Online Church. Virtual Church. Is Online Church Church?
Is Online Church Really Church?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2009 by Mark D. Roberts
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Is Online Church Really Church? Introduction
Part 1 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In yesterday’s post I reviewed some of the highlights of the recent Christian Web Conference at Biola University. In this post I mentioned several conversations I had with people who are convinced that online church can be truly and fully church. They believe that so-called “virtual church,” in which people interact only through the Internet, can fulfill all that is necessary for the church. Those who are involved in such a church needn’t feel that they are missing out on anything essential. Sure, they might decide at some point to become part of a church that meets in person, but there’s no reason why they should have to do this.
I had been vaguely aware of online church prior to my trip to the CWC. I had seen references to this phenomenon in various sources, including a recent critique on the Out of Ur blog (an online publication of Christianity Today). I even knew that growing numbers of churches are developing “online campuses.” But I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that intelligent, Bible-believing Christians would actually entertain the notion that online church is really enough. Then I met some of these people and talked with them at length. (Ironically, my longest conversation with a couple of them happened over dinner at Downtown Disney. Someone it only seemed right to talk about virtual church in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, one of the world’s sanctuaries of fantasy and illusion. Photo: Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California)
I must confess that my first, knee-jerk reaction to one who claimed that online church could be real church was to wonder if I was being set up as the dupe in a joke. Was I about to be the unwitting star of some Candid Camera sketch? My initial response to one who advocated the sufficiency of online church was something like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But I could see in his startled and hurt expression that he was not kidding, not at all. He truly believed, not only that online church was sufficient, but also that the advent of this form was church as a great thing for the kingdom of God.
Once I got beyond my initial surprise over the fact that somebody of apparent intelligence and integrity was making the case of the adequacy of online church, I thought it might be helpful to raise some objections. I thought my first one would euthanize the idea of online church once and for all. “How can you celebrate the sacraments?” I asked. “Surely you can’t have online communion, online baptism.”
“Why not?” my earnest interlocutor asked. “People do it all the time.”
Once more I had to suppress my astonishment. “How could this be?” I asked.
“It’s easy,” my online enthusiast explained. “For communion, each person prepares the elements. By using some form of live, online communication, somebody says the traditional words, and then everybody takes communion at the same time. When somebody wants to get baptized, they fill their bathtub with water. Then they proclaim their faith and dunk themselves while the other church members watch on their computers. It’s just like what happens in a physical church.”
Yet again I wanted to spit out something like, “You’re out of your mind!” But I realized that this wouldn’t be respectful or helpful. Nor would it help us get closer to the truth about the adequacy of virtual church. I found myself curiously confused at first about how to respond to what I was hearing. Yet as I asked more questions and tried really to listen to what I was hearing rather than just respond negatively to it, I began to grasp why somebody might believe as my new friend believed. Moreover, I also started to get clear on what I believe to be the inadequacies of virtual church.
I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced of the sufficiency of online church. I do not believe that we can experience the fullness of what church out to be if our interaction with other believers is only through the Internet. Thus I am worried about what happens when Christians think they can have an adequate church experience without ever being face-to-face with other believers.
But, having said this, I must also admit that I found my interaction with my online church supporters to be quite engaging. Many of their insights are worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, the places where they are wrong, in my opinion, are also worthy of serious consideration. They can lead us forward into a fuller and more biblical experience of genuine church.
Moreover, as I’ll explain in my next post, I think there are some marvelous benefits for the church in the creative and careful use of the Internet. I’m not opposed to virtual church per se, but rather to the notion that virtual church is enough.
How the Internet Helped My Church and My Ministry, Section 1
Part 2 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In this series, I want to examine the thesis that online church is really church. More specifically, I want to consider whether an online church experience can ever be enough. Could a biblically-based Christian rightly believe that everything the church must be can be experienced through the Internet? Or is there a dimension (or many dimensions) of church that require face-to-face interaction?
But before I get to these questions, I want to share some ways that the Internet helped both my church and my ministry. I’m speaking, in particular, of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was senior pastor for sixteen plus years. In many ways, the Internet made a positive difference in church life and in my work as a pastor.
A Bit of Ancient History
When I began at Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, the Internet was used mainly by academics and geeks. We did not have email at church, nor did we have a website. In fact, the World Wide Web didn’t exist in 1991. It debuted in 1993. But in my first couple of years at Irvine Pres, a woman in the church explained to me that she was working in the computer science department of the University of California, Irvine, developing something called the World Wide Web. She told me that someday it would transform the world. I though she was exaggerating in the extreme. (Photo: Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, before we built our sanctuary.)
The first impact of the Internet on my ministry came around 1993, I believe. I was deciding whether to buy a CD drive (read-only) or a modem with which to access the Internet. I chose a modem, which transferred information at the blazing speed of 14.4 kbit/s. The Web didn’t exist yet, so I played around with a few sites that used FTP and Gopher. Then I discovered AOL. Soon I was hearing the ubiquitous “You’ve Got Mail!” As one of the early AOL subscribers, my email address was actually “email@example.com.” Since very few people had email back then, I didn’t use this address very much for ministry. But I did begin to use AOL as a research resource for preaching, a very rudimentary resource, I might add.
The Impact of Email
Somewhere in the 1990s, Irvine Presbyterian Church got email. Many church members had email by this time, though I can remember when just about every committee had some members without email. Nevertheless, I began around that time to use email as a major means of doing church administration. This helped me to communicate with my staff and lay leaders with unprecedented speed and immediacy.
Yet I also learned how email could be a royal pain in my pastoral backside. I started getting copied on emails that really didn’t concern me, but took up my time nevertheless. More significantly, I learned the hard way how bad email was for communicating complaints and criticism. I myself sent too many emails while angry before I realized what a terrible idea this was.
Though I originally thought of email primarily as a leadership tool rather than a means of pastoral care, once my email address became known to my congregation, I started getting emails that were surprisingly vulnerable. Many men, in particular, seemed to find it much easier to open up in email than in person. In fact, many of the men who shared deeply personal struggles in emails would never have made an appointment to see me, but were boldly honest in their emails. Sometimes, after several email interactions, they would come in to see me. Sometimes our sharing would remain safely electronic. But this is not to denigrate the quality of the communication, though I always preferred a face-to-face conversation.
Some of the men who shared deep struggles with me through email were in small groups with other Christians. But they did not feel free to share what was really going on in their lives with their group partners. The safe distance of email allowed them to open up with me in a way they couldn’t do in person.
I’m not suggesting that email intimacy is best, or that it is even adequate. But I do think that, for some people, email fosters unprecedented intimacy. It allowed me to know some of the people in my congregation more deeply, to counsel and pray with them. Yes, I often prayed through email. (No, I didn’t know God’s email address.)
I know that some who read this post will bemoan the role of email as I’ve been describing it. But in many ways the story I’ve just told is not particularly new. Yes, email is relatively new. But, for centuries, people have shared deep things through written correspondence. Often, in fact, people were able to be more open or bold or courageous in letters than in person. This seems to have been true, by the way, of the Apostle Paul (see 2 Cor 10:10).
Before I finish this post, I should also mention that in the last couple years of my ministry at Irvine Pres I began sending an email blast to everybody in the congregation. My so-called “Pastor’s Letter” dealt with a wide variety of subject matter, from the theological to the programmatic to the personal. My congregation responded to the Pastor’s Letter with unexpected enthusiasm. Though they knew that I was sending this letter to a large mailing list, many church members felt as if they had received a personal letter from me. I only wish I had been sending an email blast like this years earlier.
In my next post I’ll say more about how the Internet impacted Irvine Presbyterian Church and my ministry there.
How the Internet Helped My Church and My Ministry, Section 2
Part 2 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post in this series, I described some ways that the Internet had helped Irvine Presbyterian Church and my ministry there. Mostly, I focused on the impact of email on church administration and on my pastoral care for church members. Today I want to a few more ways that the Internet impacted the Irvine church before I delve into the issue of the adequacy of online church.
Website and Outreach
If my memory serves me correctly, sometime in the late 90s we got a church website up and running. A member of our church was a web-designer and programmer. She put together what was, at that time, a premier church website. It had an attractive look and contained plenty of helpful information. Unfortunately, however, she used a more advanced kind of programming language (not basic HTML), so only she could update the site. This limited its functionality, and ultimately led us to try another approach. For a while we used an outside vendor to manage our website, Church Community Builder. This gave us a much greater ability to keep our site updated, though there were some limitations in format. Church members liked the usefulness of the website in this season. (Since I left Irvine Pres two years ago, the church has opted to run its website once again. I understand that a lay leader is keeping the site up to date. He’s doing a fine job. The church website isn’t fancy, but it is useful to members and vistors alike.)
Speaking of visitors, during my tenure at Irvine Pres I witnessed an extraordinary change in the way visitors (and potential visitors) found their way to the church. In the early 90s, a number of people found the church through the local newspaper ad or in the Yellow Pages ad. The majority of visitors, however, came because they had been personally invited. By the time I left the church in 2007, we the newspaper and Yellow Pages ads turned out to be almost useless. Personal invitations were still bearing much fruit. But almost everyone in our new members class, when asked how they found out about the church, mentioned our website. Some found us by searching for “Irvine AND church.” Others drove by and then checked out our website. Even most of those who had been invited to church by a friend still visited our website before their first visit. Though nobody joined the church because of our website, it was a vital communication and publicity tool for visitors.
Website and Resources
Our church website also became a channel for a variety of resources. People could download or stream the sermons. They could also read or download transcripts of my sermons, at least when I was disciplined enough to make them available. Our website also featured a variety of resources that would help members and visitors, such as statements of basic beliefs, worship philosophy, and so forth.
In addition to the church website, I began my own website/blog in December 2003. This became an effective tool in my pastoral toolbox, as it allowed me to address a wide variety of issues that I would not have been able to bring up in a sermon or an occasional church newsletter article. Many members of my church family read my blog on a regular basis. Many recommended it to their friends, some of whom ended up visiting and evening joining the church. I have said before that even if nobody outside of Irvine Presbyterian Church had ever read my blog, it was well worth doing simply as a tool for pastoral ministry with my own congregation.
Our first attempt at social media was relatively successful, but only for a while. We used some sort of online bulletin board to encourage personal interaction. This included conversation about sermons, prayer requests, socializing, and lots of other topics. In time, however, relatively few church members seemed interested in this sort of communication.
Then came MySpace. In my last couple of years at the church, MySpace was a hit with the high schoolers. Junior high and younger folk seemed to prefer Xanga. Collegians and beyond seemed mostly to avoid MySpace. Yet high school age folk flocked to MySpace. I joined in, making sure to fill my MySpace with lots of pictures of me and my family so that there would be no question about my motives. MySpace enabled me to enter into the world of the teenagers in my church, and even to build relationships with them.
Although I was always on the fringes of MySpace, for many of the kids in our church, this was their chief context for communication with peers. For example, I remember when a young man in our church put up some suicidal thoughts on his MySpace. A friend saw this and called our high school director. He checked out the MySpace entries and called the parents of the young man, who quickly made sure their son got the help he needed. It might be too strong to say that MySpace saved this man’s life, but it certainly helped him get through a rough spot.
When I left Irvine Presbyterian Church in 2007, Facebook was just becoming popular with people beyond college age. Soon it became a major channel for communication among church members. Since I’ve put quite a bit of distance between me and Irvine Presbyterian Church in the last two years, I don’t have many specifics concerning the impact of Facebook on the church. But, from my 1300-mile distance, it seems as if many church members have found in Facebook a way to maintain and deepen their relationships, even if this sometimes involves relatively frivolous updates.
If I were a parish pastor today, I’d be looking carefully at the potential impact, both positive and negative, of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.
All in all, I believe that the Internet had a positive impact on Irvine Presbyterian Church during my years as pastor. It certainly strengthened my ministry in a number of key areas. So I am, in general, positive about the usefulness of the Internet for the church. But could church be completely online? That’s a different sort of question altogether. In my next post in this series, I’ll begin to consider that question.
What is Online Church?
Part 3 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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Online church, sometimes called virtual church, is church mediated through the Internet, and it can contain a variety of modes.
The basic element of online church involves live streaming of a worship service. For example, this summer I attended a conference at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (near Kansas City, Missouri). This amazing church, one of the newest and largest in its denomination, offers at least six different worship services on three different campuses. But you can also watch the worship service live over the Internet on Sundays at 10:45 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. CDT. If you miss the live service, you can watch a video of the sermon online. The Resurrection Live! webpage includes a variety of other Web-based resources. (Photo: The Church of the Resurrection)
Online church often includes ways for people to communicate with each other via the Internet. This could be through a social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) or a chat room. In theory, one could have a small group, prayer meeting, or a variety of other interactions in this way.
Online church could also involve teaching through the Internet. The most obvious modes would be blogging, posting teaching notes, podcasting of teaching, or even live streaming. Though I haven’t heard about a church doing this, one surely could use webinar technology to have a “live” teaching time with lots of online interaction (questions, discussion, etc.).
Of course online church would make use of ordinary Internet avenues, such as web pages and email. Moreover, by using online chatting with a webcam (or Skype), it would be possible for visual church to include Internet-mediated face-to-face, visual and auditory interaction.
With a little creativity, online church could serve many of the functions of in-the-flesh church. For example, suppose a member of an online church were sick. That person could communicate her need online. Another church member could use the Internet (or cheat, and use a cell phone) to have food or flowers delivered to her home.
Obviously, all of these online media could be used as an adjunct to traditional in-the-flesh church. Members who usually attend the church worship services could watch a service if they were sick or out of town. Social media sites could foster lots of personal communication, prayer requests, Bible study discussion, and the like. And, as I described earlier in this series concerning my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church, pastors could use a blog or e-blast newsletter to enlarge their teaching scope.
It is surely worth thinking carefully about the impact of online media on in-the-flesh churches. I expect I’ll offer a couple of thoughts about this as I write. But, in this series, I am mainly interested in the proposition that online church could supply a fully adequate church experience for a Christian. There are some who are proposing that a Christian could experience all that is necessary in church online. If that person chooses to attend an in-the-flesh church, that’s fine, but certainly not necessary.
Before I begin to address this proposition, I want to respond to those of my readers who think this whole conversation is just plain stupid. If you’re not convinced of the need for the church to find wise and theologically-solid ways to use the Internet, check out this YouTube video on the Social Media Revolution. I haven’t been able to verify all of the “facts” in this video, but they impress me as being more-or-less correct. No matter what you think of them, they demand our attention and creative response. (HT: my colleague, Perri Rosheger).
Making a Case for Online Church
Part 4 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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It seems to me that in certain circumstances online church allows people who would otherwise be unable to do so to connect with other Christians for worship and fellowship. This would be rather like the experience of my grandparents in the latter years of their lives. They were no longer able to make the trek to their church because of their physical limitations. So they watched church on television: Lloyd Ogilvie, Robert Schuller, James Kennedy, and the like. On the average Sunday, they took in at least three or four church services. Surely this was a good thing for them. And, though they were getting “church” from broadcast television rather than live streaming Internet, what they experienced was rather like online church.
Arguably, it would have been even better if my grandparents could have watched the worship service from their own church, something that live streaming would have made possible. Most churches could never afford televising their services. But live streaming is possible even for smaller churches. Because my grandparents could no longer participate in the worship of their own church, they felt increasingly disconnected from the congregation. Plus, most of their friends were homebound or had died.
So, a case can be made for the benefits of online church for congregation members who are, for some reason, unable to be physically present in worship. This could be true for people who are sick or traveling or otherwise precluded from worshiping at their home church.
My argument for online church assumes, however, that a person is connected to an in-the-flesh church. Virtual worship services are an adjunct to actual worship services. But the trickier issue has to do with the adequacy of online church. Some have claimed that it is enough for someone to participate online. In-the-flesh church is fine, but unnecessary.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of this view takes seriously the increasingly virtual world in which we live, especially if “we” happen to be under 30. Vast numbers of people in our society today communicate with their friends and associates through various online media (email, social media, chatting, etc.). Chatting on a cell phone, though not strictly online, is also pervasively popular, especially among younger folk. The “world” where many people meet, converse, debate, joke, confess, and live is an online, virtual world. And, though it is not the same as the in-the-flesh world, it is quite real. When I’m away from my family, for example, and communicate with them through some sort of online media, this is real relationship, even if it’s not the same as a hug.
Ever since Christianity began, Christians have sensed that they need to be where people are in order to share and live the good news of the Gospel. For the earliest Christians, this meant hanging out in synagogues and marketplaces, because that’s where the people were. Since that time, missionaries have gone to far away places, Young Life leaders have gone on high school campuses, pastors have met with their members in their workplaces, and so forth and so on because that’s where the people are. So, in today’s world, if multiple millions of people are hanging out online, and if the Internet is an extraordinarily popular tool for communication and community, it only makes sense for Christians to be there because that’s were the people are.
When I first joined the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I had strongly mixed feelings about the television ministry of our Senior Pastor, Lloyd Ogilvie. I knew how much of his time flowed into the TV ministry and felt jealous for the church. I also knew that it took a large pile of money to televise our worship services, including Lloyd’s sermons, and I wondered if this was a wise use of funds. Because of my personal loyalty to and love for Lloyd, I kept my concerns to myself. But I didn’t have a sense of peace about the TV ministry.
After I had been on staff for just a few months, I was asked to participate in a fundraising banquet for the TV ministry. My job, in particular, was to be the guy with the roving microphone. During a portion of the banquet, people would be invited to share what the TV ministry had meant to them. I would hold the microphone so their witness could be heard in a hotel ballroom with several hundred people. As you can imagine, I had ambivalent feelings about this assignment, but I did it in order to support my pastor (who also happened to be my boss).
When it was time for the open sharing, hands shot up around the room. I hustled from one person to the next, making sure that all who wanted to share were able to do so. What I heard was stunning. I listened to stories of people who were terribly ill in the hospital when they “just happened” to catch one of Lloyd’s sermons that gave them hope. I watched as people got choked up talking about how much the TV ministry had made a difference in their lives. I remember one woman in particular, a highly-successful attorney, who “accidentally” stumbled upon our TV ministry in a difficult period of her life. She became a regular watcher of the program. In time, in response to one of Lloyd’s invitations, she accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. By the time of the banquet, she was an active member and leader of her local church.
Lloyd’s television ministry was effective because he entered the “world” where people were, the “world” of television. He was able to be present with people in their hospital rooms, hotel rooms, and living rooms. Similarly, online church seeks to be where people are on the Internet. It reaches people who might never visit a church. It allows people to “check out” a church, even a worship service, before actually showing up.
Though there may be limitations to online church, some of which I’ll discuss in this series, I would hope that we Christians would take seriously the need and opportunity to connect with people online. Even if virtual church is not enough, even if in-the-flesh church is necessary for one to experience all that church ought to be, nevertheless, online church is an effort to be where people are today. And this, I believe, is a worthy endeavor.
But Aren’t There Some Aspects of Church That Are Necessarily Physical? Section 1
Part 5 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post I presented two arguments in support of the notion of online church. My main point was that, since so many millions of people are now participating in the virtual world of the Internet, the church needs to be present in this world. If we want to share the love and truth of Christ with people, then we need to go to where they are, even if this “where” is virtual rather than physical.
“But,” you might wonder, “aren’t there some aspects of church that are necessarily physical? No matter how sophisticated a virtual church experience might become, won’t it always lack some irreducibly in-the-flesh elements?”
You mean, like, the sacraments?
As a Protestant, I recognize two sacraments, baptism and communion. It does seem, on the surface, that these two essential functions of the church require people to be in the same physical space. Yet when I raised this objection with two supporters of the adequacy of online church, they were not swayed. In fact, they proceeded to explain to me how it would be possible for people to experience the sacraments in virtual church.
Virtual communion would still involve real bread and a real cup. (I think one could argue that the “bread” I had in the communion services of my youth was hardly real bread. I sometimes wondered if it was sweet, dissolvable Styrofoam.) Online churchgoers would have to prepare the elements, some sort of bread and grape juice or wine. Then, after watching the live streaming of a leader consecrating the elements in the physical worship service, all churchgoers would take the elements together at the same time. Thus, they would experience the sense of communal unity that is part and parcel of corporate communion, as well as the individual renewal of faith in Christ.
My online church advocates told me they had witnessed baptisms over the Internet. In one case, the person being baptized had a webcam to allow others to witness the experience. He filled a bathtub with water, confessed his faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and dunked himself under the water while others observed online and celebrated with their posted comments and prayers.
Now before I suggest some problems with these online sacramental actions, I would note that what I have just described does include some of the biblically-prescribed and traditionally-valued aspects of the sacraments (such as what we Presbyterians call the words of institution in communion). But it seems that almost anyone, even an enthusiastic proponent of online church, would have to acknowledge that something is missing here. In fact, this something is so essential to the sacraments that online church tries hard to include it.
I’m thinking of the corporate nature of baptism and communion. I realize that there are a few strands of Christianity that encourage people to baptize themselves or take communion by themselves, but these strands are clearly in the minority, and for good reason. The New Testament origins of the sacraments emphasize their essential corporate quality. Baptism is something new converts receive from other believers, not something they do to themselves. Baptism signifies, not only death to sin and new life in Christ, but also the joining of a person to the body of Christ, the fellowship of believers. Similarly, communion is something celebrated when believers are together. The “one bread” underscores the “one body” dimension of the church (1 Cor 10:16-17). Christians who think of communion simply in terms of their own individual experience need to think again, according to Scripture (1 Cor 11:17-34).
Even though online church can try to recreate a kind of corporate experience in the virtual sacraments, they nevertheless smack of an individualism that is hard to overcome. Communicants must prepare their own bread and cup, for example. And, though they can receive these elements at the same time as others, they cannot be handed the elements by another person, nor look at someone face-to-face as they receive them. Online communion can be coordinated in time, but it is still isolated in space. The unity experienced in the virtual sacrament is less substantial and complete than the unity experienced when people are together in the flesh. (Photo: In-the-flesh communion at my church, St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas)
Similarly, the person being baptized online is dunking himself or herself (or sprinkling, I suppose). Even if some observer were to say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” that observer would not be literally doing the baptizing (from the Greek word meaning “to immerse”). The person being baptized would not experience the feeling of letting go, leaning back, relying on someone else to lower him or her into the water. Thus online baptism is not only more individualistic than in-the-flesh baptism, but it also requires the person being baptized to be more active. This, I would suggest, is a substantive loss of the symbolic power of baptism, not to mention the subjective experience that mirrors theological reality. The fact that the church, through its leaders, baptizes people mirrors the fact that God, through Christ, saves people.
I realize that what I’ve said about the essentially corporate nature of the sacraments flies in the face of what many Christians believe and experience. I have been to churches where communion is available at the side of the worship space for anyone who wishes to receive it. A worshiper is free to help himself or herself to the elements in a thoroughly individualistic moment with Jesus. If Christians think of communion in these terms and if their experience is rather like this, then I can understand why they might believe that online communion is adequate. But, in fact, the basic meaning of the sacraments, the meaning given by Jesus and the New Testament, includes a corporate aspect at the core.
One of the reasons, I believe, that online church can seem adequate is that many of us have such an impoverished theology of church and such an inadequate experience of church. What many, many Christians think about church and experience as church each week might very well be approximated online. But, in fact, church is meant to be so much more than this. Meant by God, that is.
In my next post in this series I’ll think a bit more about ways in which church is necessarily physical, and why this is so.
But Aren’t There Some Aspects of Church That Are Necessarily Physical? Section 2
Part 6 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post I suggested that the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have essential corporate aspects, and even physical aspects, that cannot be adequately experienced online. When the sacraments are included in a virtual church experience, vital elements are lost. I’m not suggesting, however, that it is necessarily wrong for people to experience the sacraments when they are not physically with other people. I’ve always that it was cool that Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two men who walked on the moon, received communion while on the moon’s surface. (Photo: If you look very closely at the classic photo taken by Neil Armstrong of Buzz Aldrin, you can see his communion elements.)
The problem comes, as I have explained before, when people try to argue for the adequacy of online church, as if one can be fully a follower of Jesus without ever actually being together with other Christians for intentional worship, fellowship, and service. The Christian who never actually receives communion from another person who is physically present is missing out on something essential, not to mention wonderful.
But there are many other experiences of church that simply cannot be reproduced online. Consider what happens in worship, for example. One of the most sublime experiences of the Christian life is singing with other Christians. There is a sense of unity in worship and joy in praise that comes when congregations sing to the Lord together. If people are streaming church services online, they will miss out on this experience. Oh, I suppose they might turn of the volume and singing along. But, still, they miss the sense of being with the body of Christ in worship.
Besides, I wonder how many online worshipers would actually participate, rather than just observe. Would they stand, kneel, and raise their hands? Would they sing the hymns and songs? Would they say the Lord’s Prayer? Would they pass the peace of Christ in a chat room or with Twitter? Or would they mostly observe as others do this. My guess is that observation is the order of the day for online church participants.
Beyond worship gatherings, there are many aspects of church life that cannot be experienced if you are not physically present. For example:
• You could virtually observe a mission trip without being part of it, even supporting it financially. But how could you embrace orphans or build homes for the homeless if you’re not physically present?
• How can you lay hands on the sick and pray for them virtually?
• How can you embrace those who are weeping?
• How can you teach kids in Sunday School?
• How can you bring a meal to a person who is house-bound?
• How can you visit those who are in prison?
• How can you offer food to the hungry?
Oh, to be sure, a clever person could come up with some virtual approximations of these activities. But I think it’s clear that some key parts of the Christian life require physical presence with people.
I wonder if advocates of the adequacy of virtual church would argue for the adequacy of virtual marriage? After all, one could get to know somebody through the Internet, sharing deep thoughts and feelings. One could engage in an online wedding ceremony, with vows texted or tweeted or chatted (though I don’t know if this is legal). One could even remain in a faithful, emotionally-intimate relationship for a lifetime without ever being physically present with one’s spouse. But wouldn’t you think something is missing? Isn’t there something essential to marriage that requires physical presence?
In my next post I want to consider why physical church is not just an accident of the pre-Internet age, but something essential to the nature of church.
The Nature of the Church and the Possibility of Virtual Church
Part 7 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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If you’ve been following along in this series dealing with online church, you know that I see many ways the Internet can extend and enrich the experience of church. I affirm churches that are seeking to reach out through online church in its various forms. Moreover, I recognize how the Internet can enhance the worship, education, and fellowship of a church.
Yet, having said this, I must say that I’m not as enthusiastic about efforts to have online church become the whole shebang. Those who argue that a person can experience all that is essential to church through the Internet are mistaken, in my view. In the last two posts, I supported my critique with examples of church activities that either require physical presence or are significantly enhanced by being with people in the flesh.
Nevertheless, I do think the case for online church does find some grounding in the New Testament. Before I explore what I believe to be the inadequacy of online church, I want to explain where I would look in the New Testament for support of this form of congregational life.
I would not, by the way, put too much weight down upon an argument I have often heard in favor of virtual church. It goes something like this: “The church is not a building, but people. People can get together online. Therefore gathering in a building in not essential to church. Online church is real church.” Of course I have simplified this argument, but I think I have the basics right. In response, let me say, first, that I profoundly agree with the statement that the church is not a building. The church is the people of God in some configuration and relational connection. Real church does not require a building or even meeting in a building. But it does not necessarily follow from this truth that online church is real church. That conclusion assumes another truth, namely, that physical presence is not essential, that “gathering” online is really gathering. I find this suspect, though not completely impossible, from the point of view of New Testament experience and theology.
The Church as Ekklesia
Our word “church,” which comes to us by way of Germanic languages, is ultimately derived from the Greek word kurios, or Lord. The church is the Lord’s house. We use the English word “church,” however, to translated the New Testament Greek word ekklesia (from which we get words like “ecclesiastical”). In the first-century A.D., ekklesia was not used in ordinary Greek to refer to religious communities. Rather, it meant “gathering” or “assembly.” It also had a technical usage, referring to the assembly of voting citizens in a city. Essentially, then, ekklesia referred to an actual gathering of people. That was its primary sense among the early Christians. The ekklesia happened when they got together for worship, fellowship, ministry, eating, praying, or whatever else. There was no ekklesia when the Christians were not actually assembled.
Yet a secondary sense of the word ekklesia referred to the people of God, essentially connected in Christ, but not necessarily physically gathered. You find this use of the word, for example, when Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Whatever Jesus envisioned for Peter, it’s clear that he wasn’t thinking of building a building called a church, or forming one small actual gathering of his followers. Rather, the ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 is something like the aggregate of all local ekklesiai.
The Apostle Paul and Church Over a Distance
Nevertheless, there is plenty in the New Testament to suggest that church, in this broader and less physical sense, was something that needed to be experienced in actual churches of actual people actually meeting together. Yet there were times when one or more members of a church could not be physically present in the gathering. The Apostle Paul, for example, planted churches in various places and then left those places to plant new churches. Could he somehow be part of the churches where he was not present? While physically distant, Paul envisioned being present with his churches. How? He spoke of praying continually for his churches. He wrote letters that represented his presence and conveyed his teaching. Furthermore, in several passages he spoke of being spiritually present with a church even though he was physically absent (1 Cor 5:3; Col 2:5).
Paul’s example supports the idea that physical presence is not always essential for genuine Christian community. Yet Paul offers little help for those who are trying to argue that physical presence with other Christians isn’t important or desirable. In fact, Paul often speaks of how much he longs to be with his churches (for example, 1 Thes 3:6). Of course he was not able to chat online with these congregations or livestream their gatherings. But his yearning to by physically present with his churches indicates a strong psychological preference for in-the-flesh church, if not an equally strong theological conviction about physical nature of church.
I’ll examine this theology in my next post in this series.
Creation, Incarnation, and Online Church
Part 8 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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Let me say, once again, that I am not opposed to online church if it is an extension of in-the-flesh church. When connected to an actual community, not just a virtual one, online church can be a point of entry for newcomers, a context for deepening relationships among members, and a way for people who are physically separated from the congregation to be connected for worship, prayer, learning, and fellowship.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this came in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in September, 2005. The campus of Canal Street Presbyterian Church in New Orleans was devastated by the hurricane, especially the flood waters. Moreover, immediately following the hurricane, members were almost completely cut off from each other. Cell phones and land-line phones did not work. People could not travel even short distances to check on their friends. For months the members of this church had no ordinary way to communicate, and could not meet together. BUT, shortly before the hurricane hit, they had established an online bulletin board for church communications. All of a sudden, this became the chief means for members to communicate with each other, sharing news, concerns, prayers, etc. For several months, this was the only way for the church as a whole to “meet.” The Internet was, in this case, a true godsend. (Photo: The building of Canal Street Presbyterian Church)
But notice that it was an adjunct to the fellowship of Canal Street Presbyterian Church. To my knowledge, none of the members of this church suggested that their future life could be solely online. In fact, the congregation was thrilled when they were finally able to meet together physically, after so many months of separation.
Their joy in gathering physically points to a deeper theological reality. In fact, it illustrates some of the most central truths of the Christian faith: creation and Incarnation.
When God created the heavens and the earth, he created stuff. When God created human beings, they were a special kind of stuff. But still they were stuff. Human beings are more than just stuff. We have (or perhaps “are”) souls. But the “stuffness” of our existence is not accidental or incidental. We are not spirits trapped in bodies that are either insignificant or evil. This is precisely what the Gnostics believed, and they were rightly identified as heretics for their denial of the value of creation.
Those who advocate the adequacy of virtual church, with any necessary, regular in-the-flesh component, come dangerously close to understanding human beings in the way of the Gnostics. Those who think that people can experience online everything that is essential for human fellowship are overlooking or denying who we are as divinely-created creatures. Thus, I would argue that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile online church with the doctrine of creation, unless the virtual experience is an adjunct to the real thing.
Then there’s the doctrine of the Incarnation. In a nutshell, this states that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The very Word of God became human in Jesus. This in-the-flesh presence of God was the ultimate revelation of God as well as a prerequisite to the Cross.
The Incarnation dramatically underscores the divine value of physicality. It shows us that the physical world matters to God. Being in-the-flesh is essential to being human and to God’s way of saving the world. If physicality didn’t matter, if bodies were just the insignificant containers of spirit, surely God would not have gone to the bother, not to mention the humiliation, of the Incarnation.
One who takes seriously the theological implications of creation and the Incarnation will not be inclined to argue that online church is enough. Being together in the flesh will always be part of a full experience of Christian community.
This theological truth is reflected in our psychological experience as well. No matter how much we are able to share our souls when we’re not present with each other, through the Internet or other means, there is nothing like being with the people we love. Nothing online can match the power of giving and receiving a hug. Nothing online fosters intimacy in the way that looking deeply into someone’s eyes can do. Through online communication we can share deep parts of ourselves with others. But that kind of sharing will never be complete because it lacks what can only happen through our bodies.
In my next post in this series I want to reflect a bit on the benefits and detriments of livestreamed preaching. These reflections will also touch on the growing excitement for multisite churches that utilize some kind of video preaching, either live or Memorex.