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Digital Missions: Leveraging Technology to Fulfill the Great Commission

( [email protected] ) Oct 08, 2009 07:11 AM EDT

There was a time when a church's greatest ability to spread the Gospel was through the Gutenberg printing press. Over the years, advances in printing and communication technologies expanded the Gospel throughout the world. Today, Internet and mobile technologies are enabling churches to reach out to more people, in more places, than ever before.

Many churches have embraced new tools and technologies in an effort to meet the charge in Matthew 28:19 to "go and make disciples of all nations"; however, there may not be another church that is as aggressively leveraging technology to fulfill the Great Commission as LifeChurch.tv in Edmond, OK. What is particularly refreshing is that LifeChurch.tv is not merely developing new tools; they are giving them away for free to churches!

Growth, Technology, and Innovation

Established in 1996, LifeChurch.tv began with just a few people led by the founding pastor, Craig Groeschel and his wife Amy. The church grew steadily, and by the end of 2000, it was serving over 3,000 people. In 2001, Craig and Amy's fourth child arrived after the Saturday evening services, and Craig knew he would be unable to preach the following morning. Someone suggested that they play the video of the Saturday evening sermon on Sunday morning. This was the genesis for their first video teaching experience, and by year's end the church was serving over 5,500 people in seven worship services across two campuses.

By 2004, LifeChurch.tv had spread to four locations and was reaching over 12,000 people. They soon added a satellite uplink allowing them to broadcast a live video feed of their services to all of their campuses, and in 2005, the first out-of-state campuses were launched in Arizona. In 2006, LifeChurch.tv expanded beyond the limits of a physical location when they launched their Internet campus (now known as Church Online), providing a live church service for people anywhere in the world. The church pushed the boundaries of streaming video and web chat to provide an online experience that allowed people to engage in genuine community, volunteering, online LifeGroups and even mission opportunities.

Freely Sharing Resources

In April of 2006, LifeChurch.tv launched OPEN, an online web presence for churches to download creative content, messages and resources, all for free. Over 30,000 churches have signed up to use OPEN.LifeChurch.tv, with over 1,000,000 downloads to date, and according to Tony Steward, Pastor of Online Community with LifeChurch.tv, they want to extend this service even further. In order to do that they are building a team of volunteers to translate the OPEN resources into multiple languages. Terry Storch, the Digerati Pastor at LifeChurch.tv, talked about the impact OPEN has had on LifeChurch.tv, "Being able to reach out and help churches all over the world has blown us away. OPEN is completely free for churches to use, so that's created a lot of opportunities to repurpose these resources."

A Church Presence in a Virtual World

LifeChurch.tv took another pioneering step just a year after OPEN launched when they created a virtual campus in SecondLife, a free user-created virtual community. This campus features an online, 3-D service where members can virtually "walk" into the buildings of the church, interact with others and engage in church services in the virtual auditorium. The online campus even includes video kiosks and a resources section, resembling a church bookstore. When asked why LifeChurch.tv would sink time and effort into a virtual campus, Craig Groeschel said simply, "To reach people no one else is reaching, we have to do things no one else is doing." Storch follows that by saying, "Today, Second Life is a mission field for our Church Online ministry, where we have a completely volunteer community that is engaging with people in that environment. It is the most global community we're reaching today."

It is definitely making an impact. Storch relates how time after time LifeChurch.tv is hearing of the influence that SecondLife is having on people's lives, bringing entire families into the fold. One gentleman told Storch that he clicked on an ad in one of virtual casinos in SecondLife and found himself in a church service on Easter Sunday. The service moved him so much that he gave his life to Christ that day, and with the online services in SecondLife as a guide, his family soon followed him in that decision.

Creating Real-Time Metrics

Another barrier-breaking advance made by this church is ChurchMetrics. It was originally built out of a need for LifeChurch.tv to have real-time analytics in its multi-site environment, but it quickly became evident that other churches could utilize this technology. Storch states, "We were inundated with churches that visited us and saw the tool we'd built and they wanted to have that tool as well. That provided us with the clarity to share it." The benefit of real-time data is for churches to understand how their campuses and events are impacting the church as a whole, and ChurchMetrics makes that easy. True to form, LifeChurch.tv made ChurchMetrics.com completely free, enabling nearly 5,000 churches to make informed decisions for their future growth.

Building a Free, Online Bible Tool

Later, in 2007, LifeChurch.tv launched YouVersion, a free online Bible and Bible study tool that allows users to connect Scripture with media content including pictures, video, journal entries and blogs. Steward says, "YouVersion, in a sense, is a community of believers that brings a community feature wrapped around Scripture, extending the Biblical conversation." The idea was that to enable people to discuss the Word, it needed to be readily available and easily accessible to them. LifeChurch.tv set out to make that happen. Storch says, "YouVersion was birthed out of the concept and idea that people are engaging in conversations and interacting with media all over the web, but the Bible wasn't present in those conversations," said Storch. "The catalytic move was to bring the Word to intersect a content-rich and media-rich environment. As people are interacting with YouTube, Flickr or a blog post, as ideas are sparked in people, now they can interject Scripture into those conversations."

Going Mobile with YouVersion

In 2008, YouVersion Mobile launched with over fourteen translations of the Bible and was also released to the iPhone and Blackberry, again free of charge. Storch explains, "We started seeing that people truly did not have a Bible availability challenge; we have a Scripture engagement platform challenge. When we moved the Bible to the mobile device, we started seeing this challenge met as over 2,000,000 people installed these apps to interact with Scripture on their web-enabled mobile phones."

Empowering Communication with the World

Taking the idea of global communication a step farther, LifeChurch.tv released BabelWith.me. BabelWith.me is a free group chat tool that automatically translates a conversation as it is typed. This allows users to chat with anyone, anywhere in up to forty-five languages. LifeChurch.tv developed BabelWith.me to communicate with anyone freely, from church partners to those attending Church Online all over the world. LifeChurch.tv Pastor, Innovation Leader Bobby Gruenewald states, "In our increasingly global society, language barriers have remained major hurdles to bringing people together. Our hope is that BabelWith.me will set conversation free by empowering communication between different cultures and creating new opportunities for important discussions."

Sharing Teaching via Video

With all that LifeChurch.tv has shared of their own development and resources, they have encouraged other churches and pastors to do the same with VideoTeaching.com. In the spring of 2009, VideoTeaching.com was launched offering free sermons, or messages, from a variety of churches and pastors. LifeChurch.tv developed this resource as a way to meet the needs of churches that are between pastors or have services during the absence of a pastor, that have bi-vocational pastors, or for those that would seek to expand their teaching team through video teaching. Offered as free video downloads in a variety of digital formats, there are currently over fifty messages available with more being added shortly.

More on the Horizon

What is next for this innovative church? With more than 80 worship services across thirteen physical locations and the Internet, and serving over 26,000 people in six states and worldwide via Church Online, the opportunities seem limitless. With the free resources available to other churches, the growth will most likely exceed the context of LifeChurch.tv, which excites Terry Storch. "We truly believe that God's Word changes lives. We also believe mobile platforms are the future of technology. The big ‘what's next' for us to is to maintain our focus on mobile devices." Recently, YouVersion announced plans for a new, interactive addition called YouVersion Live. This free service will allow for two-way dialogue, encouraging users to interact with live events, share stories and engage in dialogue. Launching in October, YouVersion Live looks to be the next step in sharing truth via mobile content.

By combining innovative new technologies with free distribution models and resource sharing, it is encouraging to see LifeChurch.tv lead the way for other churches to not only leverage technology, develop it, and then share it with the world.

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Anthony Coppedge is the Director of Communications for Fellowship Technologies, creators of Fellowship One, a web-based church management software solution.