Alex Hood knows the New Testament and the newest technology. Armed with the Holy Spirit and computer code, he's creating an online community where Christians can connect without ever stepping inside the Crossing Church. Several mega-churches in the Tampa Bay area offer online videos of their services. The Crossing Church, on Causeway Boulevard, has provided live video streaming for three years. But Hood, the church's director of media and technology, and the Crossing's pastors are taking a leap with a newly appointed Internet pastor — one of only about a dozen nationwide — and a slew of interactive features online.
In a few months, viewers will be able to chat online with the Internet pastor during the weekly service. They'll be able to click a virtual hand when lead pastor Greg Dumas asks during the service if anyone wants to accept Christ. Dumas will be able to almost instantly find out how many people said "yes" by glancing at a computer with him on stage.
They'll also be able to go on iTunes and buy the worship music played each week and tithe with a click of a popup button.
It's all about getting people involved, Hood said. People were meant to be connected to their church and, until now, the online church hasn't been following that model, he said.
To amp up the conversations, the church recently named Tim Ingram Internet campus pastor. When he starts in a few months, he will be one of only a dozen or fewer Internet pastors nationwide, said Alan Riley, the director of Web operations for 316 Networks, an online broadcasting provider for churches.
"There are very few churches that are really trying to reach out to folks online and make them feel like they're not just spying on the church — that they're really a part of the church," he said.
Ingram will keep his current position as "connect and grow" pastor, but he'll also be busy on weekdays as Internet pastor, chatting with online visitors, helping them with their struggles and connecting them with other Christians.
The whole point of an Internet campus is to create a community and help people move on to the next step in their relationship with Christ, said the Crossing's executive pastor, Todd Bolt.
"We don't want them to feel alone," he said. "In terms of faith, we were meant to be connected with God and one another."
If viewers live in the Tampa Bay area, that might mean inviting them to volunteer events or other church activities. For those who live in Europe, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, it might mean chatting with them online and helping them connect with Christians in their city.
Wave of the future
The goal isn't necessarily to draw people into the church building, the pastors say. It's to create an entirely new community that can reach people worldwide.
Ingram will be the third Internet pastor in Florida, said David Helbig, the Internet pastor at Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens. Christ Fellowship's online following has grown from 800 to 7,000 viewers each week since their online campus was launched about six months ago, Helbig said.
Now, during the Sunday morning service, Helbig chats with viewers through a text box next to the streaming video of the sermon. His messages go out to everyone, and he can provide links for information about the sermon topic.
For religion, Helbig considers the Internet the Gutenberg press of the 21st century.
"I think this is going to take off like a wildfire," he said.
There's few models when it comes to Internet churches. Some of the nation's biggest church's, like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California, have archived services that people can watch at any time, but they haven't gone as far as the Crossing plans.
LifeChurch.tv, an evangelical mega-church in Oklahoma, is leading the pack. It launched its Internet campus in April 2006, and it even has a virtual church on Second Life, the 3D online virtual world.
On Sundays, LifeChurch.tv streams its service in its virtual Second Life church auditorium, where players can seat their characters, called avatars, and watch the sermon. It looks like a real church, complete with virtual donuts in the entryway.
Old idea, new method
Ingram says he's thrilled with his new position because the online viewers have been on his mind, he said.
He went to Hood's office one day and said, "Dude, the Internet people are on my heart." In an unrelated meeting later that day, he was asked to be the Internet pastor. It's a God thing, he said.
"The most exciting thing is that it's kind of an unknown frontier," he said.
The unknown doesn't scare him. It gives him room to make mistakes and figure out what works, he said.
"I don't know how we can mess up, if we're trying to reach people and love on them, which in a nutshell is what we're trying to do," he said. "You essentially can't go wrong."
And all the new, flashy technology won't hurt when trying to reach the younger generations, Hood said. The church has already launched a MySpace-like social networking site called Surge, which is monitored by the church staff. More than 100 people joined in the first few months.
"We're competing with the world. We're competing with MTV, with the mass media," Hood said. "We have to be at this level because we are competing for people's attention."
Dumas, the lead pastor, agrees.
"I think, traditionally, the church is really, really behind — 20, 30, 40 years behind — the culture curve," he said. "We're never supposed to be the culture, but Christ wants us to intersect the culture."
And although this cutting-edge technology may seem completely new, the idea is not, Dumas said.
It's exactly what the Apostle Paul did, he said. Paul went to Ephesus and Corinth, where the people were, said Dumas. Now, the people are online.
"That's where human traffic is, and human traffic means human souls," Dumas said. "The message never changes. The methodology does."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.