The multisite church model is all about reproducing healthy growing churches in surrounding local communities. One of the largest communities at our fingertips is the online community of the internet where millions of people reside virtually. The next logical step for multisite churches with technical savvy is to extend their reach into this community with an online campus. It is one of the innovations spawned by the multisite movement.
Called by many names—internet campus, iCampus, cyber church, digital church, virtual church, church in the cloud—an online campus is an interactive church experience in the virtual world of the internet. While the skeptics are busy questioning if this can really be a church, lives are being transformed through an online church experience.
What Is an Internet Campus?
Here’s how online church pioneer Brian Vasil at Potential Church in Florida describes these internet campuses:
“An online campus is a community of people who are learning about, connecting with, and growing closer to God in a virtual environment. The goals of an online campus are similar to that of its brick-and-mortar counterpart, that is, to use whatever tools available to help people enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, equip them to serve their communities and go into the world (both physically and online) to share the gospel.”
Online campuses are more than just watching a live-streaming video of a church service. People login to their computers or smartphones, engage in worship, watch the sermon, interact with others, pray together, respond to invitations and challenges, give tithes and offerings and are cared for by an internet campus pastor–all in real time. Some online churches even administer communion and perform baptisms. These churches are not restricted by walls and can reach literally every inch of the globe.
I remember having the conversation over a decade ago when I was on staff at Willow Creek in Chicago whether to put our weekend service online or not. Some were concerned that this would decrease our weekend attendance; others were concerned about protecting our brand and that our message could be distorted and misrepresented. We eventually decided to make our messages available online and discovered that our attendance did not go down and that thousands of people were benefiting from our teaching online around the world.
Today Willow Creek and hundreds of other churches offer their sermons online and many of them call it an internet campus. Not many churches have true internet campuses online, but their numbers are growing. The recent survey from Leadership Network indicated that 28 percent of all megachurches have an online campus. Yet what makes an internet campus is not just offering a video sermon online, but offering the full worship experience, live online interaction with others, growth steps and a dedicated internet campus pastor.
Online campuses are interactive virtual church experiences that are becoming the norm for multisite churches that are tech-savvy and outreach oriented. With globalization through the internet and the explosion of social media, online campuses are becoming fully integrated into the life and strategy of local churches. No longer a techie experiment, online campuses function more like a multisite campus with a dedicated campus pastor with multiple experiences throughout the week in addition to lots of volunteers.
Here are four benefits of an online campus:
1 – An introduction to your church. Your website is the front door to your church. A live online worship service allows people seeking a church home to experience whether your church is a place to visit in-person.
2 – An outreach of your church. People are coming to faith through online worship services in the same way millions did through watching evangelist Billy Graham in the privacy of their homes. For many people seeking God and faith, attending a church is too threatening. Visiting church online can be a safe first step towards coming to your church.
Life.Church’s Online Pastor Alan George recently reported, “At Church Online, we saw the 100,000th person raise their hand to accept Christ since we started this ministry in 2006!”
3 – A lifeline for your church family. Sports tournaments, sick kids, vacations, business trips and other reasons can interfere with regular church attendance. Church families can stay connected and in community spiritually, emotionally and financially through an online campus. I am grateful that my son was able to stay connected online with his home church while deployed in Afghanistan.
4 – A church multiplication strategy for your church. Thousands of people are logging on to internet campuses from around the world, but also from your local region. Your online campus congregation can reveal where to launch a multisite campus or a church plant.
The online church campus was a natural extension of the multisite model that is now gaining momentum. Like many recent innovations in the church, megachurches led the way with this idea, but it’s no longer just a megachurch phenomenon. Any tech-savvy, outreach-oriented church regardless of size can, will and are planning to reach into cyberspace.
Social media church expert, Nils Smith, reports that “Facebook now has almost 2 billion monthly active users and any church of any size can now launch a global online campus using Facebook Live for worship and Facebook groups for small group Bible study at no cost. The barrier to entry is small and the ministry impact is seemingly limitless!”
We will see an explosion of online campuses in the next decade. The largest neighborhood in the world is at your fingertips. Millions who live there need a church like yours. Won’t you reach out to them?
Jim Tomberlin is founder and senior strategist of MultiSite Solutions.