Evangelical Christianity Online: Eliciting Material World Responses in the Cyberworld by Erin Flewelling, San Diego State University
On Good Friday, one of the most significant days in the Christian calendar, when Christians commemorate Jesus’ death on the cross, LifeChurch.tv’s Church Online gathered for an online global prayer outreach for upcoming Easter Services. Essentially, individuals from around the world—who understand each other through the magic of translation software—logged onto http://babelwith.me and prayed together for friends and family who had not yet begun a relationship with Jesus. This community of people is serious about the role they play in fulfilling the mission of God on earth, that is, connecting men and women to God and to each other in spite of the fact that most of them have never met in person.
Church Online is associated with LifeChurch.tv, a multisite evangelical Christian congregation that relies heavily on technology to expand its reach from headquarters in Oklahoma City, across all of Oklahoma, Texas, New York, Tennessee, and Florida. Although most elements of services at their physical campuses are live, the teaching portion is a live feed or a prerecorded segment, depending on service time. Their large staff also produces high quality supplementary videos, artwork, and curriculum which they offer free of charge to other churches along with sermon outlines and use of sermon videos. They were also one of the first churches to venture into the internet campus world with the launch of services on Easter 2006. Basically this allowed them to extend their message anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. In a 2009 article published in Leadership Journal, Bobby Gruenewald, Pastor of Innovational Leadership at Lifechurch.tv, estimated that approximately 50,000 unique IP addresses log onto services every week, with about one in ten staying for the entire service.
I get a lot of questions when I tell people I’m researching online Christian churches. They want to know if an online church can actually function as a church. Certainly, the Internet is a great informational tool, and nobody is surprised about the proliferation of religious websites, but the idea that people can form spiritual connections over the internet seems counterintuitive. However, the Internet presents enormous opportunity for evangelicals, and we shouldn’t be surprised that churches would want to levy that technology. Stephen O’Leary reminds us that as people spend more and more time online, it “would indeed be an anomaly if a cultural force of this magnitude were not to find expression in the newly developing world of computer networks” (282).
The adoption of any technology, however, should raise questions about the effect of that technology on the people who use it. Heidi Campbell writes that fears have “emerged that online religion [will] cause people to abandon their pews in exchange for worship via the keyboard and computer screen, further effecting the steady decline of “real world” church attendance” (xvi), and Brenda Brasher suggests that the “chief worry is that engagement with the Internet could reconfigure the traditions that technologically adept, spiritually committed people have gone online to maintain” (xii). Others are more optimistic, but essentially, as Dawson and Cowan remind us, the “consequences for religion are yet largely unknown,” and we need to ask how this “new way of being religious” will make a difference in the way “religion is conceived and practiced in the future.”
Morten Høsgaard states the obvious when he says that religion cannot have an essence or existence independent of human existence, and that “allegedly pure cyber-religious sites are . . . produced and used by persons who do not live their entire lives ‘on the screen.’” In other words, people who participate in online religious websites are real people living in a real world. This way of thinking is compatible with evangelical Christianity, which argues against a purely propositional or virtual belief system, stating that faith without works is dead. Evangelical Christian churches have very specific goals–life transformation, becoming like Christ, and sharing the story of Jesus with others. The Christian faith is more than propositional; it is transformational. Craig Van Gelder, professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul argues it is “important . . . to keep returning to the foundations of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world” (1). Indeed, he claims that the “the primary issue confronting the church in our context today “is the need to re-examine and re-envision what it means to be the church” (vii). That includes the innovative use of technology.
Gruenewald, LifeChurch.tv’s Pastor of Innovation, says, “Our desire is to leverage technology to connect people to Christ, to each other, and to their community” (Hall 48). These are the same goals as they have for their physical campuses. But can an online church really do that? Can an online church achieve the same things as a church with a physical presence? And can decisions made in the cyberworld actually change the way individuals live in the material world? LifeChurch.tv’s Church believes that they can.
In an attempt to fulfill its goals, Church Online has incorporated layers of rhetorical strategies, designed to take any cyberworld response into the material world. In examining some of those strategies, we’ll look at three major elements of Church Online: embedded features on the website; the chat feature that is ongoing throughout services, enabling guests to interact with each other; and the actual recorded worship experiences. Next, we’ll examine appeals made to extend the message of life transformation from the cyberworld into the world in which we all live. We will also discuss the development of ethos and the use of repetition to effect life transformation.
First, the embedded features on the website allow visitors to the website to explore Church Online 24 hours per day, whether a service is going on or not. Guests to the website can link to Facebook, they can “tell their stories” on a form, request additional information or “Live Prayer” in a private chat setting. They can also access a blog written by Church Online staff and volunteers, who write about issues relevant to the online community including service opportunities through Church Online as well as opportunities to serve in the real world, and the importance of belonging to a Life Group. One blog discussed how online communities deal with a death. There was even a humorous video depicting Church Online chat conversations, which actually seem pretty odd at times.
The chat component of the Church Online worship experience opens approximately 30 minutes prior to the service starting and extends for approximately 15 minutes after the service ends. The forum can be distracting for individuals who want to focus on the sermon without interacting with others. As I said, the chats can seem odd as multiple conversations go on simultaneously – individuals will log on with their own agendas, their own theologies, or looking for dates. However, after observing these chats for the last month, I understood that this chat component is a major way that relationships form at Church Online, and increases the likelihood that participants will respond to the messages found on the site. I began to see many of the same people on the chat. A few were present every time I logged in; others logged on to the same services week after week. Listening in to their conversations, it was clear that these people had “history” together. The forum is moderated by volunteers: a captain, an admin, hosts, and prayer volunteers. They all receive video training on a password-protected portion of the website. Volunteers greet every guest who signs into the chat, and from time to time they suggest ways for guests to make the Church Online worship experience more comfortable, such as turning off the chat or accessing sermon notes. Volunteers respond to questions and engage guests in thinking about messages communicated through the recorded segments. Frequently, one of the volunteers will send out Tweets with essential questions asked within the sermon or they’ll reference major points made in the sermon. These Tweets become part of the chat. For example, during week two of Red Letter Day, volunteers regularly sent out the statement, “Withholding forgiveness can hold you captive. How can you truly forgive and be free?” As guests chat, they engage these questions, and as a result the appeals made in the prerecorded segment are repeated throughout the Church Online experience.
The prerecorded portion includes a variety of segments. Every service begins with a greeting from a campus pastor in the United States or from one of their global partners. In the last few weeks we have been greeted by a couple from Northern Ireland, a pastor from Australia, a pastor from South Africa, a Czechoslovakian woman as well as a lay pastor from Atlanta. These greetings connect viewers around the world and emphasize that although Life Church headquarters are in Oklahoma, the church itself has a global presence. A second greeting comes from Brandon Donaldson, the Church Online Campus Pastor. The worship band sings three songs. This is a highly energetic band, and the music has broad appeal, featuring acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums. Song lyrics flash across the screen, and guests can link to the band’s Facebook site if they want, choose to follow the lead vocal on Twitter, or purchase songs through i-Tunes.
Topical sermons emphasize practical real world application. In the three sermons I transcribed, we were urged to trust God during difficult times, we were challenged to forgive, and we were asked to serve others out of love. Past sermon series have focused on marriage, raising children, and financial issues. Scripture appears on the screen, below the speaker, and guests can access the sermon outline by clicking on an icon. They can take notes on the outline and if they write in their email address, Church Online staff will send a copy of the notes. The pastor wears jeans, a T-shirt, maybe a blazer, but never a tie. In fact, you won’t find a suit and tie anywhere on this website or during these services. These are real people, living in a real world, and guests to the website can identify with them. Sermons often includes video testimony from church members who tell portions of their life story to illustrate the sermon points. For example, in Red Letter Day #1, a supplemental video featured three individuals from different ethnic backgrounds and different ages. Each sat alone on a red bench in front of a white background, looking directly into the camera, essentially into the eyes of the Church Online participants:
- The first, a young white female, was nearly in tears as she spoke: “Hi, my name is Lisa, and in July 2008, my husband and I went in for a routine ultrasound at 20 weeks, and we found out then that our baby didn’t have a heartbeat.”
- Next, a middle-aged white male spoke: “Hi, my name is Scott. About, it was early morning, I got a phone call, and it was about my grandson being taken to the hospital. And he was my little buddy. He was the world to me. I have other grandkids, but he was special.”
- Finally, a twenty-something black female told her story: “Hi, my name is Deidre, and, um— my father sexually abused me until I was eight years old. And he also beat the living daylights out of my mother.”
They continued to alternate, telling portions of their stories, describing a variety of situations where individuals might ask God what was going on. After the pastor completed his sermon, a follow-up video ensued, and these individuals returned to tell their stories about how God breathed light into darkness. Videos like this one function in a variety of ways. Obviously, there is a pathos appeal as these individuals tell their stories, as we focus on their faces and hear the pain in their voices. We are likely to have experienced something similar, or at least we know someone who has, and so we identify with these individuals. In addition, these videos allow us to see points of the message applied to real life situations, like the ones we experience on a daily basis.
One of the most powerful elements to establishing Church Online as a legitimate spiritual community is the construction of ethos. In On Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that if a speaker seems to be a “certain kind of person and . . . his hearers suppose him to be disposed toward them in a certain way . . .” (112), then the rhetoric will be more effective in persuading hearers to respond in a particular way. In the case of Church Online, not only do the various speakers need to develop credibility, but the website itself and the various uses of technology must be constructed in such a way as to build trustworthiness. Aristotle cites “three reasons why speakers . . . are persuasive” and listed “practical wisdom . . virtue . . and good will” (112) and certainly these are evidenced in the presentation as teaching pastors and lead musicians share personal challenges in living out their marriages, raising children, or dealing with economic issues. They demonstrate a strong desire to live good lives, positively impacting and influencing their communities. In the chat, captains, hosts, and admin open the chat by welcoming anyone attending the service. They greet each guest who logs on, and they respond with caring tones.
In her rhetorical analysis of the websites of congregational churches, Lynne Raab notes that “high quality photos and graphics” which “demonstrated . . . a tight and coherent design . . . conveyed to some audiences a sense of authority and credibility based on quality, increasing their persuasive appeal” (153). Indeed, this is a professional, quality site. Videos feature multiple camera angles, lights, effects. This is as good as anything seen on television. If participants arrive before service begins, a time clock, counting down the hours before the next service starts. Remarkably, participants can converse with people in multiple countries through translation software. All of these professional qualities convey a sense of trustworthiness and credibility that increases the persuasive appeal of the messages LifeChurch communicates.
A map of the world identifies all the countries logged onto any service, further legitimizing the experience, as does the presence of people from various cultures in the chat. Furthermore, the existence of thirteen physical campuses across five states lends credibility, constructing an identity that extends from the cyber world into the physical world. During the music segment, the cameras primarily focus on the worship band, but from time to time, it pans back, showing the congregation standing, engaged in worship. The effect of these shots is to connect Church Online participants to real people, engaged in a live service. When participants worship with Church Online, they are part of something that extends beyond the Internet. Lives are being changed, decisions are being made, and communities are being formed as Church Online partners with churches across the United States and even around the world in building the Kingdom of God. Indeed, last fall Church Online tangibly partnered with LifeChurch.tv’s physical campuses to put together Life Packs containing items to help people meet basic needs. Campuses across the United States chose where to deliver Life Packs, and individuals involved with Church Online could choose to deliver them to their own community or to be part of sending Life Packs to a school in Pakistan.
All of these elements lead to a sense that Life Church can be trusted, that LifeChurch.tv has the authority to speak for God. This lays a foundation for other messages, communicated repeatedly through various means in the sermons, ads, on the chat, and on the website. The more times participants hear the same thing, the more likely they are to respond, and Church Online stays on message throughout the one-hour experience.
During Red Letter Day #3, Church Online Campus Pastor Brandon Donaldson pulled up his iPhone to read the story of a woman whose life changed because of being involved with Church Online. During the same service, a video ad reminded participants that not only can they access several versions of the Bible through YouVersion, a free “app” for web-enabled phones, but they can also participate in surveys and type sermon notes on the outline provided through YouVersion. Guest speaker Pastor Joel A’Bell commented to the live congregation that he no longer hears the shuffle of page turning as people open their Bibles. Instead, he hears the click-click-click of people accessing their iPhones.
I don’t have a web enabled phone—I’m not sure I need one, and I’m not sure my eyesight would even allow me to read a YouVersion Bible—but after spending the last month with Church Online, I really want one.
Over and over I watched a video exhorting me, “You are called,” “You were meant for something greater.” Faces of men and women of all ethnicities directly facing the camera, eyes apparently looking directly at me. In her rhetorical analysis of church websites, Lynne Baab identifies these kinds of images as a “demand” because the participant’s gaze demands that I enter into some kind of imaginary relationship with him or her (154). The call is vague and ambiguous—it applies to anything and everything that has been said during the service, whether on the chat, in various videos, or during the sermon. The voice continues:
You will restore good back into the broken everywhere
All you need is Christ at the center of everything
Be who he called you to be because who you are is far greater than what you do
You are called.
This video exhorts me to do something, and allows me to interpret its message. Perhaps it’s to forgive, to work on my marriage, to invite people to Church Online, to make a decision for Christ, to do something significant for my community.
At the end of each service, participants are asked to acknowledge their response to the sermon message. During the first sermon in the series Red Letter Day, Pastor Craig Groeschel addressed his listeners, stating:
If you’re in a difficult place right now, and you say, Craig, I really do need prayer. I would love to pray for you. If you would like, if you really need prayer right now . . . would you just lift up your hands right now, at all of our locations, just go ahead . . . and just lift your hands up right and say, I need prayer.
At Church Online, response to this appeal is signified by clicking on a raised hand, shown on the screen. A box below the screen acknowledges that the participant has raised a hand and counts the number of hands lifted. A few minutes later, the Church Online Campus Pastor returns to the screen and urges respondents to request a “What’s Next Kit” containing a Bible, to join a small online Life Group community, or to click on the prayer link to speak to someone more privately.
Repetition is a powerful rhetorical strategy, and the service is filled with invitations to get involved in life groups, to volunteer with Church Online, to choose to follow Christ, to log on to the Prayer link. As I watch again and again, I lower my natural defenses and I become more open to the messages of Church Online.
The first time I logged on to Church Online, I was distracted by the chat. There were too many things going on for me to concentrate on the actual sermon message, and for whatever reason, the prerecorded segments seemed distant. Despite the fact that I was warmly welcomed by people on the chat, I wondered whether or not true spiritual community was possible and questioned whether or not Church Online could function as a “real church.” After spending the last month transcribing services, though, watching people interact on the chat, hearing the message of life transformation over and over, I am changing my mind. Perhaps it is the development of ethos, or perhaps it is sheer repetition, but I am beginning to believe that Church Online is a real church. However, I am already amenable to ideas of faith, and perhaps my bias toward faith influences my response. As a Christian, already involved with a faith community, I am not Church Online’s intended audience.
I am curious as to their actual audience, a difficult determination due to the anonymity of the internet. And yet, these are questions that have to be asked in order to determine whether or not the rhetoric of Church Online actually achieves its goals. I want to know: Is Church Online the primary religious experience for participants, or is it supplemental? How do participants find Church Online, and what prompts them to stay? What is their religious background, and how does that background affect their response to the rhetoric? I also want to know: How many participants begin attending one of LifeChurch’s actual campuses, and how many begin attending another church?
Church Online Campus Pastor Brandon Donaldson closes every service, saying:“Remember, whoever finds God finds life.” And so these next questions are probably the most important in determining the persuasiveness of rhetoric: What effect do decisions to begin a relationship with Christ made in the cyberworld make on lives lived in the world outside the internet? Is there long-term transformation? These and other topics concerning the nature of online religious community and the effect of technology, particularly religious technology, depending on the way individuals think and respond to the world offer endless opportunities for research.
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