Can Virtual Community Be Biblical?

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Can Virtual Community be Biblical?

Let’s start this conversation by clearly stating Saddleback does not have this figured out. I would also like to state that Saddleback isn’t afraid of messiness or trying to figure out how to build this plane while we are flying it! Yes, many times we discover we don’t have all the parts, but sometimes we figure it out and a cool God thing gets opened up for us and hopefully other churches. So let me catch you up on our latest strategy.

We know God knows everything, but the Scriptures seem very quiet about specifically mentioning virtual community.  Maybe, you say, because the internet wasn’t around? Although scripture is silent, history and biblical context gives us some perspective. History shows us that whenever technological advancement happens, when it was used rightly, the Gospel spreads (i.e. the printing press, telephone, television, smart phone, etc). However, none of those technological advancements stretched our thinking of redefining community like the internet.

Biblical community is clearly done in the first century “face to face”. The “one another’s” throughout scripture clearly need “another”. Are virtual small groups a STEP in the process for biblical community or can they BE biblical community? It seems a case can be build for the latter if the Great Commission and great commandment can happen virtually. Many churches embrace the virtual “temple Courts” (the online weekend service) but shy away from virtual “House to House” (online small groups). Over a year ago I wrote an article on where our Online Groups were. You can find it here.

By shying away from virtual “House to House” we seem to be turning our back on figuring out the biggest frontier the small group community has ever faced. A lot has happened since early 2011 when we launched successful online groups. The biggest issue back then was discovering what people wanted in an online small group. So what has happened since that article in May of 2011?

One thing is clear, we still haven’t figured it out, but the picture sure is coming into focus! Are we going purely virtual online groups or are we doing online groups as a step? If you look at the info-graphic (above), the strategy is “both.” We are aligning our online weekend service, our online small groups and a new paradigm for domestic church planting we are calling “Saddleback (video) Extensions”.  This all fits under a team called “National Health” in the Spiritual maturity Team I lead.

We see the Internet as our next big room to assimilate people. The question then to ask is, “What are we assimilating them to?” For Saddleback, we want to engage them in a virtual Acts 5:42, while at the same time moving them to a physical presence of Acts 5:42. Will some stay virtual? I am sure they will. Will we leave them purely virtual…I think the jury is still out.  If you know the Saddleback’s concentric circles, this strategy will make sense to you. The basic strategy is “thinking developmentally”. Identify where people are at in a circle and drive them more toward the center. Our outside circle is “Our Community” moving into the “Core of our church”.

  • Community Over 15,000+ weekly who are checking out virtual weekend service under 30 minutes
  • Crowd 5,500+ weekly who watch our service (watching greater than 30 minutes. These are individual ISP’s and we factor 1 person for each ISP, which it is probably more one person watching at an ISP!)
  • Congregation 81 online small groups who also watch the virtual weekend service (900+ people)
  • Committed “Saddleback Extensions (less than 70 in attendance)” (currently 80 extensions watching our virtual service together, ½ are also doing a physical small group during the week)
  • Core “Saddleback Campuses (greater than 70 in attendance)” (currently none, but 3 in the mix in our “Hot Spot Cities”) This doesn’t factor in our Saddleback Regional Campuses in our 5 county area here in Southern California

The strategy isn’t as linear as what is stated above, but it is a start. We want to use the virtual environment to eventually identify small group HOSTs who are tomorrow’s new paradigm of our church planter.

What do you think? Can virtual community be Biblical?


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About Steve Gladen

Steve Gladen is Pastor of Small Groups at Saddleback Church, which sees over 30,000 people gathering weekly in 5,000 small groups. He's the founder of SmallGroups.net and travels widely to speak on the topic of small groups and healthy, biblical community. He is the author of several books including Small Groups With Purpose and Leading Small Groups With Purpose.

  • https://plus.google.com/117158985660452108404 Steve Anderson

    The question that came to my mind is this, how less personal is a virtual connection than sitting in a congregation of thousands where you never meet the pastor and he never meets you?

    I do not think a disciple can only live in a virtual world, they will need to connect in some manner, that is not completely foresaking meeting together and also serving with other believers. But I submit that for many in large churches, their connection is effectively virtual, even when they are in the building as the live sermon.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/pmendiet/ Pablo Mendieta

    Dear Steve:

    Let me tell you about the value of evangelism through internet: When I became Christian in 1998 I was afraid because where I live in South America (I am from Bolivia) there are strong social pressure against Christianity and it is difficult to attend a Christian church due familiar or social coercion. Then my first church was an online one during half a year. I am grateful because God helped to me with this church and now is blessing others.
    Now, I’m part of Saddleback (SB) Online Campus due two main reasons: to grow in order to become more like Christ and to serve hosting, cohosting or just being part of one of many Online Small Groups (OSG). It’s my world family in Christ.
    I like to share with you about what I consider a precious miracle: Many months ago in our online meeting one of our participants (Janneth, a former student at the university and a spiritual seeker with many struggles in her family) committed her life to Jesus Christ. It was wonderful because through this tool that God has given to us, she could be part of 40 Days In The World in Spanish campaign and now she is our “sister” in Christ and she has a citizenship in heaven. I am so grateful because she was faithful in her participation to my OSG. After some weeks she got baptized and now she is an active member of a local church, ministering children.
    Related to this remembrance week, eleven years ago some hurt individuals with hate in their hearts injured many people in the US. As we remember that fearful day and honor those who died since then, we have to pray that the true gospel of love, forgiveness and salvation could reach those countries. Thanks God we have a chance with our OSG (and the PEACE plan) to answer evil with reconciliation, true friendship and relief for poor and sick people. I pray that our SB Online community could reach more people around the world in order to give them the Good News about Jesus Christ to fight what is wrong with the loving truth.
    Then and following SB vision through this decade (that is, to become a global church), I challenge to pray for more OSG in many countries and many languages, especially in those where Christians are persecuted or with familiar/social pressure against them.
    During these weeks I let my host role due some changes in my job schedule and we have now an outstanding leader, but I am preparing to serve again in the Online community. I am in a period of changes. But my desire to continue serving SB Online Campus is like a flame or a fire. I feel the call to do it, not for my convenience (in fact it represents less time for me to other activities), but for God’s Kingdom and to accomplish God’s purpose, like many other people in the 81 OSG.
    During these last years it was really an exciting and a privilege to be part and serve OSG. I am so related to each one of my OSG (actual and previous ones) and I love them because they have become my family and my support. I have to mention the great help provided for our leaders in the community (especially Maggie Voelker, Efraim Meulenberg and Jay Kranda.
    SB global vision is also my vision: the message of salvation through the whole world. And God has given to us this pretty tool to reach other Christians and to help them in the task to reach God’s purposes in their lives. As in the case of gifts, I consider that we do not have to misuse this tool.
    With love in Christ,

    Pablo (Alfonso Mclean Friday 4:30PM Spanish OSG member).

  • http://saddleback.com/blogs/internetcampus/the-joy-of-being-in-a-group/ Tina Lorenzana

    I have been a host of an all-women online small group for almost two years. I want to say that my experience in my small group has blessed me in so many ways. For one, I have developed deep friendships with some of the women especially with my accountability partners. Our interaction is not limited to the weekly meetings. During the week we keep in touch through Facebook, text, email, Skype or Google hangout or phone calls. When one of us is going through rough times we encourage that person by prayers and bible verses. Lately we’ve been reading one chapter of the Bible every day and sharing our insights. Our desire to love and serve God has spurred some of us to serve within the small group as co-host or worship leader or outside the small group within our families, friends, offices. Some of us are involved in other ministries and other times the group comes up with a project that we can do together. We all look forward to our weekly meetings where we start by worshipping together by watching a Youtube video of a Christian song or artist. During the meeting everyone posts their prayers or prayers requests. Discussion is based on the study video and guide and is spontaneous and free flowing. Everyone is involved in the discussion, even the most shy. Then when we’re done with a study, we celebrate by having communion together. Many of us have experienced wonderful changes in our lives and we see it in the testimonies we share. Some of the ladies have been so blessed and recently accepted Christ as their Savior. When I started with my online small group I was also a member of a face-to-face group. The online small group has lasted and grown. The other group has dispersed. I want to say that our online small group is a community of believers, who are eager to obey God’s great commandment and fulfill his great commission in whatever part of the world we’re from.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=724095049 Santosh Ninan

      Tina – that is an amazing testimony of what an internet based home group / bible study community can look like – It is making me really think deeper about the potentials of “virtual” community. How did you form the group – are these people from your town, all over the country, all over the world?

      I think though when we are going through struggles in life, its nice to have another human being actually with us – it can be reassuing to have that support and encouragement from an online group – but don’t we also long for the human touch?

      • http://saddleback.com/blogs/internetcampus/the-joy-of-being-in-a-group/ Tina Lorenzana

        Santosh, right now our members are from all over the U.S. and includes one from Canada. Our small group is part of the online small group community of Saddleback Church. The other groups in Saddleback’s online community can have members of varying geographical locations such as Europe, Asia, South America, India, Africa. Saddleback has an internet campus and anyone who’s interested to be part of an online small group can click on a “Join” link, and choose a group based on their preferred demographics and/or current study.

        In our group we have accountability partners who we keep in touch with during the week either by email, video call, phone call or even text. For instance my partner and I meet via Google hangout where we actually see and hear each other. We have had deep, honest and revealing conversations about God, ourselves and others. The experience has been very liberating for both of us. Personally I think online relationships should not be limited by the lack of actual physical contact. What would be more important is the sincerity and depth of the relationship that revolves around God and his word. I have actually met up with some of the women in our group and it is certainly a blessing to be in their physical presence. Yet, distance is a limiting factor only if we allow it to be. The constant interaction and encouragement allows our relationships with each other and with God to grow in spite of geographical location. I also noticed that online small groups are not for everyone. Some prefer the face-to-face interaction. I started with face-to-face groups but with my schedule and family obligations (I have a special needs child), this has become harder for me to take part in. Online small groups work for me as with the other women in our group. As I write this I think of Paul when he wrote letters to the different churches. It was the form of communication used then so he could encourage the members and they could write back to him. Ours is just a better version. Imagine what Paul could do if he had Internet capability :) You’re welcome to click on the link below titled “The Joy of Being in A Group.” It’s a blog I wrote where I shared a testimony of a small group member.

        • http://twitter.com/5Watts Matthew Watts

          Very cool Tina. Seems like you are experiencing what we want for any/all communities of Jesus followers. Thanks for sharing Tina and Santosh, thanks for asking.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=724095049 Santosh Ninan

          This has been quite eye opening for me – previous to this discussion, I had simply written off online home groups as being able to produce authentic community. But, Tina’s story is changing my mind. I would add that though Paul did write many letters – these letters were always within the context of personal relationships in the local churches that he had either planted or had spent extensive time ministering among (the one exception being Rome – that he never got to visit). Paul’s ministry was always personal. Jesus’ ministry was always personal.

          I still don’t think virtual online communities can replace an actual physical gathering of believers in worship. I simply cannot believe that a church could be formed of individual believers sitting at their laptops alone in their homes, never physically seeing other members of their church.

          I am at a stage of life where our work schedule don’t permit either my wife or I to be in a group, so I think I’ll check out an online group!

  • http://twitter.com/5Watts Matthew Watts

    In my experience having these discussions in my organization, these comments capture the greatest concerns. One observation – there is an assumption that face-to-face means greater authenticity and connection.

    I sat with the internet pastor of a mega-church in the Dallas area. While the “live” service was going on in the sanctuary below, the internet pastor was hosting the online church from the control room. Below had about 600 people gathered together in a large sanctuary. Online there were about 40 people, 10 of which logged in with real name and were active on the chat session, and were regular attenders.

    During the service, those at the live service were mostly passive receivers of the service while online they were constantly interacting over the content (asking questions, giving feedback, cracking jokes, updating personal prayer requests). Within 10 minutes of the close of the service, the sanctuary was empty and everyone was heading home while the online church had shifted over to a chat room and were discussing real life applications to the content they had just experienced.

    It made me reflect on two questions:

    - Which was a more authentic experience for the participants?
    - Which better reflected the full sense of the word community?

  • Mark Brewster

    Steve,

    Interesting thoughts…and I appreciate you wrestling with this issue.

    Personally, I have some concerns about virtual community. I have a hard time reconciling that with the warning in Hebrews about forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. Physical presence is implied there. Even the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) can be translated as an assembly of people. While I know that arguments might be made about what the word “assemble” entails, it seems like physical “face to face” presence is part of what it means to be the church. If I’m not mistaken the word “community” and “communication” are related. So if anywhere from 50% to 93% of communication is non-verbal (depending on which expert is communicating), it seems like a large amount of the community in our communication is going to be lost…as well as a large amount of our communication in our community.

    Don’t worry…I’m not about to suggest a heresy trial. And I strongly believe that social networking can be significantly supplemental. I am just not sure that it can replace the face to face.

    Just to make my position clear: I’m not saying that I believe this is unbiblical or sinful…and I know that God can do whatever He wants in people’s lives in whatever way He wants to do it. I will just say that I am not confident that this is the most effective way to build authentic community.

    But God bless you as you continue to learn and experiment!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=724095049 Santosh Ninan

    I find this an interesting discussion – I think “virtual community” is an oxymoron – you either have real, authentic community or you don’t. Once something is virtual, it is by definition not real, but a copy of what is real. Also, from a theological perspective, aren’t we moving away from incarnational ministry? Incarnation – Christ coming in the flesh. I’m not against technology – I’m on Facebook, twitter and I blog – I just don’t allow my virtual online community act as a substitute to real community I enjoy in my home group and on Sunday AM. Also – I don’t think Paul would have any concept of this kind of isolated Christian life – for him salvation was communal, not individualistic.

    I fear we in the West worship more at the altar of pragmatism – rather then dwelling thoughtfully on how we do things. The argument almost always floats back to numbers – hey, more people are coming – but what is the quality of disciples being nurtured in an environment that lacks authentic human interaction?

  • http://twitter.com/5Watts Matthew Watts

    Steve,

    Appreciate the post. I am on a team wrestling through the very same things. As we have surveyed efforts around the US and world, it seems like Virtual channels for evangelism are multiple, but the follow up of clicks/decisions seems to stall out at a one-on-one follow up environment. As well, Virtual channels are starting to be used to augment face-to-face ministry which is exciting, but I’m like you…

    If we are to go where people live, and increasingly people are living significant portions of their lives online, then why can’t authentic Christian communities live there also?

    I haven’t found many who have effective communities of followers of Jesus, so this is very exciting and am interested to learn from you.

    @5Watts

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