When online worship fails

Posted Nov 06, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


“Our online worship hasn’t played out like we thought it would.”

So confesses Kem Meyer, Director of Communications of Granger Community Church. A rare confession from a leader of any megachurch. It’s hard for any human being to admit failure—how much more so when a place has tasted repeated success?

Megachurches do fail, of course, as all human beings do, but they rarely have to tell the world about it. Granger Community Church near South Bend, Indiana, has grown from ten people in a living room in the mid-80s to some 6,000 members now on several campuses. Anyone who has pastored a church knows how hard that work is. Growing such a place from nothing to mega several times over takes seemingly-miraculous powers. Granger has extended its reach through training conferences for pastors, missionary work in India, and online resources offered at wiredchurches.com.

Granger’s leadership team spent several days with pastors like me from western North Carolina to tell their story and help form ours. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist who’s now president of Gordon College, has interviewed Christians in dozens of professional spheres. He says the hardest people to get an interview with are Hollywood stars and megachurch pastors. The reason for inaccessibility in each case is the same: both sorts of celebrities have nothing to gain and everything to lose by talking to the public. One can immediately think of counter-examples: a newsworthy mea culpa from Bill Hybels comes to mind. Still, it’s impressive when a hugely successful church founder followed by thousands and commanding budgets of millions admits to a failure of any sort.

Why has worship online not flourished at Granger? “We’re just such a regional church,” communications director Kem Meyer said. Granger is located in what’s called “Michiana,” the portion of northern Indiana and southern Michigan that use the same freeways, NPR stations, and shopping outlets. It’s a distinct region even in the Midwest—dominated by allegiance to Notre Dame football (or, further north, a variety of Michigan teams). The economy here was harder hit at the height of the recession even than elsewhere, with a high of 22 percent unemployment.

Granger has made a major effort at opening its facility outwards in order to be a hub of activity in this community. “Activate the campus” is the language in their strategic plan, Vision 2016. They have remodeled and rechristened their building as “Granger Commons,” replete with a bookstore, a “natural” outdoor playground, and a coffee bar and sandwich shop. They have hosted high school dances and other non-churchy-seeming activities. The most obviously regional activity we heard about was the hosting of Notre Dame football. They might have fretted that the games compete for space against their two Saturday evening services. They decided instead to make football games into church events. “They come and watch it on our high def screens, the biggest ones in town,” one pastor boasted. Granger has worked hard to be a church for its community. Founding pastor Mark Beeson speaks of the way the church does metrics: “We count high school graduation rates and divorce rates,” he said. If the church is not helping troubled kids read and troubled marriages heal, then what’s it there for?

Precisely these quite laudable efforts to be the church for its community may be hurting Granger online.

The web has no borders. Other online churches boast participants in Botswana and Azerbaijan. Michiana, with its nasally vowels, Midwestern football allegiance, supercharged unemployment, and residually Catholic culture, doesn’t necessarily play well in those places. The church has found more online participation in northern Indiana than around the world. They’re working to receive that success as a gift rather than fighting it. Maybe an online presence can help a physical presence in the same region. Granger is not hurting for attendance in Sunday worship. Perhaps this is a way to create a Granger commons online among those in Michiana who will not physically be elsewhere on Sundays. Maybe confessed “failure” and unexpected success can be one and the same.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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