Online Campus: How It All Began (Part 4 / Actuality)

If it's just us showing off how we can use technology and innovation, then we're being proud by trying to draw attention to ourselves.-Me

(Click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3)

When I first started out as a missionary, email was starting to take hold as a communication tool for everyone. I was leveraging it in my communications with supporters and friends. A number of fellow missionaries thought I was silly/mad for using technology that minimized the personal touch of a handwritten letter or a long form newsletter.* I ignored the criticisms and plunged ahead with using email as a primary communication tool with people. I was able to interact with people, from the field, in a more realtime format than ever before.

*Because nothing says personal quite like a generic newsletter with someone's signature added in ink.

Two years later, I was asked to lead a seminar to fellow missionaries about how to use email.* It sounds a bit ridiculous now, but I still remember explaining to other missionaries about addressing emails and general protocols with it.

I bring that up because people have a tendency to doubt emerging technologies. We fear the unknown. Once the technology has been accepted, we often look back and wonder how we ever lived life without such technology.

Recently, I attended a presentation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I walked into one of the main lecture halls, and was amazed by what I saw. Every student had a laptop, there were two separate feeds being projected, smart boards up front, Twitter was being used to ask was cool to me. It also made me smile when I thought of growing up and taking notes with pen and paper while a teacher wrote on a chalkboard or overhead.

Education has changed drastically over the past ten to fifteen years. It is commonplace for a student to have a personal laptop in class, take classes online, video chat with a professor or guest lecturer, discuss topics in an online forum with other students and/or their professor, take classes from institutions thousands of miles away from the comfort of their own home, download lectures to their iPod to listen to later, engage with online content that relates to their courses outside the classroom and much, much more.

I'm guessing students today do not yearn to return to an educational system where there was less innovation, creativity and technology that expanded the educational experience. For most colleges and universities, they promote to prospective students about how they use innovation and technology to deepen a student's education, and experience, while a student at their respective institution.

I'm sure there are a number of people that would not like that style of education because that's not what they had when they were in school. However, the schools don't care what they think. They think about the current and future generation of students. They are thinking about the Millennials and beyond.

Okay, I'm guessing you have an idea where I am going with this.

Two of the main critiques I have heard about the Online Campus are: 1. not personal 2. it's just consumption

I'll tackle #2 first. Some would ask, "How is it church when people just stare at a computer screen?" I can understand why that question would be asked, but I'd flip it around on the person. "Do we have that now when people come to church in person?" The answer is yes. Unfortunately, a majority of people show up on a Sunday morning*, do not interact in a meaningful way with anyone else, go through the motions of a worship service, and forget everything from the message within a few minutes of leaving the church.

*Of course, I'm talking about church in general here and not specifically Christ Community Church. :)

If one is to say the Online Campus is not legitimate because it'll mostly be people staring at a screen and not engaging with the community, then physical churches are not legitimate.

In talking with other pastors and leaders that work with online churches, they see a greater engagement with people because of the innovation and technology tools available. People aren't just watching the message, they are engaging with others in a chat room about the message. The message goes deeper with them as they hear different perspectives about the message from others in a real time format. Through developing online relationships, they build a community.

This leads into the biggest critique, that the Online Campus isn't personal. I guess it's how you define "personal". Is it being physically present? I don't accept that because there are times people are physically present, but their minds are elsewhere.

With the development of communication technologies, distance is not a factor in relationships anymore.* You can have real time conversations online, you can video chat with people, depending if you're on Twitter or a forum you can jump in and out of conversations like you would if you were at church.

*Some of the best friendships I've had in recent years have been through connections made on Twitter.

To those of us that grew up without this, it seems strange and foreign that you can have legitimate communities online. However, this is the case. You see vibrant online communities for everything: books (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), music (Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga), sports (sabermetrics, soccer), politics (Barack Obama, Sarah Palin) and more. One online community I was a part of was for the show Lost. I had great discussions with people on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email and more because of that show. Even though the show ended over a year ago, I still converse with many of the people I met online because of that show.

People will gather routinely, online, to discuss a topic. I've experienced this with Lost, but also Husker football. Sometimes, general topics will spur discussion amongst social media connections. I've had engaging conversations about all things God and Omaha on Twitter and Facebook. Does it make it any less meaningful because it wasn't in person? Not at all. And, I doubt they happen in person.

These are conversations that are sometimes one-on-one or group conversations. People subconsciously feel they can reveal more when they aren't in person. This can be good or bad, but it happens. One study shows that people feel they can be more themselves online than in person. They can reveal more of what they are thinking and feeling.

One thing I'm looking forward to is seeing those discussions and communities form out of the Online Campus. Will it be weird to have a small group online? Maybe, but can it be legitimate? Yes.

I've been a part of small groups that were wastes of time, that were wonderful, that were social hours, and that were Bible studies. My experience of small groups in the past, and with online communities and relationships, have me believing small groups can happen in an online format.

What that looks like I don't entirely know, but I know it can happen. If the participants are engaged and open, if the discussion and conversation is well lead and participated, if people are supporting, encouraging, loving and praying for one another in the group, if God is leading the group...what more do you require?*

*Think back to how the education system has changed, and how it has changed how professors and students interact throughout a course. Can you see parallels within the church?

My hope is that people would connect offline, and I expect that to happen. We are already thinking of ideas of how the Online Campus can connect offline on a routine basis.

One of the online communities I've been a part of is what I term the Silicon Prairie News community. SPN is a blog that covers entrepreneurial and creative happenings in Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City and all points between. I jumped into conversations that were happening within the community via Twitter. SPN would occasionally sponsor meetups and then people that had talked online where meeting each other in person. The conversations where happening online and offline, but primarily online.

Connecting with SPN, and others through it, has helped me form deeper connections with people in and around Omaha. I have new friends because of it. 90% of the time we are talking online, but that doesn't take away from the connection, from the friendship.

These connections aren't just limited to communities. It can lead to discipleship, it can lead to counseling, it can lead to pastoring. Think back to what I said earlier about the changes in education now because of technology and innovation. We are seeing that with pastoring, coaching, and discipling people now.

Ultimately, though, we want to be drawing people closer to Jesus. We want people to get answers to their spiritual questions. We want people to get hope and healing for their hurts. We want people, who may be isolated or alone, to get connected with others. We want to see this happen through the Online Campus. If it's just a social hour, where people are giving lip service to God, then we'll be wasting everyone's time. If it's just us showing off how we can use technology and innovation, then we're being proud by trying to draw attention to ourselves.

We do understand it takes time. Community doesn't happen over night, but I do believe we'll see a vibrant online community take shape with the Online Campus. What that will look like, I don't know. I wish I had all the answers! However, I do know it can happen. I look forward to seeing what takes place with God at the lead on this.

This post is republished from Robert's personal blog, RamHatter.