Online Church?

Since I became aware of the “reformed” stream of the emergent church movement, I have been following serveral bloggers from this stream with interest. One of them is Drew Goodmanson. He is an interesting guy because he is also in the front line of thinking about the impact of social media on church. (In fact, he runs a web business.)

Yesterday he reported a conference he was at where some were promoting the idea of planting an online-only church. The thought prompted the question for Drew:

What are we called to be as a Biblical community? And can this be done with technology?

This seems to be a hot running issue and I suspect that a large number of web-savvy people (esp. the young) think that the answer is simply a matter of working it through to a solution on the grounds that the web is simply another cultural medium.

I beg to differ. I wrote a quick response which I thought I would post below. It merely outlines my thoughts on it, but here it is…

Thanks for this interesting, and, I guess, somewhat disturbing post.

I agree with you that there can be community online. My problem is that thinking is subtly changing from church –> fellowship –> community as though these things are synonyms. I find it amazing that anyone can hope to plant an online-only “church”!

Here’s why: I am a reformational guy and when I think about “church” I begin to think about the marks of the church, which were recovered at the Reformation. These are

  1. preaching of the gospel,
  2. right administration of the sacraments, and
  3. church discipline.

So it seems to me that if we want a genuine biblical church (that’s what we want, isn’t it?) we need to ask how these can happen through the online medium. We might argue that online video can deliver the first of these adequately (though I have my doubts).

However, can baptism be done? taking of the Lord’s Supper where we “discern the Lord’s body”? The mind boggles!

Finally, how is discipline carried out online? In fact, how can one possibly have any idea that an online avatar is professing genuine faith without any kind of face to face contact? This is a basic starting point for exercising discipline. Even if one has a method, how can one effectively help with dealing with sin, especially if one is at the stage of getting an individual to see that there is a sin to repent of? I don’t think any of this can be done without life-on-life involvement.

As you can see, I am a bit of a skeptic!

Online Church?

26 thoughts on “Online Church?

  1. How can church discipline be carried out at all anymore? There are so many churches that if you fall out of favour with one you can easily just go to another.

  2. It is extremely difficult, I admit. We live in an age of individualism and consumerism. Church is merely an extension of this in many people’s minds: me’n’Jesus and a church that serves up an experience I like. (Independency does not help, but that’s another issue!) But we are not to give up.

    First of all church leaders need to have an understanding of church discipline and, while not always agreeing about everything, at least having an understanding that issues in need of repentance should not be left to lie. Some people at SPC are shocked when I tell them that I have contacted their previous church to check that there is no “unfinished business” left behind. If someone left our church under a cloud (thankfully it has not happened yet), when I found out which church they were going to I would contact the leaders of the new church to make them aware of the situation.

    That’s what we do, but there is of course no guarantee that things can be resolved. I know of cases in churches I have been involved in in the past where people have left to go somewhere else as a result of sinful behaviour and nothing can be done because the receiving church has a misguided notion of “grace”. Theological confusion and weakness in leadership has a lot to answer for!

  3. That sounds good – but I imagine you’re in the minority there. Most churches aren’t joined up like that I suspect.

    Also on some issues (like homosexuality or our attitude towards the cross) it’s fairly easy to find a church that wouldn’t have a problem with the issue.

  4. Just think of the possibilities from a church planting perspective. You could have members from all over the world. 😉

    It boggles my mind how people think they can be church this way in any sense of the word. Being church is not about exchanging information. Even apart from the church discipline issue, how can you be a true community? There’s no way of being a true hand and foot to one another if you never see each other.

  5. I don’t see any reason why church discipline couldn’t be done online. Why can’t it?

    The sacraments – ok – more of a case there. What are the issues that make ‘doing it online’ a problem? Assuming of course that you can also distribute things to people physically (e.g. by post).

    This stuff about true community doesn’t ring true at all. There are lots of ‘true communities’ online of all shapes and colours. I’m thinking particularly of the communities of blind people online, but there are lots of others.

  6. I never said you couldn’t have a community on-line. I just said you can’t have true community.

    I could pretend to be a woman in an on-line church. I can be whoever I want to.

    And in an on-line community, I can’t go and help a person do groceries, prepare a meal for them, or take care of their children while they go to a family funeral. These are all things that happen regularly in my home church here in Canada, and to me, they are the best indications of what makes true community.

  7. (playing devil’s advocate here)

    Is a true community like a true Scotsman?

    People can lie about themselves in an on-line church, just like they can lie about themselves in real life. Certain lies will be easier, but there is no essential difference.

    Yes in an online church there are certain things you can’t do or that are hard to do. That doesn’t mean they can’t be done (in exceptional cases you could meet in real life), or that they define a ‘true’ community for other people.

    Perhaps your use of the term ‘true’ actually means ‘what I personally define as’?

  8. Perhaps “true” means “what I personally define as”, but no less than your view, I think.

    I was actually trying to allow my view of community to be informed by my reading of Scripture, in particular, 1 Corinthians 12. That’s where the hand and foot reference came from.

    But if you can fill me in on how an on-line community can function well in this way, I’d be happy to hear about it.

  9. Thankfully I have met you both face to face and I know that neither of you are women.

    I’ll get back to this thread later. Got to work…

    But one last thought, esp for Rob: I am looking at the final greetings in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for Sunday. Why is it so important for him that he send Tychicus to them personally so that T. may “encourage [their] hearts” (6:22)? What can T. do in person that P.’s letter (“Web 0.1”?) can’t?

  10. Stephen,
    Your reference to the sending of Tychicus is important in this discussion. Paul uses written communication when necessary but his preference is personal interaction (Rom. 1:11). One major weakness with cyberchurch is that it fails to engage the whole man. We were created as a union of body and soul. Online media has its place and can be useful to the church. However, it can never replace the church. It can not meet the needs of the whole man.

  11. You can’t compare written communication in the ancient world with ‘written communication’ in today’s online world.

    The Paul of today would have had an instant messaging conversation, or even better a web cam chat.

    In the future there’s no reason to believe that proper virtual reality won’t be an option.

    The issue here seems to be about interactiveness, not actual being close physically.

  12. Hi Todd,
    thanks for the reference to Rom 1:11. I just looked up John Murray’s commentary on this verse and he has an interesting turn of phrase:

    “…the apostle longed to be the medium of conveying to the saints at Rome some gift of the Holy Spirit…” (p. 22, Eerdmans, emphasis mine)

    Being the medium rather than using some other… Interesting.

  13. Throughout history the means of communication has changed but the forms are basically the same, oral, sign, written. Moses passed on the written word on stone tablets. Paul used a scroll. Calvin used a printed book. The means have changed but not the form. Why didn’t the invention of the printing press (which allowed the word to be broadcast more quickly and broadly than ever before) cause peopel to reinvent the church? Yes, we use an electronic means to communicate but how radically different is our communication now that it was in the past?

  14. It’s incredibly different. The printing press allowed written stuff to be copied very quickly but the difference between the printing press and an electronic video conference is far far far greater than the difference between writing scrolls and the printing press.

    Principally the difference would be that these new electronic technologies allow full instantaneous real time interaction – as if the person were physically present. Written communication in ages long past never did that.

  15. It is a better means but the same form. As you said, it is “as if the person were physically present.” It is still written or verbal communication. How does this advancement change the way we do church?

  16. What is it about being physically close that you think is important?

    If I understand you correctly you’re saying that there is something special about being spatially close above the nature of the communication itself – so that is more important than being able to audibly communicate (for example). So if I stand near you and write things down that’s good, but if talk to you on the phone that’s bad.

    Surely in terms of communication what matters (according to the studies) are (in some order):
    The text of communication
    Tone of voice
    Visual cues (body language)

    ‘Written text’ has only the first (scrolls, books, etc). Telephone and VOIP calls have the first and the second. Electronic video conferencing has all three.

    One might add to that list that interactive communication (i.e. talking or instant messaging) are a different type of communication than ‘one way’ communication like writing books. So it’s improper to treat them as equivalent by merely looking at the means of communication.

  17. It’s not about being physically close primarily. It’s about whether you can truly love someone from afar. Love, to me, if I’m reading Scripture correctly, is what defines a true community.

  18. Robert, are you married?

    God thinks the physical means something, he created us as physical beings and put us in a physical world. He could have communicated with the word only. However, he sent his son in the flesh. The word became flesh. The physical is important, that is exactly what I am saying. I don’t think the church can be the church in a cyber world.

  19. In my opinion, and this isn’t as a church administrator, but a seminary student and technology hobbyist, technology only exists as a gift from God in order to increase the productivity of the church leadership and to expand the horizons of the church body.

    For example, my small group at my last church all signed in to an instant messenger at various times during the week to check in with each other. It didn’t interfere with our family schedules because we met after the kids were in bed and didn’t stay on long, but it helped us stay connected between physical meetings.

    And it didn’t take away from church itself, which is important, in my opinion.

  20. @Dan Exactly. The danger with these sorts of discussions is that people draw completely incorrect inferences from the Bible about technology because they bring their own cultural interpretative grid to bear on their reading of the scripture, and so write off things that differ from their own experience. Denominations that live in the past by not being culturally aware end up like the salvation army, whose theology is great but the denomination itself is almost dead. Good people to watch here are Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist church, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church, and The Gospel For All coalition.

    @Pete Well that makes things easy then, as you can definitely love someone from afar. You might not be able to, or you might not be able to receive love ‘from afar’, but other people can.

    @Todd Do you think that communications technology is not something God created? Can man create things apart from God?

    Marriage is a misleading analogy because marriage requires sexual contact which can’t be done at a distance.

    It’s not physicality itself which is the question because an online church would still have physical people communicating and relating, it’s how those people communicate, do they talk to one another by standing near one another or by talking through a ‘magic window’ that to all intents and purposes is the same?

  21. Robert,

    The discussion is not about the merits of new forms of electronic communication. I think the internet is a positive thing and profitable to the church. Yes, it is given to us by God. The questions raised by Stephen is the viability of an online-only church. I am convinced an exclusively online church is sub-human. It can never, by its very nature, allow for the physical. For example, it can never allow for physical participation in the Lord’s Supper. Are you still playing devil’s advocate? I have enjoyed the discussion. Thanks for your contributions.

  22. Wifie says:

    Reading all this with interest and Todd beat me to the last point that using electronic means of keeping in touch, accessing teaching and developing relationships is different to an on-line avatar life of any kind.
    I can’t help but be suspicious of the motives of people who “live” an alternative life on line with a different apearance, job lifestyle etc. I think that with our human tendency to make things idols and to end up worshipping things that are not God a “second” life is likely to be a huge temptation to idolatry for many people.
    I cannot see how people can be truly converted in this environment unless they are always acting exactly as themselves in real life and if this is so then what is the point of doing it on-line.
    As the only woman to have joined in the debate so far I wonder if the attraction of on-line church is to men because real church has become too feminine in its culture. Personally being in a church of people of similar age(as a cyber church is likely to be) with no computer illiterate people of my mum’s age and no kids and no technophobes has no appeal whatsoever. Maybe its a girl thing…but I hope not.

  23. Gordon says:

    Pete, “Just think of the possibilities from a church planting perspective. You could have members from all over the world.”

    That sounds very familiar, if only I could place where!!!

    Wifie, “I wonder if the attraction of on-line church is to men because real church has become too feminine in its culture. ”

    Too feminine?? I do not get that, but I “live under a rock.”

  24. Gordon says:

    Virtual Church? We often think we are “first” in having to address certain issues, when in fact these issues have been addressed previously.

    Reflect on the rise of Tele”evangelism” in the United States long before Dos and “Apples” were in every home.

    Services are/were delivered by television screen instead of PC Monitor.

    Interaction occurred through the telephone where “prayer requests” would be called in and read before the live “studio/church” audience. The “less sophisticated” could mail in their requests (paper, pen, envelope and that thing called a stamp)

    Taking a Collection? Mastercard/Visa/American Express/Diners Club are the medium and they are very successful in that regard. All called in to a bank of telephone operators.

    On reflection, while the questions you ask about a Virtual Church remain interesting, the concept is not new at all. It is only wrapped up slightly differently.

    Therefor, as part of the contingent that does not believe Church can exist in a televised/phone in form, by default I share your viewpoint that Church can not exist in a full online format.

    But from that something else develops. Can a virtual church be an arm of an existing Church in order to extend the reach of its own Ministry? To that question, I think you have to say a qualified “yes.” In my own mind I quickly think of soldiers in remote areas of Afghanistan that are not served by a Chaplain. I say very sadly that while we are able to equip small fighting units with 21st Century communication technology literally providing them with internet capability from the tops of snow covered mountain ranges, we are unable to recruit enough Military Chaplains (Protestant and Roman Catholic) to provide for the spiritual needs of those soldiers. A virtual church as an extension of a real Church can be used to meet the need. In this situation the virtual and physical basis both build on each other.

    My memory was just jogged, do you remember the link I sent you in May about this very concept of virtuality in Scotland? I think this adds to the discussion and no doubt develops further discussions;

  25. Gordon says:

    An important point is made by Todd who reminds us “Moses passed on the written word on stone tablets. Paul used a scroll. Calvin used a printed book. The means have changed but not the form.”

    I have no doubt that some will confuse the idea of an online virtual church with technological leaps that are adopted to spread the message of the Church.

    Is my use of an electronic Bible, by none other than the largest paper version provider, somehow diminishing the words themselves? I love my electronic Bible. It has a dictionary, cross referencing and maps!!

    I have commented to my wife that in our lifetime, there will be a day when printed Bibles will effectively be replaced by kindle readers. Instead of passing out printed Bibles, kindles will be handed out to those that did not bring their own. In a Sermon, the Minister will have the ability, by blue tooth type technology, to effectively turn you to the correct page.

    I am sure that there were many who considered printing Bibles with a press instead of handwriting versions to be diminishing.

    But again, I have also commented to my wife that in due time the idea of a Library with rows and rows of printed books will be a relic of the past. Replaced by a virtual online library. All at much lower expense to the taxpayer!!

    Those who want to maintain a private library will store their “collection” on a multi TB hard drive, never having to worry about mildew!!

    I have used my wife as an example here and because of that I feel obliged to point out that I too have questioned the “sanctity of technology.” When we are in America, one particular Church we attend does not have Bibles in either the pews or on a table to pick up!! The service is run by power point which is shown on the wall of the Church!! During the Sermon, the relevant passage is projected on to the wall for you to read and study. The hymns even have a bouncing marker to help keep you in place. Am I critical of this? Yes, but as I confessed earlier I live under a rock, albeit a rock with an internet connection.

  26. Wifie says:

    Gordon (alias under rock man) I was thinkng about the sad reality in many UK churches where the pews are filled (if they are full) with women whose husbands do not come to church as the whole church thing is not for them as they see it. A lot of modern worchip somgs are very sentimental and of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” variety which I know one of my colleagues in Derby found very disconcerting at a church he went to having been used to as he put it a “more muscular form of Christianity” in the days whn he had gone to church regularly. There is a book called something like “why men hate going to church” which has a picture of a bloke standing in the middle of a few women who are singing their hearts out, eyes closed and hands in the air and he looks at a loss to know his role there. There is the whole issue of being “sensitive” to people’s feelings and not being seen to be too passionate or animated in preaching which again can be seen to be appealing more to the women in the congregation. Not that we shouldn’t be dealing with feelings in church but there is more to it than that and I think the whole feeling driven move in the church over the past couple of decades has appealed to women. I’m not even going near the women in leadership issue and its impact on accelerating the exodus of men from the churches in the uk.
    This is a bit of a deviation from the original debate but as a teacher who is involved with young people I see the way girls and boys interact with technology and I think there is a difference. Boys game more and get involved in virtual worlds. Girls gossip, network and keep in touch more. The 2 are not mutually exclusive and both have their dangers in addictive computer use but I suspect in general terms more men may be drawn to a “virtual church ” than women.

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