Rev. Ben Collins calls it an innovative faith community. In some locations, it is known as an iChurch, a digital or a cyber church. In all cases, just like at The Collective in Deland, the idea is to use the internet to reach deeper into the community and connect people with God’s message.
|Two members of The Collective in Deland, Elizabeth Fuller and Mike Miller, are shown hosting an internet Google chat with an online community during a service.|
“We are technically still an extension ministry of First (United Methodist Church of) Deland, but I was sent to a new church plant boot camp,” Collins said. “We’ve got a very different DNA, a different style, a significantly different theological perspective.
“We are in a college town and would have students and faculty get involved, then move away. Over time, we set up a hand-held camera to UStream and had a handful of people that would jump on that.”
The online ministry for The Collective continued to grow. Now, more than three years later, “we are making a more intentional connection with people online. We received a grant from the Florida Conference to upgrade our technology and focus on the interactive online community,” Collins said.
Because millions of people use the internet, churches that are tech savvy can extend their reach through technology. It’s happening in churches throughout Florida.
“The goal is to become really focused on the interactive piece, so rather than just supplying live video, we began looking at implementing live chat,” Collins said. “We hosted digital community groups through Google Hangouts. People online could be greeted by people who showed up at The Collective in person.
“We treat our online community as if they were in the room. We are trying not to make it feel like they are less or different.”
At Grace Church in Cape Coral, each of the church’s campuses has its own Facebook page, and all are heavily used, Rev. Wes Olds said.
“We’re trying to be a consistent presence,” said Grace’s Thomas Hopkins, director of media arts. “It makes an opportunity for people to be engaged with Grace Church at any time, wherever they are.”
“It provides a way for people who miss being present in the sanctuary to still attend church,” Olds said. “At the same time, it provides us a wider reach, a wider net. Some people have watched us only online for months or years. That is real positive.
“We can see the number of how many people have watched a sermon,” Hopkins said. On the weekend, the online congregation is in the hundreds. Others watch online streaming at various times throughout the weekend.
“I’m not sure there’s a downside,” Olds said. “If you don’t want to come into church that day, you can watch online.
“It is the younger generation that leads this,” Olds added. “It is the language of our culture and the next generation. A fourth of our giving now, or 20 percent, comes electronically, and it is trending up.”
Grace also has a mobile app with interactive message notes that people can pull up and access to watch years of archived sermons.
“It is vital that our church engages people and meets them where they are,” Olds said. “In some ways, it’s the way John Wesley changed his strategy of leaving the pulpit and preaching in the fields. This is part of our heritage, to meet people right where they are.”
“We stream on our online campus three times during the weekend,” said Zac Collins, creative director for Bay Hope Church in Lutz.
“We have volunteer hosts for all of those services. Not an online campus pastor, but volunteer hosts that handle prayer or moderation in the chat room, trying to create some sort of community,” he said.
For online guests who go into a chat room, there is a button for live prayer requests where they can have a one-on-one conversation with the host.
“We have a lot of people that have moved but still wanted connection with the church. It’s not just millennials, which was a little bit surprising,” Collins said. “The older generation is most vocal in the chat room.
|Internet screens are becoming a new access to church for many. According to Rev. Wes Olds of Grace Church, "It's the way John Wesley changed his strategy of leaving the pulpit and preaching in the fields."|
“People find their connection point now and their relationships more digitally than physically,” he said. “We’re finding the physical campus is not the route. It’s to share videos, pictures, stories and articles on what the church is doing.”
Social media, he said, is where people find content, devotionals, reading plans.
Bay Hope’s Rev. Matthew Hartsfield does Facebook live around lunchtime every Wednesday, which reaches about 2,000 over the week.
Using the internet has brought a lot of awareness about what University Carillon United Methodist Church in Orlando is doing, said Communications Director Caroline Smith.
“We had a big event called Campfire Christmas. Whenever we have a big event, there is always a photo station and a hashtag related to it, so families can take a picture and post on Instagram or wherever,” Smith said.
“Most of the social events, Thanksgiving and potlucks that specific congregations have done have brought in maybe 200 people. We had somewhere near 400 at the Campfire Christmas because families were spreading the word on social media,” she said.
Churches can die as the congregation ages, Smith observed.
“So, University Carillon decided 12 years ago to focus on youth," Smith said.
University Carillon is right across from the University of Central Florida, and the church’s Vessel Orlando service—described on its website as a worshipping community to help anyone and everyone become a follower of Jesus—is designed to reach that demographic.
--Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.
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