What’s the Latest in Online Worship?


An article from Outreach Magazine about applications for online worship…

Fishing season was just two weeks away when the April 20 explosion rocked BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, and oil began rising from the floor of the Gulf. As the weeks dragged on and millions of gallons fouled the waters, the fishing industry was stranded, and coastal communities suffered.

Terri Goulette lives in one of those hard-hit areas—Houma, La.—where many families lost their livelihood in the wake of the spill. Moved by the need, she started looking for a way to help and to bring encouragement to the community. That’s when she thought of a backpack and school-supply drive. And she thought perhaps she could mobilize her “local church”—700 miles away in Central Florida.

Goulette is one of an estimated 2,000 people who join the services of Northland, A Church Distributed through webstream each week

(in addition to the 12,000 who worship at their various sites). She’s been part of the online congregation since the first week of the church’s webcasting in 2005.

Goulette’s response to her community in need—her impulse to serve in some tangible, specific way and to involve her church in the process—casts an intriguing light on the Web-based church experience and how online worship is morphing into a new definition of “virtual.”

Virtual Isn’t What It Used to Be

When churches first started streaming video of their services on the Internet, the closest metaphor was broadcast TV. For many, this is still the prevailing perception—just people watching a screen. Dan Lacich, Northland’s pastor for distributed sites, sees it differently.

“Television is a one-way push of content with no interaction built in other than ‘Send us a check, and we will send you a book,’” he says. “The worship experience that people are having via Northland’s web and a handful of other churches is one that is fully interactive and designed as an entry point into ministry everywhere, every day.”

In the new virtual, online attendees are able to connect with one another before, during and after worship via community and private chats. They’re able to have immediate and direct contact with a minister who serves that online congregation.

Lacich also notes that online worship is not necessarily a solitary experience. “Growing numbers of our online worshippers are gathering with others and using the Web as their way to participate in worship, not simply sitting and watching. They stand, sit, pray, greet, sing and have communion along with the rest of the church that is gathered in many other places. It really gets exciting when these online worshippers start working together to serve and reach out to others who do not know Jesus.”

Opportunities Global and Local

In addition to 28,000 who worship each week at various physical locations and a network of more than 100 churches who use their free teaching resources, LifeChurch.tv based in Edmond, Okla., has also experienced an explosion of growth in its online ministries. Pastor and Innovation Leader Bobby Gruenewald, an Outreach columnist, acknowledges that their fairly robust online ad campaign attracts drifters and seekers as well as the committed. While the curious may click through to their site and linger only briefly, like Northland, LifeChurch.tv is finding increasing numbers worshipping regularly online.

And like Northland, Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Fla., Newsong Community Church in Irvine, Calif., Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind., Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., and other churches with an aggressive online strategy, LifeChurch.tv is finding that opportunities for spiritual influence online are as far-reaching as the Web itself. Even in countries not particularly hospitable to missionaries, online ministries are taking hold. Gruenewald singles out India as one area where people are pursuing answers to faith questions they might otherwise have little opportunity to express.

And from the casually curious to persistent seekers, LifeChurch.tv is tracking those who make the first move to step out of anonymity, seeking discussion, counsel or one-on-one prayer. “We’re noting where online worshippers are clustered and offering opportunities to gather in small groups or connect with a local congregation, whether that church is part of LifeChurch.tv’s network or not,” Gruenewald says.

Online worship is creating unexpected opportunities, says Dan Ohlerking, online pastor for Healing Place Church’s four weekly services. Recently, Ohlerking received an e-mail from a man saying he suffers from severe agoraphobia, but that via the church’s online worship, he’s been “coming to church.” Northland’s Lacich notes that the church’s webstream worship has been used in local jails, supplemented by a physical volunteer team who are on-site during the worship service. “Often, the men who come to the service start to reach out to their wife and kids to say, ‘You need to go to this church.’”

“I can’t tell you what it’s like to have one of these guys come up after they’re out of jail and say, ‘This is my first time here, but I’ve been worshipping with you,’” Lacich says.

It is this interactivity that’s driving the vision for online worship. While it may be some seekers’ solitary pursuit, the intent is to build the church, to use online worship as another avenue to gather people together.

The Challenge of the Metrics

As these and other new ministry opportunities continue to emerge from the virtual experience, churches investing resources into this new vision are searching for ways to steward that investment. They’re studying the metrics—number of unique visitors, amount of time users stay on the website, number of people participating at a virtual site, etc.

Those numbers, Healing Place Church’s Ohlerking says, help him gauge the health of the online campus he pastors. He has followed LifeChurch.tv’s lead, measuring online attendance of a service by the maximum number of simultaneous viewers for that experience. Additionally, LifeChurch.tv tracks the total number of unique computers that connect and the time on the site, Gruenewald says, adding that he also looks at how many people are volunteering, giving and are involved in live prayer conversations as ways to measure engagement. Because Northland gives users the option to sign in and participate or remain quietly anonymous, attendance is tracked in two ways, and users must be on the site a minimum of 20 minutes to constitute “attendance,” Lacich explains.

Currently, no standard of measurement exists for online attendance and isn’t likely to emerge in an area of such diversity. “Because so many churches approach online ministry differently, it’s difficult to arrive at a standard for measurement,” says LifeChurch.tv’s Gruenewald. “A church’s goals for their online ministry will determine their perspective on what’s important to evaluate. So some churches might pay attention to the number of registered users while others might track site hits.”

Regardless of who counts what, online worship and the people who participate are fast becoming part of a church’s overall equation.

“As our church is being transformed from most of our people mainly assembling at buildings accommodating large numbers to most of our people being gathered in smaller venues and individuals connecting with particular others for an online experience, we are being challenged to clarify not only the vision, but the measurements of those participating with us directly,” says Northland Senior Pastor Joel Hunter.

As the church continues to think creatively and grow beyond traditional parameters, perhaps the greater, overarching question and challenge comes down to: How do we measure ministry effectiveness? Along with thousands of churches around the country, Northland and LifeChurch.tv are wrestling with that question. “We’re passionate about changing how we measure ministry effectiveness,” Gruenewald says, adding that LifeChurch.tv is in the process of developing software to help churches in this process.

As weeks turned to months and the Gulf oil spill persisted, Terri Goulette’s backpack drive had taken shape and gained momentum, mostly through word of mouth and informal networking. It wasn’t until she contacted Northland to invite the involvement of her church that she remembered the church does an annual school supply drive to benefit homeless and other needy children in Central Florida. Goulette and Northland combined their efforts, and the contributions poured in.

When the day arrived to distribute the backpacks in the area around Houma, La.—Aug. 7—Northland was on hand to assist Goulette. Because of one person’s impulse to help and the community she mobilized, nearly 800 kids received a new backpack and school supplies. The ministry she’s receiving online, she says, is teaching her “how to continue to walk with Jesus and look at others through God’s eyes, to make my world more like Heaven on Earth.”

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