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Hillsong’s new Online Campus hopes to deliver real community

But Pastor Nathan McLean says it won’t mean people stop coming to church IRL

The new pastor of Hillsong’s Online Campus, Nathan McLean, says he’s still grappling with how to build an online church that’s more than just a streaming service. But he believes it’s possible to create a digital community that is genuinely focused on people.

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“It’s possible … if people want it,” he told the crowd of church leaders at a masterclass during Hillsong Conference this week.

McLean joined Rob Beach, CEO of Hillsong Technology and CIO of Hillsong Global, and Dr Haydn Nelson, a lecturer at Hillsong College, for a masterclass unpacking “the tension between gathering and viewing”: Is it possible for an online church to do more than just watch?

“Sometimes, people will connect better over a flat screen than a flat white,” McLean quipped, adding that in his few months as the pastor of the online campus he has had several digital conversations where people had shared more with him than he believes they would have if he were meeting them face to face.

“Sometimes, people will connect better over a flat screen than a flat white.” – Nathan McLean

Hillsong’s new online campus is the next phase of the megachurch’s efforts to find a way to “do church” online. It has experimented with other online church formats, including testing out a version of Church Online from Life.Church (the church that brought you YouVersion, the most popular Bible reading app), and more recently ‘Church of the Air’, which was aimed at connecting rural and remote Australians with a Hillsong digital church offering.

But McLean, who is also the pastor of Hillsong Wollongong (a face-to-face church meeting), says he’s been tasked with taking the technology Hillsong has been working hard to master and partner it with the people focus of a regular church gathering.

“Our heart is to leverage technology to reach people. We’re trying to create an online campus that meets around a shared experience – where someone from Kazakhstan or someone from China or someone from central Australia, who may not have access to a local congregation that they can feel a part of, can link together and share something together,” McLean said.

“You can put on a facade in person …just as you can pretend to be someone you’re not online.” – Nathan McLean

Nona Jones, Facebook’s Global Faith-Based Partnerships leader, said in a recent US church leadership podcast, “If a community is filled with real people then it’s real, whether it’s online or offline.” McLean believes that’s true – and there are plenty of people who arrive at a church building on a Sunday who are putting on an act.

“Authenticity is a problem whether you’re online or not,” he says.

“You can put on a facade in person – an emotional facade, a spiritual facade, pretending everything’s OK when you’re not – just as you can pretend to be someone you’re not online.”

“I think you can get a similar level of authenticity whether you’re online or in person, if people want it. That’s the clincher. Can we create platforms where people want to be authentic and want genuine relationship.”

As the pastor of both a physical church and an online church, McLean has wrestled with the question of whether an online church will replace the physical experience.

“I think an online church community can be a great on-road to physical connection as well.”

Yet it remains a common concern that online church communities will be an inevitable “off ramp” to physical church.

But McLean argues that off ramps away from church already exist. “You can download the message (sermon) and watch it whenever you like in many churches. And yet people are still coming to church. They want to gather.”

Rob Beach says the experience of one of the world’s most successful music festivals – Coachella – offers many lessons for a church looking at how to move forward with its use of technology.

“I don’t think we should be worried that people will stop coming to church because they can watch it at home.” – Rob Beach

“Over the past 15-20 years, many music festivals were going out of business because people just weren’t buying tickets. But Coachella have been live-streaming their event for free for years now. Young people watch it live online and it inspires them to actually pay and go along. Why? To experience the community live and in the flesh. So I don’t think we should be worried that people will stop coming to church because they can watch it at home.”

For McLean, the Online Campus can be an option for those who aren’t able to get to a physical service, because of illness, remoteness or those who just aren’t ready to make the bigger step into a physical church but want to feel like they’re “part of something” as they explore faith.

“We’re not trying to pull people away from physical church. The goal is to have people grow and develop in their faith even in a season where they can’t make it to church,” he says.

“The goal is to have people grow and develop in their faith even in a season where they can’t make it to church.” – Nathan McLean

That means offering online campus attendees the opportunity to serve and give as well. Hillsong’s Online Campus has options allowing people to volunteer, including monitoring prayer and praise requests that come in online and chatting with people during the online service. “It’s all part of being ‘the church’ – serving and giving just as you would in a physical service.”

Dr Haydn Nelson says it’s important to keep in mind “what makes a church a church”.

“Where people gather around the word of God, inspired by the spirit of God and where Jesus is worshipped: that’s a church,” he said. In the New Testament, he argued, the idea of house churches was radical to many people at the time who believed that worship should be at the temple.

“Where people gather around the word of God, inspired by the spirit of God and where Jesus is worshipped: that’s a church.” – Haydn Nelson

“If we’re meeting to honour God and worship Jesus, and to bless and encourage each other, that can be in all different shapes and sizes … the New Testament in a way opens up possibilities to experience that community or fellowship in a way that [like house church was in New Testament times] is quite fresh and quite unique. Methods change, but the mission doesn’t.”

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