600. The average online attendance is nearly 600 this year. This is almost a 20% growth over the previous year. At most, I know 5% of the audience by name on any given Sunday.

Online Campus, 2012.
Spring 2012, the early days of the Online Campus.

Since I started the Online Campus, I’ve tried to reconcile church in an online format. When the Online Campus started, we (CCC leadership and myself) talked of how attending online should be the same as attending in person. We used references from 1 Corinthians 9 and Acts 2 as support for what we were initiating as church. Good intentions. Seeing it up close and personal is different. Any audacity I had before about espousing online attendance as a long-term, viable church solution for the masses is long gone.

There have been a number of wonderful moments since we first launched the Online Campus three and a half years ago. People have made decisions to follow Jesus, get baptized, serve locally, get connected with a journey group (small group community), find help for an issue they were struggling with, and much more. We’ve responded to over 2,000 prayer requests. Visitors have utilized it to check out CCC before attending in person. When people can’t come in person due to weather, being sick, business trips, or whatever else, they’ve been able to stay connected by attending online that particular Sunday. The Online Campus has been a success in many ways, and I would continue to advocate utilizing the technology to better serve people. We’ve created a great product and experience for those who are watching outside the physical venue.  The staff and volunteers have done a great job of engaging people who are watching via a screen.

Back to the attendance growth. While this growth has taken place, we’ve seen a decline in engagement during the live services. Roughly 50% of the people who join us for services are on a mobile device. 90% of those attending do not have the chat window open, and more than likely watching the service in full screen. We stream in HD to almost any Internet-enabled device. People send me pics of themselves watching from home on their smart tv’s. In all these pics the video is always full screen. (I would do the same.)

Good problems to have, but it also cuts at one of the things we wanted to establish when we started the Online Campus. We wanted to have good engagement, via chat, during the services. That isn’t happening anymore. It hasn’t been happening for over a year and a half now despite our efforts to try and improve it. Those that do have the chat window open hardly chat once the service starts.

We have tried to start some online journey groups and classes, but those never got off the ground. People liked the idea of them, but the reality was something different. To me, it didn’t make sense to have someone sign up for an online journey group when they have a number of physical journey groups within ten minutes of them. The online classes would have huge interest the first week, but by the end we’d see minimal attendance and hardly any engagement. The novelty wears off after while.

Christ Community Church’s mission statement is “making disciples of Jesus for Kingdom impact”. For awhile, I’ve been thinking through how one reconciles discipleship with an online church. Back when the Online Campus first started I always felt a pressure to say we could translate a lot of the church to an online format. While we can do that for a lot of the worship services, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s best. It is easier to be fully engaged with someone when I’m in the physical venue than when I’m watching on a laptop. I think this is especially the case with discipleship.

There is something about proximity when it comes to discipleship. Yes, you can do teaching online, but discipleship? I don’t think you can do discipleship well, in an online format, if that’s your only form of interaction. Jesus had his twelve disciples with him in proximity over the course of three years. His teaching was powerful, but his daily interactions with them even more so. Much of the teaching we have from the Gospels is Jesus encountering a situation, with his disciples, and addressing it.

As well, I’m supposed to be the Online Campus Pastor, but I’m not seen as the pastor to those attending. I have no face time with them during the services. They connect more with Pastor Mark, obviously, but also with worship leaders Jed, Ryan, and others. During the week I have a lot of interaction with people online, but that’s in spite of the Sunday online services. I’ve prayed with hundreds of people this year, through digital communication, but most of it has been outside the Online Campus services.

While we have people from a multitude of states, and from a number of nations, over 80% of our audience is from the Omaha metro area. It’s been fun to talk about reaching people halfway across the world, and how we can grow into the thousands with an online audience, but let’s not neglect the people in our backyard. What good is it to keep growing the campus if we aren’t pastoring those people effectively? Over 80% of our audience is within a short drive of the Old Mill Campus (where CCC is physically located), so why reinvent the wheel to get them better connected? Let’s leverage what we have established for those who attend our physical campus since over 80% of our online audience live within a short drive of the Old Mill Campus.

Now, I know of a number of churches that are doing amazing things with their online church. That’s great. I’ve talked with a number of them, and it’s cool to hear what God is doing in and through their efforts. For our context at CCC, and in Omaha, some of the things that work elsewhere aren’t effective here.

I could do more of a deep dive on any of these things, but hopefully you began to see how I would prefer anyone to consistently attend a physical local church over watching an online church.

One of the many beautiful things about Jesus was he came in the flesh to love, save, serve, and redeem humanity. It’s easy to relate and connect with Jesus because we know he walked this Earth, and faced many of the issues we face. Christians often talk of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and not a religion. We want the church to be personal. God wants to be personal with us.

There are a lot of advances with technology and culture, but that doesn’t mean the Church should be quick to reflect everything going on with culture. I think technology should support what we do as a Church, but it should never replace it. Technology is not our God.

We can have online communities, but one of God’s goals for us with community is proximity. To have personal interactions with one another in proximity. Online, it is easy to pick and choose what people see of us. It’s also easy to pick and choose what we like and don’t like when “attending” online churches. With some of the people that have attended CCC’s online church, I have seen and experienced this with them when trying to disciple, build community, and/or pastor. These people want to play church, not be a part of the church. Even though you listen to a podcast of some preacher, that doesn’t mean they are your pastor. It’s a dangerous place to be in when we treat church like a Sunday buffet.

What does this mean going forward? We will continue to livestream our Sunday services. Again, there have been a litany of positives with streaming our Sunday services. I want to see those good things keep happening! People have come to know Jesus, get baptized, connected with counselors, received prayer, got involved with volunteer opportunities, and much more. I want that to continue! It’s been a great way for people to visit for the first time before attending in person. When people are sick, or away for whatever reason, they can join us in person and stay connected with what’s going on.

We can create an environment to help serve people online, but also get/keep them connected to a local church. That’s my hope. I know there are some that can’t physically make it to church, and I’m glad we can serve them with our online church. When online attendees can’t make it to church due to sickness, business trips, a kid’s event, or whatever else, I’m glad they come online. The rest of the year? I hope they would come to a physical, local church. When I’m able to, I’d much rather attend services in person than watching them on a computer.

One thought on “Where I’m at with Online Church

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