Internet believers: Pastors open online churches

Nov 02, 2009 By RACHEL ZOLL , AP Religion Writer
In this photo taken Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, Brian Vasil, the Internet pastor for the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Fla., chats with attendees from around the world as he prepares to deliver a sermon Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

(AP) -- Church volunteers greet visitors entering the lobby. The worship band begins its set and a pastor offers to pray privately with anyone during the service.

When the sermon is done, it's time for communion, and the pastor guides attendees through the ritual. Later, worshippers exchange Facebook and addresses so they can stay in touch.

There is nothing remarkable about this encounter, which is replicated countless times each weekend at churches around the world. It's all happening online.

The World Wide Web has become the hottest place to build a . A growing number of congregations are creating Internet offshoots that go far beyond streaming weekly services.

The sites are fully interactive, with a dedicated Internet pastor, live chat in an online "lobby," Bible study, one-on-one prayer through IM and communion. (Viewers use their own bread and wine or water from home.) On one site, viewers can click on a tab during worship to accept Christ as their savior. Flamingo Road Church, based in Cooper City, Fla., twice conducted long-distance baptisms through the Internet.

"The goal is to not let people at home feel like they're watching what's happening, but they're part of it. They're participating," said Brian Vasil, Flamingo Road's Internet pastor.

The move online is forcing Christians to re-examine their idea of church. It's a complex discussion involving theology, tradition and cultural expectations of how Christians should worship and relate. Even developers of Internet church sites disagree over how far they should go. Many, for example, will only conduct baptisms in person.

The staunchest critics say that true Christian community ultimately requires in-person interaction. They deride the sites as religious fast food or Christianity lite.

But advocates consider the Internet just another neighborhood where real relationships can be built. Rob Wegner, a pastor at Granger Community Church of Indiana, which will soon launch its Internet campus, calls the Web the church's "front porch." Pastors who back the sites say they feel a religious duty to harness this new way for reaching the spiritually lost.

"We live in a day and age and a culture where people go to school online, bank online, date online and do other things online," said Kurt Ervin, who oversees the Internet campus for Central Christian Church, based in Henderson, Nev. "Why not create a platform for them to go to church online?" Central Christian started a new church service this fall on Facebook.

The sites share the same basic approach: rock-style worship music and a sermon recorded at the in-person weekend service that is quickly mixed with live or recorded greetings expressly for online viewers. Volunteers on live chat emphasize that day's Bible teaching and block inappropriate posts. (During one recent service, a man who said he was logged on from India wrote that he was looking for a Christian wife.)

Still, each has individual features.

At Seacoast Church, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., online viewers can repent by posting a private record of their sins on a cross. Thumbnails of viewers' Facebook profiles appear during worship on Central Christian's Facebook Church so people can click on each others' pages to quickly connect. On the Granger site, visitors will be able to choose "seats" in an auditorium, then click on surrounding seats to exchange and Twitter addresses.

In this environment, evangelizing is nearly effortless. Regular viewers and volunteers post messages to their entire online network inviting them to the Web service in progress.

"Fifty years ago you could expect everyone to come to you," said Tim Stevens, Granger's executive pastor. "Now, we have to meet people where they are."

The phenomenon is so new that no one has an exact count of interactive online campuses. The Leadership Network, which studies and supports innovative churches, has found at least 40. Churches with the sites say they regularly receive calls from other pastors starting their own.

An Oklahoma megachurch named LifeChurch.tv in a nod to its use of technology is considered the pioneer of the form. The congregation had already expanded to physical sites in several cities when in 2006, pastors launched what they now call Church Online.

LifeChurch.tv now broadcasts more than 25 online services each week and plans more. The services collectively draw up to 60,000 unique views weekly, although the number of new computers that log on for several minutes is about 5,000, LifeChurch leaders say. Broadcasts are listed in Greenwich Mean Time, drawing viewers from more than 140 countries.

LifeChurch.tv has even found a way to attract people surfing for experiences that are far from pious. The congregation buys Google ad words so that a person searching for "sex" or "naked ladies" sees an ad inviting them to a live worship service instead.

Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor who oversees the online efforts at LifeChurch.tv, said the goal is to move people into some in-person Christian experience, in church, a small Bible group or even a group that watches online services together. He noted that many people watch online and attend a local church.

But he said some people are so transient that they have little opportunity to join a brick-and-mortar congregation. In countries where Christians are persecuted, a Web church is often the only way they can be reached, he said.

Amanda Sims, 38, of Starkville, Miss., was on Twitter during Christmas Eve last year when a friend posted that he was watching a LifeChurch.tv service.

She logged on and kept coming back, soon offering to volunteer online. She now works for LifeChurch as an online volunteer coordinator, managing a team of people from across the world who help with online worship.

One new friend whom she and her husband met online is a South Carolina-based truck driver who started watching LifeChurch.tv because he's so often on the road. When he drives through Mississippi, he stops in for dinner. He now volunteers for the site.

"It started out as augmenting my spiritual life, and it gave me a way to be in fellowship with believers I never would have met otherwise," said Sims, who still belongs to a local church. "They're like my family."

----

On the Net:

Flamingo Road Church: www.frclive.tv/

LifeChurch.tv: internet.lifechurch.tv/

Central Christian Church: www.centralchristian.com/onlinecampus/

Granger Community Church: www.gccwired.com/

Seacoast Church: www.seacoast.org/

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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User comments : 11

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Bob_B
Nov 02, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
jsovine
3.3 / 5 (3) Nov 02, 2009
Very cool, I would be interested in creating a site for people to set up bible studies with webcams and microphones. Allowing more than one concurrent session to be happening at any given time.
CptWozza
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2009
Very cool, I would be interested in creating a site for people to set up bible studies with webcams and microphones. Allowing more than one concurrent session to be happening at any given time.


So, you want to use little items of technology which are the result of centuries of following the methods of science in order to promote a book from thousands of years ago which knows nothing about the methods of science, contains no science, and even contains bad statements which are laughable w.r.t modern science. Your book also contains disgraceful violence.

There's another group of people who make use of western technology even though they hate the very system of thought which created it: terrorists. If you want to claim that you respect western scientific thought, then you will want to reconsider appealing to 'god' and fairytales to explain away what we don't yet know. If you do not yet respect proper thinking, then perhaps you should abandon your enthusiasm for techno-gadgetry.
Ausjin
not rated yet Nov 02, 2009
I know there is little place for religion in science, but comparing all those of faith to terrorists is exactly the kind of sweeping statement that is used to create hatred for entire demographics. Disagree with a belief in a magical spaceman with infinite power all you want. That is perfectly valid. But this person clearly has some love for science and technology. Else, they would not be here. Let them make use of the same scientific advancements we do. If you wish to convince them that they must choose either faith or science alone, which do you really think they will pick? If I truly believed I am going to hell if I use a webcam, I'd probably want to sell my computer.
flashgordon
not rated yet Nov 02, 2009
christian rock and roll . . . christian action video games . . . christian politics . . . the list goes on . . . christian science? yes, that one's been awhile for now; the debate ended in silence; both camps went their separate ways(more or less). They can't seem to just be; they have to imprint themselves on everything; shoot, they're practically inventing their religion right in front of themselves and they don't get it!

They can't criticize their religion; i mean like military people who can't seem to realize their uniforms and the patterns of the medals they where so proudly are meaningless and arbitrary and quite ugly intellectually; they can't accept facts and logic as they stand; belive or you will go to hell is their modo!

And now! We've got 'don't teach about homosexual marriage ban' commercials on a science news website!
defunctdiety
not rated yet Nov 02, 2009
I dislike organized religion as much as anyone who dislikes organized religion (read the username, ignore the typo), but seriously CptWozza, you have to be one of the ugliest ppl I've ever seen on this website.

Here's a guy/girl who saw something positive in this article and who felt like expressing inspiration in seeing where s/he could do something positive for a lot of other people. He wasn't even claiming religion himself, you assumed this, you look like an idiot. He saw where he could facilitate a need of people and was indirectly expressing gratitude to Physorg.

You feel a need to swoop in like some religion police and try to point out one of the weakest hypocrisies, in a world chock full of horrible hypocrisies? Pathetic. A fool internet bully. The kind no one likes.

Last time I checked, in America we have freedom of religion. Of course we have freedom of speech too, which is why you said what you said, and why I'm saying you're a douchebag and a sad human being. Grow up.
CptWozza
not rated yet Nov 03, 2009
You feel a need to swoop in like some religion police and try to point out one of the weakest hypocrisies, in a world chock full of horrible hypocrisies? Pathetic. A fool internet bully. The kind no one likes.


This is far stronger language than I used - far stronger. My view is that using something without respecting how it got there is the strongest example of hypocrisy, not the weakest. And I take issue with the idea that spreading religious views accomplishes good, as you suggest this person wants to do.

I view it as ironic that you would view my (actually quite mild) statements as bullying, when you felt it necessary to refer to me as "a pathetic douchebag, a sad human being, a fool that needs to grow up and that no one likes". So who's the bully again?
defunctdiety
not rated yet Nov 03, 2009
A bully attacks unprovoked, you were not provoked, there was absolutely nothing provocative about his post. A bully seeks to oppress freedom, I seek to promote freedom. You could have said what you wanted to say without attacking the poster, without attacking his freedoms.

For all jsovine stated, he could just be an entrepreneur who saw a market pointed out here.

Also, and I'm sure you're aware of this, the scientific method and many of the worlds most revolutionary discoveries have their origins in religious men. Terrorists are hypocritical, sure, but Christians using computers to connect to others? No. Christianity is not trying to deconstruct the West, and the vast majority embrace science.

Furthermore, I didn't say good, I said positive, and whether you and I like it or not, there's a lot of religious people, and the vast majority of those people aren't trying to dominate the world. They just want to believe what makes them feel good, and facilitating that is positive.
CptWozza
not rated yet Nov 03, 2009
Actually, I agree that everything should be out in the open - I do not wish to suppress freedom at all, and never set out to do this. I simply suggested that the person might like to think about the thought-system which lead to all this technology.

Above all, I do not agree with your self-serving definition of a bully (and would not even if I *had* been setting out to silence discussion). A bully tries to make others feel small. Read my first post carefully - I attacked ideas and did not call names. On the other hand, what did you do? Your response reads like a youtube attack, and I felt deeply hurt. My post was strongly worded but since it contained no personal attacks, it did not warrant such a response. You ought to feel shame for being such a bully, but I'm guessing you're not ashamed, since sadly these days most people think that the normal way to win an argument is not to address the points, but to call someone "a pathetic douchebag that no one likes" amongst other things.
defunctdiety
not rated yet Nov 03, 2009
I won't lie and say it wasn't my intention to hurt you, but I'm sure your comments didn't bring a smile to jsovine's face either. I do however stand by my characterization of a bully, and would like to add to yours that a bully attacks to make himself feel bigger. I posted what I did to make you feel small for what you posted, sure, but you posted what you posted unprovoked to, essentially, make yourself feel bigger, i.e. more correct in your denial of religion.

And while I do feel like you went out of your way to belittle the OP, I guess it also probably got my ire up because when I read the article I instantly thought of my mom and could totally see her doing very positive things through her religion with similar approaches to technology. So perhaps I transposed your passive aggressive attack into one upon my mom.

I'm sure you're not pathetic or a douchebag, but just be more mindful of people's mothers :), and I am sorry for the ad hominem attacks.
CptWozza
5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2009
I will be more mindful of other people's mothers in the future then, hadn't thought of that one :) And yes, there's a certain element of self-aggrandizement in feeling I am more right than those who follow religion, so that is a correct assessment. My posts are often very strongly worded so I will think about that in the future.
rgw
not rated yet Nov 08, 2009
Anyone read John Brunner's "Shockwave Rider". Burnner's early '70s predictions about everything and anything involving technology should be required reading.