Being in the same place at the same time is not a definition of church, says Dale Stephenson. As senior pastor of one of Victoria’s largest churches, Crossway Baptist, he’s been thinking through what church looks like, particularly in a digital age.
It’s why Crossway is introducing an Online Church service next month. He says it will be Australia’s first interactive service online. Online Church, according to Dale, will move beyond streaming a sermon and worship session – something many Australian churches are already doing – and instead offering opportunities for people to check in, chat with other online church members and be cared for by service hosts trained for online ministry.
From August 23 at Crossway’s Online Church there will be ten online church services every Sunday.
“Church is people, not buildings,” says Dale. “It’s a body of people who put their trust in Jesus. It’s people in relationship. But for us to think that the only legitimate form of community is to manage to be in the same place at the same time… well, we know that there’s a lot of people who just can’t do that. Where does that leave them?”
At Crossway for example, says Dale, there are about 9000 “active participants”. That’s not membership but the number of people who typically swarm around the church’s many activities in a week. But only about 4000 of those participants show up to church on Sunday.
“More than half of us aren’t here on any given Sunday,” Dale tells Eternity. “People travel, they get sick; some just have a less regular church habit.”
But the accessibility of physical church isn’t just an internal problem about numbers on a Sunday. Dale says there are thousands of Australians who, even if they wanted to come to church, just physically couldn’t get there. Those who live on the land, in remote areas where church is several hundred kilometres away, for example. Or the elderly, the sick or the disabled. Or the hundreds of thousands of Christians who live in countries hostile to the gospel, closed countries where churches are rare and Bible teachers and Christian community rarer still.
There are also plenty of people curious about church who may never get up enough courage to walk through the doors of a church building on Sunday. Dale says an online church service can let them experience church in a less threatening way.
“We have to try and extend our reach so that these types of people can experience the love of Jesus in a way that matches their life circumstances,” says Dale. “And possibly even their level of commitment.”
Crossway’s new Online Church will have also have Australia’s first “online pastor”, Steve Fogg. Steve is crossing over into the virtual world from his previous role as Communications Pastor at Crossway. He says he’s done a lot of research into how churches in the United States have used similar systems to start online churches.
“It’s quite like planting a physical church,” says Steve. “We’re building a core team, raising up people to serve, reaching out and letting people know what we’re doing.”
Steve has taken inspiration for Online Church particularly from LifeChurch.tv, often heralded as the second-largest church in the United States with 24 locations across seven states. Church Online at LifeChurch.tv had six million visitors last year.
At each of LifeChurch.tv’s 67 online church services there are four to five service hosts ready to chat with people, facilitate conversation, pray and offer a chance to make a “next step of faith” – be it joining a weekly group to read the Bible or make a commitment for Christ, or details about how to come along to a physical church.
For Crossway’s first online church services, there’ll be one service host, a role for which Steve has been preparing several church members. He sees it as a way online church members can serve one another, just like, say, those who bring morning tea at face-to-face services.
And, true to the feel of an online church without physical borders, there is a service host based in Southeast Asia and one in Scotland. Both have had previous connections with Crossway. But in the future, Steve predicts there will be service hosts who will never have set foot inside a physical Crossway church, and people he has never met in the flesh.
“We’ll be a church body that exists anywhere in the world,” says Steve. “Service hosts don’t need to have come from our physical church location. They’ll be part of Crossway because they’re coming to online church. That’s their expression of church, and there will be ways to serve there.”
The option of an online church service available almost every hour on a Sunday might sound to some like an open invitation to stop attending a physical church location. No need to pile kids into the car. And there’s that load of washing still to be done that can be done while I’m watching church on my screen.
But both Steve and Dale are adamant that research from Online Churches in the United States suggests that the addition of online church services hasn’t affected physical church attendance numbers. If anything, physical church attendance numbers have grown for those using an online church system too.
Dale believes the fear that online church will mean people stop attending church in the flesh is a false one.
“I think there’s a desire for people to connect with one another in a physical way. Sure, there are people who might use online church occasionally, when they really can’t make it to one of our physical locations, but I don’t have a concern that those who come to our physical location now will make online church their regular place over a face to face connection.”
At the same time as “planting” an Online Church, Crossway continues to make plans for new physical church locations. They have a multi-site strategy in Victoria, they’re starting house churches both within the State and in other parts of the world, and there’s a new physical campus opening up in Melbourne’s southeast corridor in November.
Online Church might sound as if it has the potential to do away with physical churches altogether, but not at Crossway. And so far in the United States, the churches using Online Church systems all still have physical locations too.
Steve says that he believes the Bible encourages Christians to meet together and make connections. He says he will be encouraging people in the Online Church congregation to look, wherever possible, for ways to “step into community” in a more physical way. But he knows that for a lot of people, that’s just not an option.
“We’re not fixed to the idea that there’s only one way to do community. The church has many windows and many doors, and Online Church is just one of those windows or doors into the church.”