing with their kids in the front yard.

Unfortunately, as I read articles against church online, I get the sense that many look for the moment church online expresses itself offline and declare, “See!  I told you church online wouldn’t work!”  This attitude is quite unfortunate (to put it nicely).

Most church leaders rejoice when their congregation obeys God outside the walls of the church building, minister to their communities, and reach the Lost.  I think they see this kind of behavior as a measurement of success of their offline church, rather than an indicator of failure.  We cannot be the church only within the walls of the church.  Most of life happens outside of Sunday worship experiences.  Consequently, the largest portion of our lives as Christians must happen outside Sunday experiences or we will fail to fulfill the Great Commission.

Most church leaders recognize this – online and offline.  The act of Christians crossing barriers of location to minister to the needs of others is a mark of success, not failure.  We should recognize it as such and celebrate, rather than make this behavior a mark of failure.

I’d like to share a few examples of online-offline ministry, missions, and love.

(I may change the names in the stories if I feel it is appropriate.)

Premature Babies, Gas, and Blankets

Mary was a part of an extensive and highly interactive online community of professional freelance writers.  When she found out she was pregnant, her online community rejoiced with her.  When she gave birth to Luke at only 23 weeks into her pregnancy, they immediately rallied to help.  They auctioned their professional services on Ebay and sent the check to Mary.  They spread the word of Luke and asked their friends to donate.  Although many weren’t religious, they offered their version of prayer to whatever god they thought would listen.

I was part of this community.  In fact, it was one of the first online communities I found.  I prayed for Mary and Luke regularly.  I let her and the community know that I did so.  When God answered, I made a point of rejoicing and pointing out to the community what God did.  I believed God should get the glory for Luke’s progress.

Toward the end of Luke’s extensive hospital stay, I was involved in an offline training for offline church planters.  One of the trainers made the statement, “If you ask a community what they need most, they will tell you.” I jumped on Plurk and typed, “What is your greatest need at this moment?”

Within five minutes, Mary replied, “I need $1000 dollars to pay for gas (she lived four hours away from the hospital and this was at the time gas prices in the USA were skyrocketing) so that I can finish things up at the hospital and bring Luke home.”  I immediately shared Mary’s response with the group because it underscored the trainer’s point.

During the break, one of the trainees approached me.  “You know, there are 50 of us in this room.  If we each gave $20, we could meet her need.”  I told him to present that idea to the rest of the group.  He did, and we gathered $1000 for Mary and Luke.  I jumped on Plurk and typed, “Mary, I told some Christ followers about you, Luke, and your need.  They wanted to take care of you and Luke.  We gathered $1000.  Where would you like me to send the check?”

Mary, as you can imagine, was overjoyed.  And all the Christians in that room had the awesome privilege of being God’s answers to the prayers of a desperate mother.  We were humbled that God would use us in such a powerful way.

Last Christmas my wife made a blanket for Luke.  We rejoiced that we could put the gift in the mail and know God would use it to keep that precious baby warm for many years to come.

I wasn’t there to give Jesus a blanket, but we could give one to Luke in His Name.

McDonald’s Gift Cards and the Children’s Hospital

Last February a few guys I know came up with Train Friday.  They used Twitter to organize a Tweet-up for a good cause.  They met in Dallas and took the train to Fort Worth.  Ahead of time, they encouraged participants to purchase McDonald’s gift cards.  When they got off in Fort Worth, near the Children’s Hospital, they would go into the hospital and distribute the gift cards to families with children in the Hospital.  This made sense because there was a McDonalds in the hospital.

I don’t remember the exact amount, but I know participants purchased and distributed over $500 in McDonald’s gift cards.

Online Summer Missionaries

Last summer I trained nine online summer missionaries.  They studied Biblical principles for ministry and reaching the Lost and applied those principles in an online world.

I was impressed with what they accomplished in two months.  They engaged lost people in communities all over the internet.  They prayed for them and had some pretty in-depth spiritual conversations.

I can’t wait for next summer.

(Update: Just wanted to point out that I trained these online missionaries with a combination of online and offline events.  Continuing discipleship and training happened throughout the summer via cell phone, Skype, and Tokbox.)

Stuck

Last winter, I believe, a well-known blogger, Carlos Whittaker, was stranded in an airport.  His flight was canceled and he had an all-night delay.  The airline wasn’t helpful.  He tweeted his frustration.  One of his followers who lived in the area met him at the airport, paid for hotel room, and made sure he was taken care of.

Rent

A member of an online community was severely abused when they were a child.  Consequently there were complications with her pregnancy almost 20 years later.  The baby was fine, but for months his mother was in excruciating pain.  Ultimately, she needed a hysterectomy.

They used everything they had to pay for the surgery.  Having followed this family for some time, I knew they were probably going to have trouble making rent at the end of the month.  I told my online small group to set aside money for them, just in case.

Sure enough, her Plurks later that month indicated they were having trouble making the rent.  We didn’t have enough to pay the whole amount, but what we did have we sent – no strings attached.

They made rent and the family is healthy.  And God was glorified.

Conclusion

These stories are just a taste of the ministry and mission behind online church.  They all contain online and offline touches.  I don’t think the blend is a sign that church – online and offline – failed.  Instead, I rejoice that these evidences of discipleship happened outside the walls of the church and away from Sunday services.  Maybe they are a sign that we are doing something right, in both spheres.

Maybe we should stop looking for failure in church online and figure out ways to disciple better so that in a year the stories of success consume more pages than the Lord of The Rings.

Can you think of a better way to make Jesus smile?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorraine September 18, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Why do some not get it?
I was challenged in Durham, with a load of church leaders who were looking at digital space ministry. I was accused of 'doing online church'.
Having had the experience of both preaching on and offline, there are differences and similarities.
Though I do not sit easily in established local church, due to my work (I deliver babies). Same with the manifestations of online church ministries. Set times to meet, sing, worship, pray.
I had better dialogue with a chap on skype, when he worked in Afghanistan, than I have ever experienced from him when I attended the local church….. why was that?
The most important element is community. Do you belong? Do you feel encouraged? Do you experience genuine care when you ask somebody to pray for you?
Having experienced negative/positive elements in both online and local community, I am coming to the conclusion there is little difference.
People are people. Some serve God with open hearts, and pure love. Expressed in good measures.
I am on Utube nervously challenging the Bishop of Durham about the concept of local church, it is the way not how we connect and where we live.

Roger Overton September 18, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Hi Paul,

Just as most supporters of online church aren't saying Christians ought to avoid offline community, most critics of online church aren't saying Christians ought to avoid online community all together. As a critic of online church, I see these stories as examples of how online tools can aid our offline communities or examples of how Christians can generally serve one another though online services- and I rejoice. I don't know any critic who would say these are bad. What us critics are really concerned about are the people who choose online community when offline community is readily available to them.

Mark Meyer September 20, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Paul:

Thanks for the great examples of how online church can have a great impact. As an Online Church Director, these questions are constantly running through our minds… A few things I believe… This is a new mission field… For those who aren't currently going to church, what is it that will help them take that first step? Attending online church may be an easier first step for people than attending a physical church. Many people feel awkward attending church alone… Online church may be a good step for them…. It's a yes and a yes…. We celebrate and encourage people to do either… Where is it that will best help you take steps toward Christ? Can you find true community with a few friends that attend online church together and engage their communities throughout the week? An hour on a weekend, whether online or physical, is simply a piece of our spiritual growth…. Great questions and discussion…. I believe God is comfortable with drawing people closer to him in the "cloud". :)

NicCharalambous September 21, 2009 at 2:22 am

Preach it brother! Online church is an extension of how we incarnate the gospel in the world. We cross paths where people are. Simple as that. It's no less living for jesus than knocking on doors in your neighborhood … or giving your neighbors a cup of sugar. People live in the real world as well as online. If there wasn't some overlap between the two, I'd be more worried!

JennyO September 22, 2009 at 7:13 am

Hey Paul! Loved reading your examples. You're so creative with your titles too. =)
Don't know anyone who really embraces the online life as well as you do – you're just always there! You've made yourself and your life so public and so open to everyone, and showing Christian love and care is so much a part of you – as is so evident in your stories above. It can be so overwhelming and stressful having everyone know what you're doing all the time but your online & offline communities know you, rely on you, and experience Christ through you constantly and you take it all in your stride. God bless you for that. I couldn't do it! Thank God for people like you who do it with a joyful and obedient heart. =)

Grace October 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm

I am heavily involved in online missions work, and as an "online missionary," I do not plant churches. Instead, I have a missions outpost on Second Life virtual world that offers a place to pray, free Bibles and Bible studies, I lead a weekly discussion group to encourage others, and then I go out into the "highways and biways" of the SL virtual community and share Jesus with others. There are tens of thousand of people who log in to Second Life every day, and there are real people with real souls behind those avatars. I feel that God has called me to reach out to those in this online community who may never darken the door of a church.

In real life, I remain a faithful member of my own local church, seeking the support and accountability of offline ministry, which I think is vital to my walk with the Lord.

If you're ever in Second Life, please look me up. My avatar's name is Grace Cuthbertsson.

God bless you!

Grace Cuthbertsson November 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

No matter what medium we use, if the Word of God goes forth then people's lives can be touched.

I just wanted to let you know that I now have a Facebook page with video-recorded sermons based on the Word of God, and I hope they bring people to Jesus. You can me on Facebook under the name of "Grace Cuthbertsson" (be sure you type two "s").

Blessings,
Grace

grace_c November 6, 2009 at 6:41 pm

No matter what medium we use, if the Word of God goes forth then people's lives can be touched.

Blessings,
Grace

danohlerking December 28, 2009 at 7:22 pm

ok i don't know where i've been, but i'm really happy to have found this (via NicCharalambous – thx dude). you've said it well. online church seems to be so intimidating to so many offline church people. i think it is a tradition for many of us in church to despise what we do not understand. but, thank God there are the Brandon Donaldsons, Bobby Gruenewalds, Nic Charalambouses, and others who are helping blaze a trail into online church.

such a perfect example you give, paul, in your response earlier – why do we need more types of churches? different varieties of people wil be reached by more varieties of churches. it isn't that baptists and methodists must compete. there's plenty of people yet to be reached, and that's why we're doing online church at healing place church. it's not about those who are already in church. it is for those who are not yet here.

there are those who don't come to church, those who won't come to church, and those who can't come to church. so for all of those, whatever their reason – by ALL means, let's take church to them.

thanks for posting this. i'm so glad to have found your site. i'll be back for more… :-)

Mary Beth December 28, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Hey Paul, I posted the story about Bill's heart attack/surgery and the benefit of prayer from my online community here http://marybethstockdale.wordpress.com/2009/12/26... Another example of online ministry that was a blessing to me.

Cullen Saucier December 28, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Great points and Great examples, I am a part of our Churchs' online volunteer community and have seen so many people find that connection to God and His people Online and seen them interact and help each other out in so many ways Offline. I strongly agree that Online Church is such a great part of our Offline Church community, we are bringing the Word out of our four walls and taking it to the World. We are reaching people and helping them in ways I could have never imagined.

I attend Church every Sunday with my family and Wednesdays during the year, but I attend online as a volunteer to help out at least two more times a week, and all are rewarding but Offline is were I fill up my tank for the week ahead, and Online is where I get to see that tank spill over onto others who either would not, or have not had the chance to go to Offline Church. Both are awesome to me and lives are being changed in both everyday, so I see no reason for any argument.

Online Church works Online and Offline period. In my humble opinion!!!

pauldwatson September 18, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Hey Roger,

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate it and your comment.

I'll answer you with some questions.

Why do people plant Baptist churches in communities that already have a Methodist church? Maybe even better, why do people plant a Baptist church in a community that already has one? I think this is a similar question to, "Why do we even need more churches planted when we already have churches that aren't full?" THAT, I think, is the real question here, rather than the validity of online church expression.

There are several answers: 1. If everyone in the town came to know Christ all at the same time, is there enough room in every church and every civic building for all the Believers to worship? I'm in Dallas with the new Dallas Stadium and I can tell you there are more people in Dallas than there are seats in the stadium. We need more church because the churches we have do not have the capacity – structurally and in man power – to reach the city. 2. New churches reach more lost people in their first few years than old churches do – generally. 3. Some people will not have their needs met by churches in one tradition. They can't worship that particular way. Nothing wrong about it, it isn't right for them. 4. We need to push into areas traditional churches aren't. This is especially true for online space.

In my opinion, we need to get to the root questions regarding online and offline churches. As you said, online and offline isn't the issue. The questions go much deeper than that.

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