The Distributed Megachurch

Tyler Jones wants to build something that is to the megachurch roughly what massively parallel processing is to the supercomputer. “We don’t desire to be a 20,000 member church, but, rather, to influence 20,000 people,” says the pastor of the Vintage21 church, in Raleigh, N.C. “Our goal is to plant hundreds of churches, not build one large one.”

Vintage21—the name refers to a 21st-century outlook for the church—is part of a loose group of about 60 churches, called Acts 29, who define themselves as “a trans-denominational peer-to-peer network of missional church planting churches.” (The name refers to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, which contains 28 chapters; the organization’s efforts presumably constitute the 29th.) Like its network peers, the Raleigh congregation skews young (the average age is 27). And as with other Acts 29 churches, a key tool for spreading the word is a slick Web site that includes hip graphics and offbeat navigation: Vintage21 in particular is known for its satirical videos about old-school views of Jesus. This outreach to the Research Triangle region’s tech-aware population has helped Jones build an active database of more than 300 people in just three years.

The church itself looks more like an art gallery than a traditional house of worship, and Jones energizes his services with things such as flash animation and PowerPoint. But he also wrestles with the use of technology in church. “We want to be spiritual people, to walk with Christ,” he says. “When does technology affirm that desire, and when does it detract?” In one instance, when showing video clips during services seemed more distracting than uplifting, Jones discontinued the practice.

Yet technology remains central to his plans for expanding his congregation, and for reaching out to plant other churches populated by young people. “Technology does influence the message,” he says. “Our generation is story-based. I don’t need to bring three points out of every sermon. Tell a story; our generation gets it. The Gospels are story-based, so we can use technology to tell the gospel stories.”

Vintage21 reaches beyond its walls with a weekly e-mail, which includes an invitation to respond with comments. The church has used blogs to focus attention on spiritual moments such as Lent, and to publicize and discuss a recent women’s conference. “We try to lead with technology to recognize the demographics of the people we are trying to reach,” says Jones. “God is an incredible creative god. Technology has a role in our ability to share that message.”

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