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Ontario Church Experiments in Digital Discipleship

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Ontario Church Experiments in Digital Discipleshi

Redeemer Online Church, a digital church plant, “was born out of necessity,” said Cindy Benedictus, clerk of Redeemer Christian Reformed Church in Sarnia, Ont. The online experiment is only four months in, and Corey Van Huizen, the church planter pastoring the start-up—himself remote in Bartlett, Tenn., said, “This is still very much a new and innovative venture for us.” Joe Hamilton, pastor of Redeemer CRC, saw the need to get innovative last fall when Redeemer transitioned back to in-person services (after meeting only online during COVID-19 restrictions). Noticing a number of online attendees were unable to make the transition, Benedictus recalls Hamilton saying, “I think we’ve started a digital church plant.” Van Huizen was hired as its part-time pastor in April.

A digital church makes discipleship accessible regardless of schedules or physical or social limitations. It is “omnipresent,” explained Van Huizen, available “wherever you are, whenever you are.”

Van Huizen connects with young and old, families and individuals who come to Redeemer Online from all around the world. He has a special place in his heart for those who would never walk through physical church doors: “I’m hoping to reach people who are skeptical of traditional religion, especially its organizations and institutions, and encourage them in a walk of faith in Jesus.”

The digital plant is a partnership. Van Huizen’s credentials (his ordained status in the CRC) and the Redeemer Online’s nonprofit status are held by Redeemer proper. Redeemer’s administration and council serves Redeemer Online. Resonate Global Mission supports the church plant through a grant and pastoral coaching. Van Huizen creates content and communicates with individuals while Hamilton edits the videos. It requires a mindset shift, said Van Huizen: instead of digitizing a physical experience, they approach the digital space as a new culture with its own language, asking: “What does it look like to resource the discipleship of digital natives?”

Those resources include 6- to 8-minute sermon episodes that drop weekly on YouTube, 30- to 60-second reels on Instagram and #YouTubeShorts, a podcast, and emails. Van Huizen invites people to communicate on many platforms and eventually to join one-on-one discipleship meetings, although his sense is that “community is not always the highest need for those tuning in.” Participants often belong to communities but are looking for digitally accessible faith resources, Van Huizen said.

Van Huizen sees his task as bringing the gospel to the digitally native culture.

“There are a whole host of challenges related to assumptions and language and culture,” said Van Huizen. “I can’t bring my in-person physical church-planting mindset to a digital world without adjustments.” One adjustment is to preach a shorter message:  “Asking people to commit to a full 25-minute message right off the bat is like inviting someone to climb up a fire escape but not lowering the ladder.”

The hope is that in “lowering the ladder” with shorter videos, digital natives will come to trust Redeemer Online as they continue to consume content. (Redeemer Online’s current discipleship model is “consume, communicate, contribute.”) Van Huizen expects that as they begin to communicate with each other and engage with discipleship, “they can contribute spiritual fruit to the contexts in which they live.”

For now, analytics—how often reels are watched, how many new subscribers, how often videos are being recommended—and personal stories serve to gauge the growth of this digital church. YouTube analytics show that watchtime, subscribers and return viewers are all increasing on a daily basis. Some of these viewers shared their stories with Van Huizen: a gamer who never cared to attend church now watches Redeemer Online; a men’s group gathers in India; a mother watches with her two teenage sons; and a couple binge watches the messages together monthly.

“The end goal is to see more and more people put their faith in Jesus and the bearing of fruit—more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control in their lives,” Van Huizen said.

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