Interview with Louis Halbgewachs

In this interview, Louis talks about how pastoring in rural Saskatchewan lead him to start an online church. He shares his thoughts on the role online campuses can play in church multiplication.

Tell us a little about who you are, where you pastor, and how long you have been there.

My name is Louis T. Halbgewachs, and I am the Lead Pastor of OneChurch.ca – a multi-campus church in rural Saskatchewan. I am married to Jenny and we have four children. We have lived in Carlyle, Saskatchewan (the location of our broadcast campus) for the last 16 years. Carlyle is a community of 1500 people in the southeast corner of our province. When we moved to Carlyle in 2003, my wife and I were numbers 11 and 12 in the congregation. Now the church has two physical campuses, an online campus, and a separate Youth Centre. Over 200 people attend in-person every week and numerous people join us every Sunday for church online. About 75% of the church growth is people who are brand new to faith in Jesus.

How did you get such a strong passion for church multiplication?

My passion for church multiplication came from a desire to see vibrant, healthy churches in rural settings. I believe God told me it was possible to have a vibrant, healthy church in a small and/or rural setting. Unfortunately, throughout my years in ministry, I watched as so many rural churches were struggling to impact their communities; often struggling to simply stay open. I watched as many rural churches, sometimes in the same community or very close by, were all basically duplicating the same structure and programs, all while exhausting their pastors and lay leadership. I joke about how we have historically done church in rural Saskatchewan: We want a pastor who preaches powerfully, visits the elderly and the infirmed, reaches out into the community, runs the youth program, leads the children’s church, all while getting paid next to nothing. If we are lucky enough to hire someone, we run them ragged for a couple of years, burn them out, and then once they have resigned, we drop to our knees and pray for another pastor to repeat the process all over again. It seemed like a doomed system – there had to be a better way. So, as I studied other multisite churches, I thought there had to be a way to leverage modern technology so that rural churches don’t have to duplicate everything over and over again in each small setting. With God’s help, we have started a second physical campus where we live stream our Sunday morning messages, and where they don’t have to expend the energy on duplicating all the administration, promotion, board leadership, etc. Plus, we have started a third campus, our Online Campus, where we live stream our entire services to multiple live video hosting sites, engaging people online who don’t normally attend a traditional physical church.

As you mentioned, one of your campuses is an online expression. How did you start that?

Our online campus started with the idea of what we call “pre-evangelism”: The idea of taking down barriers or walls that deter people from coming into the church or that deter people from coming into a relationship with Jesus. Twelve or thirteen years ago, we just hooked up a cheap web camera at the back of the church and started to stream our messages, with the primary purpose of allowing anybody to see exactly what was going on during a church service. As we became aware of the fact that there were people in our communities who were joining weekly online, but not coming through the church doors, we became more intentional. We upgraded some equipment and formally launched an online campus. The equipment upgrades also allowed us to start streaming to other physical campuses, such as our Redvers Campus, and other future campuses.

What kind of impact has your online campus had on those who participate online and also on your other two campuses?

Through our Online Campus, we have seen people engage in faith who otherwise wouldn’t. We have seen people come to faith and then join a physical campus or a traditional church, and we have seen people confess Jesus and continue to be regulars at our Online Campus. 

I’ll share just a couple of stories. A number of years ago now, I got an email from an oil driller in Qatar, asking me what I was thinking when I first started our Online Campus. He suggested that I probably didn’t imagine that there would be a group of oil riggers watching weekly from Qatar. Today this gentleman lives full time in Qatar, and there is a growing group that joins us every Sunday evening (in Qatar) for church. Another story is of a young woman who lived in Saskatoon. A member of our church invited her to check out our Online Campus, as he was on the worship team that Sunday. She joined our Online Campus just to see a friend singing, but something twigged in her spirit. The next Sunday, she joined the Online Campus again. The Sunday after that, she joined again, and this continued for months. Eventually she reached out to us via email, telling us she responded to the gospel presentation online. A number of months later, she took the weekend to come to Carlyle with the sole purpose of attending church in person. A few months after that, she moved 450 km to Carlyle, and now regularly attends our Carlyle Campus. 

As far as how has the Online Campus affected our physical campuses, it’s generally positive. There are times when some people stay home and join online verses coming to one of our physical campuses, but that is generally when they are sick or other extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, there are Sundays when people would be missing anyways due to work or other life commitments, and the majority of them still join in online when they are unable to join in person. We have a lot of people who work shift work in our community, and often they are away from home for multiple days at a time, so joining the Online Campus keeps them connected with their home church.

Lots of discussion is happening about whether online church can actually be a church - Would you like to weigh in on that?

Can church online be a church? I think I would start with challenging most of us with the idea that we need to preach the gospel where the people are, and today the people in our culture are online. The church’s online presence is the new church sign. You must have a functional, and “new person” or “non-Christian” -friendly online presence. Everyone checks everything out online. If you want new people to check your church out, you need to have an online presence that is informative, functional, and engaging for new people. Online church may not be how you and I envision people should be connecting, but this is where a large portion of our culture primarily does connect. Whether it is because of their preferences, or because of social anxiety, or the ability to begin a relationship with the security of a digital screen as a barrier between them, online is where an ever-growing population find their primary social connections. Therefore, we, the people of God, need to work at going where they are and connecting with them in their culture. Our culture is online and creating relationships and social connections online may seem almost counterfeit to many of us (especially those 40+ years old), but this is the PRIMARY way many are creating relationships and social connections. To them, it is not counterfeit. So, can online church actually be a church? It had better be, because this is the primary way many in our culture connect and interact. It had better be, because otherwise there are numerous people who never experience what, we believe, they need to experience. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it different than how I connect with people? Yes. Are those legitimate excuses not to engage people where they are? No.

You live in a rural setting. Why do you think we aren’t seeing a lot of church multiplication happen in rural settings, and how are you making it work?

I think too many rural churches are spreading themselves too thin. Too often we end up doing too many things poorly instead of doing fewer things well. We serve a God of Awe and Wonder. Yet, too often we do so many things, that when we finally get people out, they leave going: “awwwwwwe I wonder what that was, ugh”. It is hard to pare back and intentionally choose to focus on only a few things; to do them really well, with great intention and gospel presentation. Too often we think that, in order to be a church, we need to do everything. But in my experience, if you can focus, do a few things well, share the gospel, and then see people come to faith, the church grows. Then you can do a bit more. But too often we try to do everything with a few people. We spend all our energy just trying to keep the thousand programs afloat that we don’t have the energy to be intentional or reach out into our communities. Simply put, we aren’t seeing a lot of church multiplication in rural settings because people are exhausted from trying to do too many things. Simplify, act your size, do a few things with “awe and wonder” (instead of “awwwwwwe I wonder what that was, ugh”). 

The other thing I would say on this topic is to create an invitation culture in your church. Something that is unique in rural churches is that often our people think, “my entire community knows I go to church, so if they wanted to attend church, they would talk with me or ask me about it.” But the reality is that people don’t often ask us about coming to church; they often are interested and if we ask them and show interest in them, they will come out. 

What would you say to senior pastors, especially those leading in rural contexts, on why they should be thinking church multiplication?

I think pastors should be thinking multiplication because people in each of our communities need to know Jesus and non-Christians are not going to travel great distances to check out a church. Generally speaking, they already don’t think they want to go to church. So, we must go to them. Multiplication, if done well, can bring vibrant, healthy church to them and their community.