At Life.Church, based in Edmond, OK, visitors can chat with friends, volunteer on a prayer team, and watch live sermons.
And while Life.Church has 27 physical locations in eight different states, a new member doesn’t have to travel to any of them to do all those things, because Life.Church offers an entire, functioning church online that serves about 70,000 people every week.
Life.Church is one of the most notable examples of an emerging trend: the online church.
Why Are There Online Churches?
Of course, you might be reading this article asking yourself, “Why would someone sit at home and attend a virtual church on their computer when they could go to church with their neighbors and be together in the same building?”
That’s a fair question, and one that has been asked before.
But as generations change and churches look for ways to change with them, the allure of connecting online rather than face-to-face has become too prevalent for church leadership to ignore. More importantly, churches need a way to include people who are physically unable to attend traditional services due to illness, disability, or distance.
A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that people who report going to church less now than they used to said the logistics of getting there are the biggest deterrent.
So while attending church online may not be ideal in the eyes of most church leaders, isn’t it better than not attending church at all?
The 5 Biggest Online Churches
To be considered an online church, we looked for churches that did more than just live stream their services, maintain a Facebook community, or host a podcast. Today’s online churches treat the Internet as a campus all its own, with interactive chat, dedicated online pastors, and a web ministry ready to serve their cyber-congregation.
That’s why, for example, Second Baptist Church Houston—which has six different main campuses and a congregation reportedly over 60,000 members—is not included here. Ditto for Joel and Victoria Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which has more than 43,000 weekly members and an archive of online sermons, but no dedicated online campus.
You’ll find that most churches on this list are non-denominational. For example, individual Catholic churches—as impressive as their buildings are—rarely expand to the size of the churches you’ll read about below.
We ranked the below picks based on their weekly physical attendance numbers (unfortunately, we have no way of accessing the online attendance data). Though, as anyone who has ever tried to track attendance at their local church can attest, these numbers are very difficult to pin down and should be used for informational purposes only. Not to mention that attendance can fluctuate wildly from year to year and even month to month. With that said, we tried to get the most recent and accurate numbers available online, using Outreach Magazine’s 2016 Annual Report as a starting point.
After scouring the web (where else would you look for online churches, the phone book?) here are the five biggest online churches in order of average weekly attendance.
Average weekly attendance: 70,000
Main campus location: Edmond, OK
Online campus: Church Online
Senior pastor: Craig Groeschel
How they got here: Groeschel started Life.Church in 1996 in a two-car garage with some second-hand projection equipment. Over the past 20 years it has grown into the largest church in America. Why? About 10 years ago, Life.Church unveiled its Internet Campus, opening its doors to visitors around the world. Life.Church also has a popular Bible app, called YouVersion, and even broadcasts sermons on Second Life.
Average weekly attendance: 40,000
Main campus location: Birmingham, AL
Online campus: Church of the Highlands Online
Senior pastor: Chris Hodges
How they got here: Hodges founded Church of the Highlands in 2001 with a little over 30 followers. It has since grown to 15 sprawling physical locations around Alabama. The online campus has a dedicated pastor, David Russell, and an online prayer team at the ready.
Average weekly attendance: 39,000
Main campus location: Alpharetta, GA
Online campus: NorthPoint.Live
Senior pastor: Andy Stanley
How they got here: Stanley founded North Point in the suburbs of Atlanta in 1995, meeting biweekly in rented facilities until the late 1990s. In 1996, the church purchased an 80-acre site in Alpharetta and they haven’t stopped expanding since then. North Point now has 15 locations around Georgia and strategic partners in 15 different states and overseas. NorthPoint.Live ties all the campuses together with themed series, social media discussion, and related blog posts.
Average weekly attendance: 25,000
Main campus location: Lake Forest, CA
Online campus: Saddleback Online Campus
Senior pastor: Rick Warren
How they got here: Opening with a Palm Sunday service at Laguna Hills High School in 1980, Saddleback has survived and flourished through the transition to the Internet Age under Warren, who has become internationally known for his book, The Purpose Driven Life. In addition to 14 physical locations around California, Saddleback also has campuses in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and South Manila. Their online campus, led by Pastor Jay Kranda, allows visitors to watch live streams and join online groups or begin their own.
Average weekly attendance: 25,000
Main campus location: Fort Lauderdale, FL
Online campus: Calvary Chapel Web Campus
Senior pastor: Doug Sauder (Founder: Bob Coy)
How they got here: The second oldest church on this list, Calvary Chapel opened in 1985 under colorful founder Bob Coy. The church has expanded to nine locations around Florida and recently survived a widely publicized leadership change. Calvary Chapel’s ministries include one of the largest private schools in Florida. The web campus, led by Pastor Dan Hickling, broadcasts five live services throughout the week and exists to create an “online community, (where) you can connect with others, build relationships, grow in your faith, pray, and ask great questions.”
Did we miss one of the biggest online churches? Or do you know of a church that is revolutionizing the way churches operate online? If so, let us know about it in the comments and remember to share this article with your friends!
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