In this environment, evangelizing is nearly effortless. Regular viewers and volunteers post messages to their entire online network inviting them to the Web service in progress.
“Fifty years ago you could expect everyone to come to you,” said Tim Stevens, Granger’s executive pastor. “Now, we have to meet people where they are.”
The phenomenon is so new that no one has an exact count of interactive online campuses. The Leadership Network, which studies and supports innovative churches, has found at least 40. Churches with the sites say they regularly receive calls from other pastors starting their own.
An Oklahoma megachurch named LifeChurch.tv in a nod to its use of technology is considered the pioneer of the form. The congregation had already expanded to physical sites in several cities when in 2006, pastors launched what they now call Church Online.
LifeChurch.tv now broadcasts more than 25 online services each week and plans more. The services collectively draw up to 60,000 unique views weekly, although the number of new computers that log on for several minutes is about 5,000, LifeChurch leaders say. Broadcasts are listed in Greenwich Mean Time, drawing viewers from more than 140 countries.
LifeChurch.tv has even found a way to attract people surfing for experiences that are far from pious. The congregation buys Google ad words so that a person searching for “sex” or “naked ladies” sees an ad inviting them to a live worship service instead.
Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor who oversees the online efforts at LifeChurch.tv, said the goal is to move people into some in-person Christian experience, in church, a small Bible group or even a group that watches online services together. He noted that many people watch online and attend a local church.
But he said some people are so transient that they have little opportunity to join a brick-and-mortar congregation. In countries where Christians are persecuted, a Web church is often the only way they can be reached, he said.
Amanda Sims, 38, of Starkville, Miss., was on Twitter during Christmas Eve last year when a friend posted that he was watching a LifeChurch.tv service.
She logged on and kept coming back, soon offering to volunteer online. She now works for LifeChurch as an online volunteer coordinator, managing a team of people from across the world who help with online worship.
One new friend whom she and her husband met online is a South Carolina-based truck driver who started watching LifeChurch.tv because he’s so often on the road. When he drives through Mississippi, he stops in for dinner. He now volunteers for the site.
“It started out as augmenting my spiritual life, and it gave me a way to be in fellowship with believers I never would have met otherwise,” said Sims, who still belongs to a local church. “They’re like my family.”