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When Brooke and Jay Frankovich moved to Philadelphia, Tennessee, from Montgomery, Texas, two years ago, they had no idea how difficult finding a new home church would be. After months of searching in the rural area southwest of Knoxville, no congregation seemed to take the place of Lone Star Cowboy Church (LSCC), the Assemblies of God body they left behind.
So, they decided to keep attending their former church 815 miles away — electronically.
Now on Sunday mornings, Brooke, Jay, and their four children — ages 10, 6, 4, and 2 — gather in their living room and live stream Lone Star’s service.
“We tell the kids it’s church time,” Brooke says. Although the kids are involved in a children’s church program locally, the family’s online church provides the depth and worship Jay and Brooke desire.
“I know it isn’t ideal,” Brooke says, “but Lone Star is our home.” The couple even tithe online and stay connected to LSCC through the church’s Facebook group. Jay is a full-time information technology worker at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“Welcome to the 21st century,” says Darla Weaver, co-lead pastor of Lone Star with her husband, Randy.
Thanks to technology, many AG churches now offer live streaming and other options such as Facebook Live, which means there are new paths to serve members, implement evangelism, and increase the faith of attendees. Because various families are unable to attend church in person at the appointed time, due to travel, work, illness, or other engagements, they still can participant in the service “off-site” — a choice they didn’t have until recently.
“The great thing is we aren’t just reaching our local community, now we have church members literally all over the world,” says Weaver of the megachurch that has a weekly in-house attendance of more than 2,400. With streaming that started four years ago, LSCC leaders take the online community so seriously they call it the “online campus.” The church even has a staff member designated to “greet” each person online as he or she arrives and to monitor the experience in real time.
“It’s exciting because God is allowing us to reach throughout the whole world through technology,” Weaver says.
While LSCC is still working to figure out how better to incorporate online members into some parts of the service, such as Communion, leaders see the validity of helping people grow closer to God whether or not it’s in the actual facility.
Jeremy DeWeerdt, senior pastor of City First Church of Rockford, Illinois, agrees. In 2014, City First leaders knew they wanted to reach an online community and still ensure that those attendees felt part of the service. So, the church began a live stream and experimented with different camera shots to help make the experience as engaging as possible. On site weekend attendance at City First averages more than 5,000.
“We greet them as if they are part of the church,” says DeWeerdt.
Both LSCC and City First Church encourage online attendees to participate in all aspects of the service, including tithing — providing an online button participants can use during the offering. The congregations also are exploring starting online life groups.
Moving into this new church dynamic hasn’t been without its concerns, however. DeWeerdt admits he felt anxious about providing an online option.
“I wondered if it would give people an excuse to stay home,” he says. But he discovered that hasn’t been the case. “I only see upsides to doing an online experience.”
The concerted streaming efforts have yielded results. Lone Star Cowboy Church has a typical online attendance of more than 1,000, while City First averages more than 1,500 weekly online worshippers. Neither body is interested in segmenting remote viewers apart from the local physical church body.
“We firmly believe our online participants are every bit a part of our congregation,” Weaver says.
Live streaming is an opportunity to leverage the technology for the Kingdom, DeWeerdt says.
“More than anything, I hope it throws the net wider so people can learn about Jesus, experience His presence, and ultimately find salvation,” he says.
Weaver encourages other congregations to think outside the box.
“Traditional church has its place; the pews and organ, or the chairs and band, are great,” she says. “But we live in a different world. It’s about finding new and powerful ways to feed God’s people and win others for Christ, people who may not be comfortable or simply are unable to darken the doors of a church.”