categories: LifeChurch.tv, church, church online
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August 12th, 2009

by Bobby Gruenewald

32 comments (+ Add)

Church Online: Limitations

Yesterday we had a great discussion about the advantages of online ministry. Thanks for all your thoughtful feedback! Today we’ll discuss some of the limitations—or unanswered questions—of online ministry.  Here are some examples:

  • How do you baptize people and serve communion in an online environment?
  • How do you deal with people who prefer to remain anonymous and avoid the kinds of relationships where accountability can occur?
  • How do you meet the physical needs of your people? For example, who visits them in the hospital?

I’ll repeat my invitation from yesterday…if you haven’t had a chance to experience online ministry yet, I strongly encourage you to try Church Online for yourself before you weigh in. Experiences take place seven days a week, and the next one starts in:

What unanswered questions do you have about online ministry? What limitations do you see?

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there are a total of32
  1. Aug 12, 2009 at 7:15 am

    I love church online!!! That is how we came to LifeChurch.tv..we were invited to check it out (online) after being burned out on and by “church” and we could visit in the comfort of our own home. It truly changed our lives and then God brought a campus right here in Hendersonville…so now we do both. I personally think if people go to church online vs. not going to church, why question…..There are no limitations with God. Lives ARE being changed forever….I invite all of my friends on FB and I have had many check out live and past series messages…It IS working. :)

  2. Aug 12, 2009 at 7:49 am

    I’d like to echo Pastor Kev’s question on the other post: Does church online actually lessen the possibility of a person to visit a physical local church?

  3. 3Tye Male
    Aug 12, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Could it be that people who attend the online church would not be likely to attend a “real” church? If this is true, then you are reaching people who would not be reached with the traditional model. People who want to remain anonymous will do so no matter what you say. At least they are taking steps that could lead to “accountability” some day.

    Human relationships are key to a healthy, sustainable life. Even in our church, we encourage people to move beyond the corporate worship setting and become connected in community. If online attenders are somehow connecting themselves to a community of face-to-face relationships then I could see how physical needs could be met in times of loss or such.

  4. Aug 12, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Isn’t the church experience, whether online or live, simply a hub for the other 167 hours of the week? What percentage of on-line community correlates to geographic proximity? With intentional on-line training couldn’t Lifegroup leaders scattered across the world be the physical hands and feet?

  5. Aug 12, 2009 at 9:56 am

    We have been doing church online for about a year and a half. In that time many of my preconceived ideas about online church have changed.
    Online church can be a bridge to those that would not have come to a church and has transitioned people into the local body. We are working on better ways to track those transitions.
    Some online attenders for various reasons will not make the transition to the local body.
    I would love a database to help people connect in the city or area they live in. I spend a lot of time tracking down places to connect online attenders when thay are ready to make the transition.
    Bobby, Thanks for being a trailblazer!

  6. Aug 12, 2009 at 10:44 am

    To address some the questions posed in THIS blog post.
    1. At my Former Church (flamingroadchurch.com) Baptism online happened all the time. How? Some people Got Baptism at home, Via Ichat in their Bath tub, it was incredible to experience. Other times People actually FLEW in to be a part of our Beach Baptism…People Paid plane tickets to be a part of OUR Beach Baptism. Talk about stepping out in faith!!
    2. Does this Keep people anonymous? Sure, but so do Churches. It’s all Grace and environment. If a LOCAL Church makes you feel uncomfortable you’ll stay Anonymous there too…IF the ONline experience is warm and graceful, people “Open UP” and when that would happen we’d give them the Option to a Pastor Chat where they could have a little more Privacy about what they were speaking to.
    3. Meeting Physical needs: For most Response moments we’d ask them to Click or participate with us in the moments and also GO OUT and be a part of the community, making a difference, finally if they were NEAR a CAMPUS to go be a part of that campus. If NOT, start a small group there.

  7. Aug 12, 2009 at 11:06 am

    I happened to watch church online yesterday for the first time. I use the term “watch” because I can’t really say that I participated. The chat feature is cool, but apparently blocked at my office so it didn’t really work. I’m very into social media - twitter, facebook, youtube, flickr, etc. but I didn’t feel any connection to anyone else the entire time. Maybe the chat feature would have given me that, but then, I don’t really sit and chat to my friends during services at church offline, so I don’t see how that would be appropriate online.

    All in all, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor as people are apparently using it and coming to Christ. My questions about it have to do with discipleship and authentic biblical community. I do believe that all things are possible with God, but I struggle to see authentic biblical community happening exclusively on the web. It seems to me that there should be a consistent push to the local church. Not always easy or even possible currently, but a worthwhile endeavor to be sure.

  8. 8Sherrye
    Aug 12, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    I see some of those limitations in our current church not just at church online. Especially, what if you want to be connected but can’t find any connections, not that you want to be anonymous but that you’ve reached out and no one is responding. YOu’ve volunteered, you serve weekly, you help with micromissions and still no deep connections. There are a lot of clicks and no one truely reaches out beyond who they already know. You’ve searched for a year to find a lifegroup and can’t find one (actually just found one a few weeks ago).
    You’ve been in life crisis (just a few months ago my husband and I were each in separate lawyers offices contemplating divorse)and reached out to your local campus and no one responds. You try to not be an inconvience b/c your campus has so many people and you don’t want to be a bother but when you really needed some support in your life, no one reached out to you. YOu just get lost in the crowd.
    I feel like our campus focuses all on college students b/c we are a college town and meeting their needs and setting up things for them but I feel like the families that attend regularly kind of get lost and there is not much set up for them, especially for those with children.
    These are issues in every church not just at church online. I know they’ve got to be hard limitations online but also they are limitations on the local church as well.
    I still serve weekly usually more than one service a week, however I cannot get my husband to join in and I finally found out why (its the issues I listed above). His heart is not in the church anymore. He says he finds it hard to listen to them asking for people to serve, serve, serve and to give, give, give b/c when we were in the greatest amount of need no one was there. He said he goes for God and to hear Craig preach but thats it (bc he sees the passion Craig has for God and for Christ and believes he’s a man of integrity). I told him though if he sees somewhere where our local campus is failing its the perfect opportunity for him to step up and fill in that missing piece since he feels called into the ministry somehow.
    Anyways, just a random comment b/c we love our church and our family definately found God again while attending but just that these limitations are in all churches not just online versions.

  9. Aug 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Les, I am starting a LifeGroup this Sunday that is filled with people who attend Church Online and with people that don’t. We are using http://babelwith.me which is essentially a chat feature. I don’t think people have huge biblical accountability during a church service. Instead, I think it happens after the experience.

    This past week in a connection event we had, we saw people open up and share things that were really causing them to struggle in their relationship with God. And we saw others pray for them. We even connected a missionary from Guatemala and the overwhelming response at the end was to start a LifeGroup.

    So, while you may not see how it is happening, God is definitely using technology to fuel community, drive accountability, mobilize prayer warriors, and motivate follower’s of Christ.

    There are limitations with baptism for sure. I would be interested in hearing what others have done on this matter. We also cannot meet the physical needs unless we took an offering up and sent money through PayPal, etc. But there are things that might cause issue with that.

    Instead, I can see people being encouraged to step out and lead in their own community by bringing people together in their own life and using the online tool for motivation and accountability.

  10. Aug 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Online ministry allows us to share the Gospel in countries hostile to Christianity.

    The website is run by a husband and wife, David and Marie Brennan in CT, USA.

    Here’s a summary of the work:

    Online Evangelism through Bible-library.com

    We conduct online evangelism ad campaigns to reach people in Africa, India, China, and the Middle East, in addition to Europe and the Americas. Through online campaigns people can be reached with the Gospel in their native languages less than $0.10 per person. It is also possible to designate who to reach, by language and geographic location.

    Our online evangelism effort started in 2006. Since then, more than 54,000 people from 100+ countries have responded to read this Gospel tract: http://bible-library.com/whoisjesus
    The tract is shared in (6) languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, Hebrew, Hindi, and Tamil.

    With this approach, we can reach people in countries hostile to Christianity. In 2009, more than 4000 Arabic speakers from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Lebanon have viewed the tract in Arabic. Another 2600+ people in China have viewed the tract in Chinese.

    Google ads promote the Gospel tracts in multiple languages. The ads are triggered when someone types a word like “Bible” or “Jesus” in Google, but also when they type words like “depression”, “suicide”, “unwanted pregnancy”, … The goal is to reach out to those in difficult situations.

    It’s like handing out tracts, except the person reading the tract has told us something about their situation with the words they’ve typed. At some point we could use that information to target a different message for each need. Today, they are directed to the “Who Is Jesus” tract in one of 6 languages.

  11. Aug 12, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I think that although people may not start off with the true, biblical form of Church community, as long as they continue to hear truth spoken, this idea of community will be a natural outgrowth of their experience. Particularly with non-believers and those who have been hurt or disillusioned by their church experience. It is a safe place to hear truth, “participate” from a distance, and test the waters.

    The ultimate goal, then, is to see each regular online attendee connected, involved, and on his/her way to being a whole individual. This is just one avenue to getting them there. Practical teaching and consistent communication of biblical values is the means.

    Isaiah 55:11 NKJ
    So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

  12. Aug 12, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I see the needs and concerns above and they are very real. I also see the potential for me use the online church model as the basis for a home church for those people i know who are burnt, fed up, or cant attend a local Sunday service. We have nothing like this in Australia and being a former youth/worship pastor and currently taking a break following being burnt out myself, I’m looking to use this resource to minister to those in similar situations. The idea is to invite people round to be part of online church together in our home… use the online expereince and couple that with fellowship in the one venue…

    Bobby is there a way to download the expereince for use at home? Its quite difficult to log on at a suitable time here in Australia, not to mention our countrie’s bad net speeds… it would be extremely useful if we could download the service and use that at an appropriate time for us?

  13. Aug 12, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I see online church as an extension of the church community, a way to expand the net of our reach and target a unique audience with unique bate. It accomplishes everything we can do at our campus, i.e. gathering together, worshiping, giving, hearing the word of God, and connecting with other believers, just in a virtual environment.

    The greatest advantage I see is its convenience, anonymity (for those who desire this), and the breath of its reach, connecting people all over the world. Ironically, its disadvantages may be the same that we experience in our campus churches; the inability to build interpersonal relationships, discipleship, and intimacy with other believers. Whether online or on campus, this will still be our challenge because ultimately the solution to this problem is predicated on the choices of the individual. However, online church is still an effective way to evolve the church experience to meet the way people communicate and socialize in our modern times.

  14. 14Rob
    Aug 12, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I participated in Church Online a few days ago. I found it was well done with a good combination of interaction (chat) and study (video). I enjoyed the chat. I had difficulty focusing on the video presentation while keeping track of the chat. However, it was an excellent example of how online ministry can be used as an alternative to more traditional forms of ministry.

    I have some questions regarding effectiveness. Who is being reached? What is the cost in comparison to the effectiveness of this ministry? Do you find it is meeting your expectations? Do you have a specific plan for integrating online and offline ministries?

    I have been researching and experimenting (not on this scale) on how to combine online ministry with offline ministry within the context of our house church network. I would be interested in knowing the answers to these questions. Blessings.

  15. 15Jonathan Davis
    Aug 12, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I fully support things like online churches since it is using internet technology to reach out to people that don’t come to church. But, I have a few problems, mainly to do with discipleship:

    1. The whole concept of online lifegroups. I have done church online, and the entire concept of a lifegroup is to go to a place, eat, get to know each other, and share what is going on in our lives. I have been on online chat for many years, and I do not see how an online lifegroup is an adequate replacement for a real life one. The anonymity of this medium means that the person you are talking to could be someone totally different than who they are presenting themselves to be. I think having true community online is not possible, unless a deliberate effort was made to get together globally or regionally every few months so that people could see each other face to face.

    2. the concept of Pastor. How could you possibly have the kind of pastoral counselor type services using online church? I mean…who would do a funeral of a family member for example? or..see people in hospitals. Other people have suggested local groups of users could do such things. But I think it is important to have a pastor, a leader to be doing these things.

    Now, as for a solution. Firstly, I think there needs to be more live video interaction during the church services…the interaction seems taped, so it is less real. Also, I think there needs to be a deliberate attempt at physically getting together as an internet church body, on a regional, national, or global basis led by someone from lifechurch.tv.

    As an aside, I think that this church model as a whole, the lifechurch.tv model does not place as much emphasis on discipleship as is needed.

  16. Aug 12, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Hey Everyone - I love the comments & the creativity in seeing God use all means available to reach people & disciple them to be fully devoted followers of Christ. I love the idea of flying to the beach for baptisms Gold Coast is a great place for that & doing baptism using IChat - WOW never thought of that one!

    Every generation faces the challenge of changing methods. The development of technology has definitely enhanced the level of change for us to grapple with. I suspect the only limitation that we have to what God can do with us & through us IS US! Always remember both he who says he can & he who says he cannot are both correct! Friends lets follow the Holy Spirit to take us places in Him that so far we have not even dreamed about! Let’s our pray for God remove the shackles of preconceived ideas & methods from our minds to see what is on your heart, & then give us the courage to step up even in the midst of opposition! Its great being on the journey with you all. Bless ya heaps Ps Kev

  17. Aug 12, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Well said, PK

  18. Aug 12, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Maybe the only limitation with the online church to the physical church is that itself. With the explosion in online church it could be that the physical church is it’s limitation. If the online church continues to grow the physical church if not grounded could see it as competition with the physical churches growth (numbers). If your mission is to reach the lost and it is happening online then I don’t see the downside. If your mission is to grow your physical church in numbers I can see where a problem would arise. Craig has said it many times that the numbers are an incorrect measure of a churches success. I feel God only has one number and that number is ONE. ONE GOD/ONE SOUL. He deals with each soul one at a time.
    Craig has also said that we should keep our mission programs to small number of programs and do them Great as opposed to many programs done poorly. I have been preaching this for years. I have seen too many times that Ministries try “to keep up with the Jones” instead of just being themselves and doing what THEY do and do it Great. So if online ministry is one of your programs that you are doing great then continue forward at full speed if it is one of many programs you are doing just to keep up with the other churches instead of trying to reach the lost it is best you drop it and focus on the programs your ministry does well.
    This may have gone a little off topic but I feel it is a part of limitations that hinder our attempt to reach the lost.

  19. Aug 12, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Andrew Edwards, check out: http://network.lifechurch.tv/.

  20. Aug 12, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Some of you have mentioned the lack of “true biblcal community” or the like in your responses. This is something that I am struggling to understand at the moment..I yearn for it…but i don’t know what it looks like…What does authentic christian community look like in our day and age? How are we to experience it? What are our obligations as believers being a part of this community? And why can’t that be experienced online?

  21. 21Chris
    Aug 12, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Michelle,

    I think that is the question that if anyone truly knew the answer to it…we’d have this thing completely solved. The problem is, there is no ideal formula to how a christian community is going to look. Simply put, if the people are loving God with everything they have, loving people with no strings attached and meeting their needs where they are and spreading the gospel, they are an authentic christian community.

    We get ourselves in a trap by labeling things as this or that or us and them. People make the mistake of associating the word Church with a physical building somewhere. A church is a local body of believers, it’s not a building. There are limitations to what you can do online in that regards, for sure. But you can see lives changed in an online church setting, I think LC and others are proving that on a regular basis and in the end, I think that’s what matters here.

  22. Aug 13, 2009 at 9:36 am

    If God intends church to be simply listening to a sermon and watching people sing, there are no limitations. However, this is not how the Church is described in the bible.

    It’s supposed to be about community where you, yes, learn the apostles teaching. But also pray together, commune together, keep each other accountable. You can’t actually obey the apostles’ teaching by simply listening to it - you need the Church around you to help you. That’s why we should “not give-up the habit of meeting together.”

    You simply cannot have that kind of community online - I don’t think. Perhaps you can, but if you can it’s exceedingly rare, no doubt.

    I think to call church online “church” is a misnomer. But, sadly, I think it is a good substitute for what we call “church” in the US. Neither of which are what God describes the church like in the bible, in my humble opinion.

    I’m disappointed with this list of limitations. It feels like an insincere list, like a “token” list of limitations. Are you really committed to analyzing what you do and doing things that are good for advancing God’s kingdom, or are you in love with the idea of church online so much that you don’t care if it’s really good for the body or not? I wouldn’t have questioned this before, but this list of limitations seems pretty limited.

  23. Aug 13, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    For Jesse,
    I did not feel the “token” list was meant to be all inclusive. I interpreted it as a “starting point”. There has been some good discussion here already about what an online church can be, and what a group of local believers can be. To me, there are some great positives to what is going on with Lifechurch, but it is just a start. We must find ways to develop a local body to go along with it. I have used the tools the Lifechurch gives away, and have found them a great asset to our own small group.

  24. 24James
    Aug 13, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I tend to think that online church is a double-edged sword in terms of its impact.

    On the plus side, it is going to be very popular with those who are accustomed to the idea of community being what you experience online. If you treat your experiences on FB, MySpace, Twitter, etc., as close community and fellowship with your friends, then you will see online church as the same.

    On the other hand, I think we have plenty of people who go to the physical, or offline, church with no intention of forming community. They show up, they sing, they listen to the message, they go home, and that’s their church. Whether they are afraid, intimidated, etc. by the idea of forming genuine fellowship, or if they simply don’t want to fellowship with other Christians, that is all they get out of church. Online church will only amplify that feeling: now they have a license to have even less contact with fellow Christians. And that does nothing to advance the Kingdom in any way, shape, form.

    That said, I appreciate being able to watch church online when I’m not able to be there in person. I just also recognize the value of having fellowship in person.

  25. Aug 13, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    @Chris - thanks for that reminder….loving one another needs to be an active…if not PROactive thing. Too often I have heard it said that we need to love each other at church, but rarely have I experienced it. I think for me…the focus to keep actively loving other people and let God worry about whether or not I am being loved by other believers in return is the crunch point. I am in “church burnout recovery” and feel as though I have continually given with nothing coming back my way in return, and even now I feel pushed aside. I have experienced more Christian community online through interacting with people via my blog and via LC than i ever did as part of a physical church. Thinking about it now, perhaps that’s working that way for me since my love language is *words of affirmation* ….. anyway….if I make sure I’m doign what God requires of me, He will take care of the rest.

    another thought…does your Christian fellowship have to come from the same source as your teaching….having recently read Barna’s Revolution, I’m thinking that fellowship can be as simple as meeting with a couple of other belivers and having God conversations…i think that perhaps whether or not that is linked to a specific church is somewhat irrelevant………what do you think?

  26. Aug 14, 2009 at 8:31 am

    @Mack Goodman,

    Thank you Mack. Good Point. I LOVE LOVE LOVE LifeChurch.tv! Love their heart, Love the things they’re doing for the Kingdom. They all seem to be really great, humble, godly folks.

    However, I’m very skeptical of church online. And I’m really disappointed in this list b/c I feel like it’s just not an honest look at the limitations of church online - why even do this post? It’s almost deceptive in how limited the list is - it’s clearly a token list, not a serious look at the real limitations and ramifications of church online, which is a big disappointment - I guess I expected more. More honesty, transparency. Instead, this. =(

    Love LifeChurch, but the whole world is going after this church online thing, I would like to see some truly balanced discussion on the pros and cons. And for someone to put these two blogposts forward as balanced discussion just doesn’t seem genuine to me.

  27. 27Rebecca
    Aug 14, 2009 at 8:49 am

    As others have eluded to (more eloquently than I could), I think church online serves many purposes of “church” but misses some. Before starting an online service/ministry, I think you ought to consider that long & hard - what makes a church?

    I’m sure online groups help to make this about more than watching an event (in the same way that getting involved in a local church is better than just coming on Sundays), but I wonder how many people join those groups, and about about the authenticity of those relationships. After ~13 years experience of online community (really, I’m not exaggerating by saying that!) I’ve known way too many people who hide online behind a made-up persona. Even those who reveal more of themselves online still seem very different when you meet them in person. Sure, you can hide in a face-to-face group, too - but I find it’s more common online when there’s little chance you’ll see me the next day.

    Online church experiences can be a life-line for those with unique work schedules or in distant locations without a good local church to belong to. They can also be fantastic for those wanting to check out a church for the first time who otherwise might be scared to come. (Serving both of those crowds could be a challenge, though!) I wonder if (based on today’s type of online church, at least) we’re encouraging people who are actually Christians who could be part of a vibrant local community to do something that’s second-best. What are online church leaders doing to get people off their computers and into the world around them?

    I think of a friend who attended church services online for several years (admittedly it was before services integrated chat, which could have changed things). I don’t doubt that she got something out of those services — thought she belonged, etc. But, I can’t wonder if the best thing would have been to actually be involved in a local church, where she would have needed to learn to get along in community, reveal her junk, and everything that goes along with that.

    Online church definitely is a step up from the radio broadcasts my childhood church did. At least it adds the opportunity for some interaction, but I think it’s still not the best option for most people. Could that be changed? Probably & hopefully, since this seems like a trend that’s here to stay.

  28. Aug 14, 2009 at 9:08 am

    @Jessie Would you be able to provide a more honest list? I agree with your post about church online being a substitute for what goes for church today…and that is the problem. We have become so accustom to sitting back, turning on the TV and believe we are entering into community with those we watch on the electronic screen that we have no idea what real community is. For one, real community is challenging, dangerous and painful. When we meet together we have to deal with each other’s idiosyncrasies and sin. In community we have to practice forgiveness and be forgiven.

    I understand the idea of ‘first steps’ but we have to be careful that we don’t equate spending an hour or so in church (or watching online) and being a nice person = a faithful follower of Jesus. I believe that Jesus asks more of our lives than that.

    I do like the idea of meeting people where they are but I think deep relationships really require more. I also think there are different dynamics between a pastor of a church of 200 worshipers bringing a sermon and a pastor of a megachurch bringing one. I agree that usually the megachurch pastor is a better communicator, yet the worshipers in the smaller church _know_ the life of the pastor. They see him/her in their community. They know their pastors good points and bad points.

  29. Aug 15, 2009 at 1:36 am

    [...] timing considering I wrote yesterday’s post a couple days ago, on the LifeChurch.tv blog, Swerve, yesterday they talked about some of the limitations of having church online.  Their big things [...]

  30. 30Trey Medeiros
    Aug 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    after reading some of the comments I’d like to offer mine. There is an online community. and to say there is not is just due to your old way of thinking. Church Online offers services to people who would not otherwise go to a physical church and for some like myself its supplemental to my physical church. I honestly believe that once an online visitor recieves Christ they will be compelled by the Holy Spirit to seek out a physical church. Encouraged by the online believers,these online people meet in person all the time.

  31. Oct 29, 2009 at 3:52 am

    [...] Hyatt, Is Online Community real Community? Questions about the Virtual Church by Drew Goodmanson, Limitations of online church by Bobby [...]

  32. Jun 14, 2010 at 3:42 am

    [...] timing considering I wrote yesterday’s post a couple days ago, on the LifeChurch.tv blog, Swerve, yesterday they talked about some of the limitations of having church online.  Their big things [...]