The Most Overlooked Place to Plant a Church
Dr. James Emery White
- 2021 Nov 08
I am a wholehearted believer in church planting. In fact, I am a church planter. I planted Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) in October 1992 and have served as pastor here ever since.
Of keen interest to anyone wanting to plant a church or to support church planting in general must be pinpointing areas of need: fast-growing areas, under-churched areas, and sectors of our world where the numbers of unchurched people are high.
Which is why it is stunning to me that the key place to plant a church – where the need is greatest and the “fields white unto harvest” – is almost entirely overlooked.
I’m talking about planting a church online. Or at the very least, planting a campus of your church online.
And notice I said “campus.”
There is a difference between being online and having an online campus, meaning a digital campus of your church online. So what does an online campus entail?
First, what an online campus is not.
It is not a Facebook stream of your in-person weekend service.
It is not a video of your weekend service parked on YouTube.
It is not a livestream of your in-person service that people can watch through your website.
An online campus is a digital campus that is akin to a physical campus in every possible way. It has set service times that you attend and where you are greeted by hosts. The main difference between a physical campus and an online campus is that it exists, and is engaged, digitally.
There are staff and pastors ready to meet you and engage with you. In fact, it is staffed in almost every way you would staff a physical campus. You are introduced to online opportunities for children’s ministry and adult classes and invited to select in-person events.
The service itself has been prepared specifically for online consumption and engagement—not just in terms of what is said, but also how it is filmed and/or presented.
This makes the service itself different than the in-person service.
First, it is shorter—online attention spans are shorter than in-person attention spans. So at Meck, for example, instead of 60-65 minutes for a service, our online campus service averages around 40-45 minutes.
Whatever we do with announcements, they are completely tailored for online consumption, online engagement and online attenders. When we talk about serving opportunities, we don’t highlight anything related to serving during an in-person service. Instead, we highlight online serving opportunities, or serving days and events that are outside of weekend service times.
While the creative elements, including music, borrow from what is also being prepared for the in-person service, it is presented and filmed differently. Again, for online consumption, and with the understanding that we are attempting to connect with a single person, or a very small group of people (e.g., a family).
My message is the same, but it too is presented and filmed differently. I’m in a studio format, sitting instead of standing, talking directly into the camera. It is much more intimate—as if I’m having a conversation just with the person watching. We have groups of people engaging our online campus that can number in the 20s and 30s, whether at a local brewery or over lunch in an office conference room, but we know that the average person watching is just that—a single person or a couple, maybe an entire family, but that’s it.
But the whole idea behind an online campus is that when people sign on, and then later sign off, they feel they attended a service. Experienced a service. They just left their church home and their community.
Because that is their church home. That is their community. They would tell you they attend Meck and that Meck is their church home, even though they may have never darkened the doorstep of our physical campus even once in their life.
The other day, someone in one of the chat rooms said that they were asked at work where they went to church. They said, “Meck.” The person said, “Oh, where is that?” to which they responded: “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never been there. But it’s my church!”
And with an online campus, the goal is not to get them to transition to physical attendance. We make it clear to everyone to attend whatever campus is best for them on any given week. For some, it’s a hybrid—some online, some in person. For the vast majority – and I do mean the vast majority – they are very content with the online campus being their church home.
And so are we.
We can have robust biblical and theological debates about the pros and cons of an online campus. Trust me, as a professor of theology, I have them with myself. But as I will attempt to argue in future writings (my next book), and have touched on in past blogs (see “The Importance of Affirming Online Attendance”), I believe there is a strong case to be made for the church embracing the digital revolution and expanding our (often) narrow doctrine of ecclesiology to embrace where most of the world we are trying to reach for Christ currently lives.
It’s called “online.”
Which means it might be good to plant a church or two there to reach them.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.