By LEE JOHNSON | Nashville Voice
When Alan George tells people he’s a pastor at an internet church, he’s often confronted with the following assumption, “An internet church is not a real church. The church is a place you go every week to worship God. It’s a building. It has walls and windows.”
Then the Life Church pastor gives this response: “Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 that He will “build His church on Peter, a person.” Nowhere in the Bible does God say the church can only be assembled in a building. In fact, I believe that church is not a building at all, but the people.”
George is not alone in his belief. As more and more people decide to have church online, ministers see internet worship has an opportunity to reach more people, and further spread the gospel.
“Now, more than ever before, we’re able to take God’s Word to the ends of the earth and fulfill the Great Commission Jesus left for all of us,” says George. “The internet church is a digital mission field where people only need an internet connection to encounter God in a real way.”
Bishop Joseph Walker III serves as pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which has three locations in Nashville, Tennessee. He said that Mt. Zion has a physical membership roster of about 30,000 but has a virtually serves nearly 40,000 around the world.
“A lot of people really enjoy waking up … sitting in the bed and watching TV,” said Walker, noting the convenience online churching gives individuals. “It’s a preference.”
However, he acknowledges one downside to internet worship is a “lack of community, being in fellowship.”
Earl Lavender, a professor of theology at Lipscomb University, agrees. He believes people who worship online only do not get the face-to-face fellowship that’s a special part of church ministry.
“I think the real advantage of being part of a community is that people know who you are … your brokenness, your strength, your weaknesses,” says Lavender. “My hope would be that communities of faith could be such that you would actually want to be a part of them, and it would be worth the effort to get there.”
Jalen Dukes is a member of Mt. Zion. While he was in college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Nashville native watched his home church online. But after he graduated in 2015 and returned home, Dukes now worships in person.
“You can worship at home, but I don’t think it’s the same experience,” says Dukes. “The fellowship part, definitely, adds to the worship experience.”
Alex Angellakis is a chaplain and online chat moderator at Pioneer Memorial, a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Berrien Springs, Michigan, that has a large online presence. He says virtual worshippers may not have the “face-to-face” experience of churchgoers, but they’re still able to engage with one another, and pray, which “feels like a community.”
“You’ll see people wave at each other with the emojis and such on Facebook because they recognize each other,” says Angellakis.
Online ministers say the internet also allows individuals to communicate with people they would not normally be able to at their brick and mortar churches.
“At each of our services, people have the opportunity to connect and chat with people from all over the world,” says George. “We are seeing friendships made with people from the United States, England, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, and practically every other country in the world.”
For some people, online worship is not just an opportunity to connect, but reconnect – and stay connected.
Karla Winfrey is a documentarian and entrepreneur who moved back home to Nashville a couple of years ago after living in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where she still has ties.
Winfrey attends church with her family in Nashville each Sunday, but every now and then, she wants to hear a word from the pastor where she attended church in Georgia. And she did so recently.
“I was getting ready to go to church in Nashville, and I was listening to the church in Stone Mountain on my cell phone,” Winfrey said. “I was still part of and connected to the church that I miss going to. A lot of people relocate, so it gives you an opportunity to still feel connected.”