Part 2 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post in this series, I described some ways that the Internet had helped Irvine Presbyterian Church and my ministry there. Mostly, I focused on the impact of email on church administration and on my pastoral care for church members. Today I want to a few more ways that the Internet impacted the Irvine church before I delve into the issue of the adequacy of online church.
Website and Outreach
If my memory serves me correctly, sometime in the late 90s we got a church website up and running. A member of our church was a web-designer and programmer. She put together what was, at that time, a premier church website. It had an attractive look and contained plenty of helpful information. Unfortunately, however, she used a more advanced kind of programming language (not basic HTML), so only she could update the site. This limited its functionality, and ultimately led us to try another approach. For a while we used an outside vendor to manage our website, Church Community Builder. This gave us a much greater ability to keep our site updated, though there were some limitations in format. Church members liked the usefulness of the website in this season. (Since I left Irvine Pres two years ago, the church has opted to run its website once again. I understand that a lay leader is keeping the site up to date. He’s doing a fine job. The church website isn’t fancy, but it is useful to members and vistors alike.)
Speaking of visitors, during my tenure at Irvine Pres I witnessed an extraordinary change in the way visitors (and potential visitors) found their way to the church. In the early 90s, a number of people found the church through the local newspaper ad or in the Yellow Pages ad. The majority of visitors, however, came because they had been personally invited. By the time I left the church in 2007, we the newspaper and Yellow Pages ads turned out to be almost useless. Personal invitations were still bearing much fruit. But almost everyone in our new members class, when asked how they found out about the church, mentioned our website. Some found us by searching for “Irvine AND church.” Others drove by and then checked out our website. Even most of those who had been invited to church by a friend still visited our website before their first visit. Though nobody joined the church because of our website, it was a vital communication and publicity tool for visitors.
Website and Resources
Our church website also became a channel for a variety of resources. People could download or stream the sermons. They could also read or download transcripts of my sermons, at least when I was disciplined enough to make them available. Our website also featured a variety of resources that would help members and visitors, such as statements of basic beliefs, worship philosophy, and so forth.
In addition to the church website, I began my own website/blog in December 2003. This became an effective tool in my pastoral toolbox, as it allowed me to address a wide variety of issues that I would not have been able to bring up in a sermon or an occasional church newsletter article. Many members of my church family read my blog on a regular basis. Many recommended it to their friends, some of whom ended up visiting and evening joining the church. I have said before that even if nobody outside of Irvine Presbyterian Church had ever read my blog, it was well worth doing simply as a tool for pastoral ministry with my own congregation.
Our first attempt at social media was relatively successful, but only for a while. We used some sort of online bulletin board to encourage personal interaction. This included conversation about sermons, prayer requests, socializing, and lots of other topics. In time, however, relatively few church members seemed interested in this sort of communication.
Then came MySpace. In my last couple of years at the church, MySpace was a hit with the high schoolers. Junior high and younger folk seemed to prefer Xanga. Collegians and beyond seemed mostly to avoid MySpace. Yet high school age folk flocked to MySpace. I joined in, making sure to fill my MySpace with lots of pictures of me and my family so that there would be no question about my motives. MySpace enabled me to enter into the world of the teenagers in my church, and even to build relationships with them.
Although I was always on the fringes of MySpace, for many of the kids in our church, this was their chief context for communication with peers. For example, I remember when a young man in our church put up some suicidal thoughts on his MySpace. A friend saw this and called our high school director. He checked out the MySpace entries and called the parents of the young man, who quickly made sure their son got the help he needed. It might be too strong to say that MySpace saved this man’s life, but it certainly helped him get through a rough spot.
When I left Irvine Presbyterian Church in 2007, Facebook was just becoming popular with people beyond college age. Soon it became a major channel for communication among church members. Since I’ve put quite a bit of distance between me and Irvine Presbyterian Church in the last two years, I don’t have many specifics concerning the impact of Facebook on the church. But, from my 1300-mile distance, it seems as if many church members have found in Facebook a way to maintain and deepen their relationships, even if this sometimes involves relatively frivolous updates.
If I were a parish pastor today, I’d be looking carefully at the potential impact, both positive and negative, of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.
All in all, I believe that the Internet had a positive impact on Irvine Presbyterian Church during my years as pastor. It certainly strengthened my ministry in a number of key areas. So I am, in general, positive about the usefulness of the Internet for the church. But could church be completely online? That’s a different sort of question altogether. In my next post in this series, I’ll begin to consider that question.