Is Online "Church" Really Church?

from the archives

The gathering of believers via the Internet is not a new phenomena. In fact, it is a growing one. More and more churches are offering online “church services.”

Can’t make it this Sunday? Traveling? Sick? Well, then maybe online church is just what you need. There is, however, the growing number of individuals who only experience church through a computer screen. They do not simply use online church services as a supplement, but rather the sole source of their church life.

As our culture shifts towards more dependency upon technology and as the Internet begins to infiltrate our daily lives at an ever increasing rate, is online church for the masses inevitable? More than that, is online church what God has in mind? Is it really “church”?

One of the largest online churches is, who broadcasts to over 40 locations around the globe. You can sit down in front of your computer and watch church. Or you can meet at one of their 13 United States locations and watch church with others.

I’ll admit, this sounds unnatural to me. I think of the difficult times I’ve had just trying to fit in and connect on a church campus. That alone for many Christians can, unfortunately, be a discouraging experience.

I have been the lone Christian, too–drifting from church to church, never knowing true fellowship or accountability–both of which contributed to my falling away from God.

So, initially when I think of online church, I have a negative feeling about it. It sounds foreign, isolating, disconnected, and to be honest, boring.

However, thousands of people are participating in online church and I suspect that number will continue to grow. My concern regarding online church comes down to the question I think most people have to ask: Is this really church?

According to LifeChurch, the answer is “yes.” They acknowledge that church is not a building or, in this case, an Internet event, but rather the people of God. Cool.

However, this leads me to ask another question: Does online church perpetuate the belief (falsely held by many Christians) that church is a Sunday morning event where you go to hear a teaching?

Tony Steward, the senior pastor and founder of LifeChurch was asked this very question at the Catalyst Conference, and this was part of his response:

“The simple answer is no. As a community we do gather during our online experiences, but we continue to have conversations and live life together throughout the week. Our online experiences are the “engine” that both attracts people into conversations about God and sends followers of Jesus to grow-in and live-out their faith. It is that energy that we constantly seek to follow up on and leverage throughout the remainder of the week.”

I have read many accounts from individuals who participate in online church, who are both blessed and growing, as a result. The argument in favor of online church is also that the Internet is a powerful tool and one that must be leveraged by the church in order to reach the lost, broken, or disenfranchised.

I don’t disagree, yet, the whole concept of online church is still relatively new. Any pastor (and any believer for that matter) would be wise to acknowledge that online church cannot replace real-life interactions, fellowship, or community. Steward certainly recognizes this fact and has expressed LifeChurch’s ongoing efforts to facilitate such interactions.

My husband recently visited a church in Texas who operates exclusively online. When he asked the leadership there if they saw mostly individuals watching sermons from their homes, they answered, “No.” In fact, the trend they most see is groups of people gathering to have church together, especially in rural areas around the world, like Australia.

I also ran across a comment on another blog from a man who is a truck driver and travels most of the year. Were it not for online church, he would have no “church” experience.

So, while online church would not be my first choice, I can appreciate the need for such a church. However, anyone participating in online church misses the concept of church if they believe that viewing a sermon through a computer screen is exactly (or only) what Jesus had in mind.

Online church helps reach thousands who may not otherwise be reached. It can provide teaching, edification, encouragement, and the like. It cannot and should not, however, replace the very necessary and vital function of the church, which is the literal and physical gathering of believers. Both are needed. Both bring glory to God.

How do you feel about online church? Have you attended online church? Do you think it is inevitable that more and more people will begin to attend church online?

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19 thoughts on “Is Online "Church" Really Church?”

  1. I think online church is a great idea. I have 3 kids, 2 on the autism spectrum. It’s extremely difficult to try new things because transition and change are exactly what is hardest for them. Sometimes getting out the door isnt just hard, like most families, it’s impossible. Online church provides a way to not be completely cut off. A lot a churches just aren’t fully prepared for special needs kids. And with special needs kids you really have to be prepared! So we just dont feel comfortable leaving our kids to have an hour long meltdown with people who arent trained in how to handle it. Since our move to Phoenix, we have heard about and are excited that they have that ministry (special needs) and also have great resources online. It makes being part of community possible for us. :)

    1. Josie,

      What a great testimony to the need for online church.

      I have heard from other parents about the difficulties they face in attending church with special needs kids. I had honestly never thought of this until a year or so ago when I met a woman desperate to attend, but unable because no church could accommodate her son.

      I’m blessed to know that Mission68 is providing spiritual engagement for you and your family!

  2. Nicole,
    I think I agree with just about everything you said here…the concerns, the good points, etc. I wanted to throw more of a wrench in…

    Before the Net, we could watch church on TV. The same segment(s) of people could turn on TBN, or EWTN, or often their local station and see church happening on Sunday mornings. Wouldn’t this be the same thing? That has been going on since…oh…maybe the late 50’s? Earlier?

    Before mass-TV appeal, church was sometimes/often broadcast on the radio for everyone to hear. My church in Michigan would air its Sunday services on our local 920 AM, every Sunday, at 10am. Shut-ins, travelers, whoever wanted to could tune in and give church a listen and “participate” that way. Wouldn’t this be the same thing?

    The only difference, I suppose, is with the Internet, people can also network while church is going on, and through the week. They can meet other people “attending” church with them and have these interactions. This couldn’t happen (as easily) with radio and TV.

    Another great post that gets me thinking. I read the title and think I know my answer, then after reading the post…I often have to reconsider! Thanks for that!


    1. Josh,

      I think that’s a great comparison. Is the Internet church the new T.V. church?

      You answered the one question I would raise, which is T.V. limits interactions with others completely.

      Whereas, as far as I understand it, online churches have interactions, prayer, confession, etc going all happening online.

      I’ll admit too, I had my mind pretty much made up when I started writing this post, but as I read accounts and Tony Steward’s answers, I had a new perspective.

      I think online church is even a great way to “ease” people into real-life church.

      Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comment!

  3. I attended a location in Oklahoma city a year and a half ago. it was pretty amazing how big the church building was…(bigger than my church , Scottsdale Bible) and the preaching was just on a great big screen! It fealt real though. That church had classes and a live worship band, and baptisms. So in those cases I don’t think it’s bad. as far as being just online I think it can be a great, non-intimidating way, for someone to start learning what church is all about. My Father never attended church, but a few years ago he got cancer and started watching joel osteen on tv. Now he attends a “real” church regularly on sunday. So I guess the online Church is great way to reach even more people. As a new believer sometimes it takes awhile to work up the courage to attend Church. I loved this article. You make a great point here, and I think it’s one of those deals where there is probably good and bad , depending on how it is used by the individual.

    1. Kristin,

      Wow, that is so cool about your dad. I can definitely see online church serving as a transition for people who are intimidated or uncertain about attending a real life church.

      I’m glad you had such a great experience through LifeChurch too.

  4. I don’t think “Online Church” is simply streaming the church service/sermon online. It creates the issue you laid out Nicole, where people believe watching a sermon replaces going to church. Church is about the people (fellowship) and not the Pastor or the sermon.

    I love technology and online communities, I think “Online Churches” should be more focused on creating an online community rather than just streaming their sermons/services online and providing relevant resources.

    While that’s great and I personally LOVE watching online sermons. It’d be even more amazing if churches allowed people to discuss the sermons WITH the pastor online. To jump online and get help or answers to any questions they might have in real time(chat) or via some kind of forum based system.

    More social media involvement! Google+ just rolled out and has Hangouts! Basically imagine 10 people all on webcams watching a sermon instead of simply watching it alone. Imagine the kind of conversation the people there will have over the sermon!

    I don’t think we’ve really hit the “Online Church” mark yet, even though we’ve made great strides to reach there, but I agree with Nicole about making sure we don’t limit and demean fellowship as a critical part of church by elevating the sermons.

    1. Chris,
      Great thoughts and well said!

      I love your practical advice too in the need to bring about more targeted and intentional communities, not just sermons. Anyone can listen to an on-line sermon at any point, but authentic community–being known–is what people crave.

      Love the Google+ idea too! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Hey Nicole,

    Nice article but just two quick points of clarity. Craig Groeschel is our senior pastor, I am a pastor on our church online team. And I’ve never spoken at Catalyst, I’m assuming that quote you grabbed from the author’s book? It’s not directly in context.

    I do believe that intimate relationships, and thus fellowship are possible online because it is happening all around us. Both good and bad examples exist, of couples meeting online first and growing close before meeting, married people igniting old flames through Facebook – but also from the people who come to our Church Online each week that we’ve gotten to know, pray for, and share life with.

    It is easy to take our experiences and expect that if others don’t have them – they are less valuable. It’s not really been an issue in regards to fellowship until that last 20 years – when the ability to gather was taken digitally.

    But we do agree that without healthy relationships both online, and off, a person is going to struggle in their faith. Church Online fits a unique place in many people’s lives – there isn’t just one reason or experience they have – but as “people” have an experience that is valuable to them, and creates spiritual growth – we don’t discount what God is more than able to do through any medium.

    I’m sure that might spark some interest – but I did want to clarify.

    Great thoughts!

    Tony Steward
    Pastor of Technology – Church Online

    1. Tony,
      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment.

      I certainly respect your experiences of intimacy and fellowship. I can neither dispute them nor argue against them. I’m glad to hear that such community can and does take place through an on-line medium.

      I so agree that our God is big enough to use whatever medium He so chooses to work in and through His people. I think my biggest take away after writing this post was that church, like the body of people of which it is comprised, comes in all shapes and sizes. I happen to be a part of an organic church–something like on-line church, many people find weird, foreign, or impractical.

      No one church fits all. I am thankful that we serve a God of variety who is not limited to a specific type of church service, outlet, or expression.

      Blessings to you Tony and your ministry!

  6. I believe that the meaning of church is the people of Christ together as a whole. I think that we can definitely use internet church as a tool for when Christians meet up, but I don’t think it is a good idea to watch internet sermons alone every single time. Fellowship is important and internet church can be dangerous because it can lead to isolation. I think we could definitely use internet church but very carefully.

  7. My greatest concern wtih “online church” or even churches with “satellite campuses” is that there seems to be a lot of focus on one single pastor/teacher. I’m concerned that there isn’t a lot of discipleship going on to raise up a new generation of pastors, teachers, and leaders. It also seems to create an almost cult like following of that pastor.

    I also have to say there is something about being able to look your pastor in the eyes and speak to him [or her) face to face. I attend a fairly large church (1,000 members), but our pastor takes time to pray with people and answer questions after every service. When he shares a personal story that I connect with, I am able to speak with him, face to face about his experience. Sure, this isn’t necessary for spiritual growth, but it has certainly been beneficial for me.

    While my faith has certainly been nurtured through the online community of the blogosphere, it’s still really important for me to have real life community, too. It sounds like LifeChurch encourages that sense of community.

    I’m still on the the fence about these types of churches, but I definitely wouldn’t rule them out if they are speaking Truth and guided by the Spirit.

  8. Nicole,
    I have to work Sunday mornings. SO I get to listen and watch what I missed on Sunday mornings.

    I do attend a “Community Group” (known as Home Fellowship Groups,Accountability Group, it is our church’s replacement for Sunday School classes)on Sunday evenings.

    I truly understand the woman with the children who have autism. The thing that I miss the most is being able to be with “the Special Needs” ministry at the Church at Battlecreek in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I love this ministry as it allows parent to attend church or Community groups and not have to worry about their children’s meltdowns as it is staffed with experience certified special ed. teachers, speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists. It is my deepest desire to have a church where all children and their parents can come….it is a blessing to minister to the special needs kids and their parents. Some churches even have a respite babysitting for parents with special needs children.

    Discipleship, accountability, and true Church fellowship can only be met with people investing in others lives outside of a church atmosphere….sharing life together….my Home Fellowship groups from Scottsdale Bible Church were OUR FAMILY only when our children were born and when we lost our jobs and our house. We wouldn’t have made it without the personal hugs, prayers with others.

  9. Hello Nicole,
    I am one of those new age online churches that are doing everything online. I think you made some really great points, but most small to medium churches are really struggling to get new converts. Also, Church buildings are very costly to operate and maintain. Hence most of the offering collected from the members don’t leave enough for out-reach. As you know Jesus last command is our 1st concern. “Go into the world and teach and preach the gospel”. So we have to use any viable tools necessary to reach the lost and maintain the flock.

    God Bless!

    Rev Wittock

  10. I really loved this article…I would be interested to hear what actual large mega church pastors would say…I have yet to find a church that I am comfortable in, so I have continued to watch/listen to online church…but I do miss the ability to participate in the church programs. Also, I feel like there’s discipline in making time for God in a way where I don’t feel so guilty (clicking on the link versus getting dressed, driving and making a point to attend church). Coming from an old school Pentecostal background, the online church vs. real church dilemma has been on my mind..thanks for the article and capturing the feedback!

  11. I think online church is great! I live in Wisconsin where the winters can get really bad and I cannot make it because of the snow. It’s great to have an alternative then just having to miss church. On top of that my church uses electronic giving through So even when I’m not their I can tithe using my smartphone and give via my credit card or online check!

  12. I appreciated online sermons. Take Valley Bible Fellowship as an example. I can listen to a sermon by Pastor Vietti, have my Bible open and a note pad on a table and really follow along. Even though the sermons I listen to may not be the current one of that Sunday or Wednesday listening to the audio allows me to go back to something he said and listen again. I use it almost like a Bible study.

    Listening on line also takes out any annoyance that may occur during a church service. I have a hearing problem so this is important.

    Yes it is not what I am suppose to do. I should be in church having fellowship with other parishioners.

  13. The Bible may say that we are to fellowship with other CHRISTIANS at church. But I have been to SEVERAL Churches, and nobody ever tries to get to know a person outside of the church. I have given up trying to fit into the clique. Online Church is Fantastic!

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