By Warren Bird
“Do you have an internet campus?” Leadership Network polled more than 500 multisite churches in late 2013 (entire report as free download here), with the following findings:
<1% We DID have an internet campus, but no longer offer it.
10% We PLAN to launch one soon.
28% We DO currently have an internet campus (or similar).
62% We do NOT have an internet campus, beyond access to sermons online, and no plans to launch one.
Any church that runs cameras in worship, whether for image magnification or broadcast to other campuses, has the potential to do an internet campus. For many the process is an ongoing education:
- “We love our internet campus,” says Steve Stroope, pastor of Lake Pointe Church, Rockwall, TX, which draws roughly 11,000 to its physical campuses and another 3,000 to its online campus. “I didn’t get it when we started, but the plusses have been unbelievable.” The church has learned to use the service not only as outreach, but also to bring families together. “It helps our members stay connected when they can’t attend and new people get a free sample without as much risk. “One woman, whose grown children attend Lake Pointe, is a regular online viewer. “It’s so great to go to church with my kids,” she reports.
- “We’ve adjusted our approach several times,” says Bryan Collier, pastor of The Orchard, a United Methodist congregation in Tupelo, MS. “It’s working well now more as an on-ramp than a destination. Our people will invite unchurched friends to a coffee shop and play the service for them. It’s created great conversations and a greater willingness to actually come to church.”
- “We are continually surprised by the reach of our internet campus,” says Pierre DuPlessis, pastor of The Father’s House, a large multisite church in Rochester, NY. Leaders there calculate that almost as many tune in online as attend in person.
As churches are experimenting with the idea of online campuses, below is an in-depth look at yet another church—what they did and what they learned:
Reaching at Home and Way Beyond
A live broadcast of worship services to more than 30 countries, chat and prayer rooms, faith commitments and virtual small groups – these are all part of the expanding internet-based experience, aptly named the Online Campus, from The Cove Church, based just north of Charlotte, NC.
The Cove’s Online Campus offers services to those that cannot attend in person due to work, vacation, or distance.
“Our biggest growth factor is people telling their friends and family, whether on social media or sending a text or email with a link,” says Rebekah Carney, Online Campus Director at The Cove.
One woman attending from another state heard about the online campus from her adult daughter, who attends the Statesville campus. Since this woman started attending the online campus, her two younger children living at home have committed their lives to Christ. Rebekah has never met the daughter in person, but she has become good friends with the mom, who now serves from miles away on Rebekah’s Online Campus Chat team.
Another Cove attendee who travels extensively was attending church online while in China—and soon had a crowd joining him. “Somebody wandered by and was curious and stopped and watched with him,” Rebekah says. “Then another stopped, then another. Before he knew it, 15 people were watching The Cove’s service with him from 9,000 miles away.”
The Cove and Senior Pastor Mike Madding’s desire for global reach sparked the online campus idea when Executive Pastor Rick Carney was discussing with the church’s technical director, Steve Smale, how to take the church’s ministry outside the walls of its regional multisite campuses. Church leaders attribute much of the global growth of its online campus—people have attended from more than 30 nations—to The Cove’s focus on missions.
The Cove Church Online Campus offers online life groups, egiving, a virtual newcomer card, and an opportunity to talk online with a chat team member.
“When someone new from a different country joins our online church, we can usually trace it back to a mission trip our church took,” Rebekah says, “or someone knows somebody in that country or someone moved there. All the growth has been word-of-mouth at this point.”Measuring Attendance, Conversations and Conversions.
On a typical Sunday, The Cove has about 500 logins to its online campus. Judging by trends in the chat room and from talking to people who attend, more than one person is usually watching at an online location. Rebekah estimates 800 to 1,500 people are joining the online service each week.
The Cove measures its online progress by taking attendance numbers from Google Analytics and also tracking the bandwidth being used during a broadcast. This way leaders know how many people are watching and where they’re from, with some of the biggest spiritual “wins” recorded in chat room conversations and commitments to Christ.
“Those conversations are a huge win for us,” Rebekah says. “People will say, ‘I really needed this today. My sister sent me this link out of the blue and I watched, and the message was perfect.’ We get stories like that all the time.”
The church added an instant feedback button to its online campus page this year where attendees can indicate they have prayed to receive Christ. Before that feature was added, participants had to find a communication card online, fill it out and let leaders know they had made a commitment to Christ.
Only 10 made that indication in 2013, but already this year 191 people have clicked the button to let leaders know about their faith commitment. If new Christians share their identity, leaders follow up with an email and a package sent to their physical address that includes information on “Next Steps” to get started in their new journey with Christ.
“That’s obviously one of the biggest reasons we do this,” Rebekah says.
Leadership Team Also Spread Far and Wide
Rebekah is on paid staff at The Cove, and she leads an all-volunteer team of three divisions. She has put together a Production Team that handles all the video and web production work for the live broadcast. The Host Team takes care of the chat room and online conversations. Currently, they offer only a public chat room, but plan to add private chat room and prayer room soon. The Media Marketing Team helps to manage and create content for social media and landing pages to draw people into the online campus.
The online Cove team took a silly screen shot before they gathered to pray via Google Hangouts with some of the team members serving remotely.
These teams—some of whom gather in a room during the service, while others work remotely, even in other states—range in age from 15 to 60 years old.
“It’s very cool to have people of all ages working together,” Rebekah says. “So many of them are doing this for their family and friends, and they are so passionate about it.
“One of my team members has friends all over the country, and she is so passionate about reaching them. She gets so excited when someone she’s invited signs in.”
Community: Both In-Person and Online
Rebekah says leaders hope that online campus participants will find one of The Cove’s regional campuses and become an in-person attender. “If people want to stay online and watch, that’s OK,” she says. “But if they’re local, we want to see them find one of our regional campuses and get in community with some people.”
Online visitors can chat with other members and even have a place for personal notes.
For those who aren’t willing or able to connect in person, The Cove is utilizing Google Hangouts to test “virtual small groups” with some of its team members. Judging by the early success, virtual small groups will likely become a part of the online campus experience—with an eye on something much bigger.
The Cove launched online Life Groups, or small groups, and made them public in September. “We have more interest than we can currently accommodate and in my group there are people from North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and California. The community that is developing across time zones is just amazing,” says Rebekah.
“What we would really love to see happen is that when we see 20 people all watching in a nearby city, maybe Memphis, we plan a mixer with those people and start a neighborhood campus there,” Rebekah says. “We want to see people joining in community, so we would love to see people in neighborhood campuses, community campuses, even large regional gatherings developing out of our online campus.”