October 27, 2009
Virtual Church is STILL a Bad Idea
Online churches are missing a few essential ingredients.
**Editor's Note: I apologize for the lack of posts in recent days. We've been experiencing some technical difficulties. -Url Scaramanga**
I was disappointed to read Douglas Estes’ piece last week on Ur, for a number of reasons, but chief among them is this: it fails to deal substantively with a single serious critique that has been raised regarding virtual church. In fact, Mr. Estes not only fails to address the critique, but he seems to fail even to understand it.
So in a spirit of Christian love and good dialogue, let me respond point by point!
First, Mr. Estes asserts that critique of virtual church can be boiled down to “Internet campuses and online churches are not true churches because they don’t look like and feel like churches are expected to look like and feel like (in the West, anyway).”
Respectfully, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, my concern about internet church is that it’s too much like what we expect (and want) church to look and feel like (at least in the West).
Video venues and internet church are the logical next step to the celebrity and consumer culture of America, and they represent a threat to both the overall maturity of the Body of Christ and our counter-cultural mandate. Celebrity elevation of pastors who have begun to franchise themselves and their “brand” around the nation should concern us for a number of reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere—they draw down people and resources from other church communities and they are unable to do mission-critical activities.
I’d say those are pretty substantial concerns.
Second, this article repeats what I see as the major scriptural argument in favor of virtual church—“Nowhere in the Bible does it preclude online church.” The argument from silence, as we all remember from high school debate class, is the weakest. And in this case, I believe the Bible isn’t silent. Let me ask very plainly:
What do we call a church that not only fails to engage in, but makes a practical impossibility, the idea of church discipline? How will discipline happen in Second Life/Internet/Sim Church, where anonymity reigns and screen names and identities are changed with a couple clicks?
What do we call a church that not only fails to engage in, but makes a practical impossibility, the equipping ministry of the church? What about discipleship and leadership formation? How does one become an elder in a virtual church? What do we call churches without biblical eldership?
Can true community be mediated by a screen, or is it forged in the times at table, bearing one another’s burdens, serving the poor and one another together, at weddings and funerals, births and deaths … all the stuff that happens when I turn the screen off.
These are not “sleight of hand” questions, but real ecclesiastical concerns that go beyond “cultural factors, pop psychology, materialistic misreadings of a few New Testament verses, or worse, citations of famous pastors who have doubts.”
The remainder of Mr. Estes’ article deals with the idea that critics of virtual church are really just privileging one “space” over another and saying that “meeting” in virtual space is equivalent to meeting in a cathedral or even a pub (hmm…a pub? That’s a great idea!)
Ironically, he (unwittingly) offers the best arguments against the model.
Mr. Estes writes that “every virtual church I’ve encountered has worked very hard to put into place ‘regular’ aspects—from baptisms to small groups to mission trips—in order to help build real community across the board.” It seems like he is saying that flesh and blood proximity is necessary for “real community”—a contention I agree with.
No, the space where a community meets doesn’t make it a legitimate church. It’s not where we meet, but that we meet. And whether people are actually meeting together—that is, whether you and me watching the same video stream, silently reading the comments in the chat room as we sip our individual portions of grape juice and eat crackers, rises to the level of “ecclesia” and the picture of Acts 2:42—has yet to be determined.
In other words, I have yet to be convinced that simultaneity equals community.
If "community" was the only reason we had church, there might be some validity to gathering online, in the same chat room at the same time, and calling that “church.”
But it’s not the only reason.
The worship, equipping, and discipling ministries of the church simply can’t take place through the internet. Pieces of them can, but eventually the jump has to be made. I met my wife online, for Pete’s sake! But if we had left it there? Arguing for the validity of “virtual church” is like arguing for the validity of online marriages. There are one or two vital things that get left out ...
A truly biblical Church requires that we heed the biblical call of Hebrews 10 to not give up gathering together and BEING PRESENT to one another in real, actual life. To break bread together requires that we actually be together, not just online simultaneously. Sim Church is a nice idea, but I would much rather see the proponents of virtual church argue for the effective use of technology as part of an overall strategy for connecting with people, while clearly and plainly telling them, “This is not church.”
To be a part of the Body requires you to be present, fully present, to others in a way you can’t be online. Internet tools may enhance that presence when you are apart, but they can’t replace it. And nothing we do as a Church should ever communicate that they can.