Cyberchurch The future church? – Is an exclusively online church a viable option for Christians? This is a question generating much discussion at the moment.
Well here is a rather negative take on the emergence of the ‘virtual church’ written by Todd Matocha for Evangelicals Now
I don’t agree with most of his comments frankly (but I do accept some), and recently wrote a short piece on this blog relating to the rise of the ‘virtual church’, which I will regurgitate, as I am feeling rather lazy at the moment.
[.....] If we as Christians are to ‘go’ to where folks ‘are at’, then it would seem prudent to go online. I saw a recent study (can’t remember the source) that stated that our younger generation is more likely to go online than switch on the TV now.
Christian forums seem to me to be the fasted growing ‘virtual churches’ and the irony is that you can end up knowing the folks on the forum better than the folks in your own ‘brick n mortar’ church, largely because you spend more conversation time with the folks online. There is something to be said for the mystery of Christians being together in spirit, even though not physically together. The written word has always traditionally been a major means of communication between Christians (geographically and through time) and let’s face it, even God Himself works through the written word.
I’m not saying that Christians should ‘forsake the gathering together of themselves’, but I believe that for good or for bad, the virtual church is on the up and up. I personally spent time with lovely Christians that I met on a Christian forum and I pretty much knew them even before I met them physically.
There is of course dangers in the virtual church. Internet trolls being one and of course other ‘Christians’. In the virtual world folks can be emboldened to be nastier than they otherwise would be in the flesh, but on the flip side, the anonymity can also give rise to an opportunity for honesty and dispense with the need for the ‘holier than thou’ mask that seems so necessary at times in the physical church.
I know some Christians that run a website for Christians with mental health issues, which is something usually very misunderstood and badly handled in the physical church. As part of the website they have a forum for Christian folks to gather together with others for whom mental health impacts their lives. This has provided a welcome sanctuary for these folks to meet with and chat to others who understand. The virtual church can indeed provide a welcome relief for those who do have problems attending church, or are generally misunderstood and sidelined by the church.
Like most things in this world, new developments can be a blessing or a curse, depending on who uses them and how they are used.
Here is the article from Evangelicals Now
There is a rapidly growing movement promoting the idea of an exclusively online church. This movement is becoming more organised and influential. In March of this year a group committed to the development of online churches met in London. The Church of England and the Methodist Church have already launched versions of online church. However, the push is especially strong within the world of Christian bloggers.
A blog is a website that operates like a journal. The host of the site posts short articles and online visitors can add comments. Blogs encourage conversation and engage participants in dialogue.
In his provocatively-titled work, We know more than our pastors: Why bloggers are the vanguard of the participatory church1, Tim Bednar sees the increasing popularity of blogging as ‘an impending sea change for pastors and the church’. He continues, ‘We are a new kind of preacher, theologian, pundit, apologist and churchgoer. The phenomenon of blogging is transforming our expectations of church’.
Bednar and bloggers who share his convictions want a church shaped by the technology of our age. According to Bednar, it is a ‘new kind of church created by believers transformed by their use of the internet. Their so-called virtual life is changing them and, in turn, they will change the church.’
Behind demand for change
Bednar argues that the invention of the internet necessitates a rethinking of how we ‘do’ church. Is this really the case?
Sure, we have greater resources to spread the Christian message, but the basic forms of communication known to mankind are the same now as they were in any given age: oral, sign and written. These forms of communication were available to Moses, Paul and Calvin. What has changed is the means of communication. Moses communicated the written word on stone tablets, Paul used scrolls and Calvin promoted reform with printed books. Now we use electronic means, communicating instantaneously and globally. We communicate better, but not differently.
What is it about electronic communication that demands a change in the way we think about the church? The invention of the printing press did not lead the Reformers to rethink the church. Instead, it drove them back to the origins of the church. They were not interested in the emergence of a new church, but in repentance and reformation in an existing one. The great need of our day is a return to apostolic ecclesiology. Ignorance of the biblical doctrine of the church, not advancements in technology, it seems, is driving the demand for change.
Desiring a sub-human church
Apart from leaving out people who are not, and perhaps never could be, computer literate, one characteristic of online church is that it restricts physical communion and fellowship. By its very nature it is devoid of people getting together physically in one location and having real face-to-face contact. This is a great weakness.
God created us body and soul. According to the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck: ‘Man has a “spirit”, but that spirit is psychically organised and must, by virtue of its nature, inhabit a body. Hence, man’s body is first (if not temporally, then logically) formed from the dust of the earth and then the breath of life is breathed into him. He is called “Adam” after the ground from which he is formed.’2 This is basic to the Christian understanding of humanity. Many of those promoting cyberchurch tend to emphasise the spiritual aspect to the neglect of the physical.
What implications does this doctrine have on the church? Primarily, it dictates how we are to worship God. Worship involves the whole man, not just the spiritual part. Thus, true worship must be offered to God in body and soul (Mark 12.29-30).
Further, online church restricts us helping and serving one another in a real, physical way. Jesus could not have washed the disciples’ feet or served them at table over the internet (John 13.5, Luke 22.27).
Sensual in the sacraments
Christian worship involves the whole man, body and soul. It also appeals to the physical senses. The worshipper hears the word sung, prayed and preached. In addition, Christ gave the church a visible and tangible word. In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the senses of touch, smell and sight are engaged. The whole man is fully participating in worship.
In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote: ‘Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists’ (Book iv, ch.1. Sect.9). Does cyberchurch offer this?
It would not be surprising to hear of an online church offering virtual communion, but is that a sacrament administered according to Christ’s institution? The very purpose of the sacraments is that they are physical, tangible and concrete. They are sensual signs that confirm, support and nurture our faith.
Authority of the local church
Another common feature of the online Christian community is the emphasis on the universal church to the neglect of the local church. Cyberchurches boast of having members from all over the world. The local church is marginalised; it is all about globalisation.
Closely connected to the denial of the local church is an aversion to church authority structures. Bednar wrote: ‘The dominant theme to emerge from my research is that bloggers value this medium because they can participate without being filtered by church structures or even doctrinal impurity. We have grown tired of pastors being the gatekeepers’. He seems to think bloggers value being able to say what they want to whom they want without accountability. This may be the biggest problem facing Christian bloggers.
New Testament writers speak highly of the local church and local church elders. According to apostolic practice recorded in Acts, churches were set up in cities and towns throughout the Roman world. These local churches were in some way ‘lacking’ until elders were appointed (see Acts 14.21-23; Titus 1.5). Paul speaks of elders as gifts sent to the church by Jesus to protect the church from error and bring the church to spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4.11-16).
Also, the local church is unique in that it creates an environment for spiritual nurture designed for a specific people living in a specific cultural context. The universal church is unable to provide such an intensely personal environment for discipleship. For example, Christ addressed the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) according to their unique strengths and weaknesses. He spoke to them individually, not generally. He spoke to them as unique local churches.
Things to consider
Opportunities for the church abound in the online world. We should not minimise this. However, we should not allow technological progress to lead to ecclesiological regress. We must learn how to embrace new means of communication in a God-honouring way. How can this be done?
Many of the problems we face in the online Christian community arise because we are not clear in our own minds about the biblical doctrine of the church. Pastors need to teach on the church. Individual Christians need to study the church. Read through Acts and the apostolic epistles looking for information about the church. You may be surprised how important the church was to early Christians.
If you have a blog, then make it a priority to communicate the glorious doctrine of the church. Let people who visit your site know where you stand. Also, communicate the importance of the local church and the necessity for all Christians to belong to a local church.
Lack of accountability
One of the greatest dangers facing Christian bloggers is the lack of accountability. Remember, blogging is a public forum, not a private conversation. If you blog, inform your elders and welcome their oversight. This is especially relevant for young, technologically-savvy Christians. ‘Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders’ (1 Peter 5.5).
If you are a pastor, consider starting a blog. Why? Many Christians, possibly even some from your congregation, are being spiritually nurtured by non-ordained men. Shouldn’t those who are appointed by the Holy Spirit to teach and preach be involved in Christian discipleship wherever it is taking place?
As we grapple with how to make the most of modern technology, let us learn to use modern tools of communication to the benefit and strengthening of Christ’s church.
pastor, Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff
1 Tim Bednar, We know more than our pastors: Why bloggers are the vanguard of the participatory church, April 22 2004, (accessed August 4 2009).
2 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.2, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p.559.