There Is NO Virtual Church (Part 1)
Online church is close enough to the real thing to be dangerous.

In the early 1950s when Robert Schuller and others across the nation combined a growing car culture with "Church," they believed they were reaching a segment of the population traditional church wouldn't or couldn't. "Drive-In Church" allowed parishioners to hear a sermon, sing some songs, even receive communion and give—all without the fuss and muss of face-to-face interaction. Except for a through-the-window handshake from the pastor as they rolled away.

And while they may have been able to point to a number of folks who "attended" that otherwise might not have, the question of what was being formed in these car congregations through limited interaction, a completely passive experience, and a consumer-oriented "Come as you want/Have it your way" message, meant that (thankfully) after a brief period of vogue, "Drive-In Church" has remained a niche curiosity.

The problem with the drive-in church model isn't that it isn't church—it's that it is just "church" enough to be dangerous. What this almost-church does is park people in a cul-de-sac where they have access to the easiest and most instantly satisfying parts of church while exempting them from the harder and more demanding parts of community.

And while I'm glad such an absurdity has remained on the fringe, as I watch the discussion about "internet campuses" I can't shake a certain feeling of deja vu.

Following close on the heels of the video venue push is that of the internet campus: real-time streaming of a church service, but with the added features of "live interactive features like lobby chat room, message notes, communication card, raise a hand, say a prayer, and even online giving." At least 35 churches in America are doing internet campuses, with more jumping on board all the time ( By one estimate, 10 percent of Americans will rely solely on the internet for their "religious experience" as early as 2010."(

Is this a problem? Something we should be concerned about or resist? Absolutely. Because it's malforming for those involved (whether they know it or not) and because it's sub-biblical.

The problem, in my mind, with virtual community and internet campuses isn't that it's not church... it's that it is just church enough to be dangerous. Because it has all the easiest and most instantly gratifying parts of community without the harder parts, it ends up misshaping us.

In an internet campus, for example, I never need to listen to so-and-so tell me about their hard week (again). I see no needs around me and so feel zero compulsion to move to meet them. And that's the problem. The lack of all of that forms me in a good way.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Bob Hyatt's post.

August 26, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 26 comments


August 16, 2010  11:58am

Hey folks, "me thinks this is much ado about nothing". I don't hear any of you criticizing TV broadcast of services, or live airing of church on the radio. What's up with that? The Word is the Word and the Bible tells us that "It will not return void". Let's focus on reaching out, not on putting up a sign that says, "If you want to hear about Jesus, come inside."

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September 25, 2009  2:49pm

A double minded person!! 1Corithians9:12 Do you not know that they which minister about Holy things live of the temple and they whcih wait at the altar are partakers of the altar? Hear people you can not drink the cup in good and the cup in evil you can not be partaker at the table of God and serve at the table of the devil be wise to judge what I say the cup offer blessings and is not the carnal communion of bread and wine but of the Rock. God is the Rock, His Words are bread to the soul and the wine is the wisdom to the head. Eat(read) and drink(absorb) the true cup of God.

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Keith Brenton

September 09, 2009  8:57am

I'm afraid "virtual church" is the logical next step after the 1990s "market-driven church." It's another step in the wrong direction: away from Christ ... and toward me!

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nicholas B.

September 08, 2009  5:12pm

I enjoyed the discussion and the topic. We discuss iconoclasm in the class i teach at Regent University, but you opened my eyes to a new context. Nicholas B

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Bob Hyatt

September 03, 2009  8:27am

John L- "It cannot -replace- F2F community" Really? Because I thought that was the *point* of online/internet church. And if it's not, let's call it what it is- a particularly slick evangelism strategy that we quickly encourage people to grow out of. I'd be behind that! But we both know that's not what it is. What it is is simply a way of pulling more disaffected and discouraged Christians into the fold of a particular church- numbers and resources- without thought to the ongoing, formative and mis-shaping nature of the thing. Yes- online interaction is here to stay. Soon, people will have online husbands and wives (they already have online affairs, right?) I suppose we'd be in favor of that? No? Why ever not?

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August 31, 2009  11:58pm

I just cannot imagine getting to heaven and having the Lord ask, "by the way, HOW exactly did you hear about me?" Church schmurch, NT churches were houses and fields and street corners, NOT renovated basketball arenas filled to the brim with tens of thousands of members and 8 and 9 figure budgets and a publishing arm and a recording studio and....and....and.... Bigger is not better and it's not what matters, nor is how the word is spread, regardless if the reached soul does not show up in YOUR local church ever. perhaps the good news was so compelling, that person is out TELLING someone else of the good news on Sunday and not listening to yet another 12 chorus rounds of a 90's Tomlin song...again. Refocus people.

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Bob Hyatt

August 31, 2009  6:03pm

Brando or Skye- I think the last line of this should read: "And that's the problem. The lack of all of that forms me. But not in a good way." It reads a little differently here... :)

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John Lussier

August 31, 2009  3:50pm

I think I just got straw-manned. Scott, you are right. Christ didn't die for that stuff, he died for the church. And I contend that individuals, completely seperate from one another, listening to a message and worship is not the church. Christ didn't die for that. He died for people who are "living together", gathered under Christ, for various purposes like hearing the word, taking the sacraments, worship, nurture, mission, etc. We can love pragmatic realization as much as we want as long as it's in line with scripture. The internet church is pragmatic realization that doesn't seem to be in line with the scriptures definition/marks/common characteristics/whatever of what a church is. Someone needs to argue that, not the pragmatics of it, not the "this is bigger than us", not the impact internet church is having, but how the internet church can actually, scripturally, be a church.

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August 31, 2009  7:36am

Lussier, I don't remember reading in the Bible that Christ died for live, in-person preaching. Nor did he die for preaching in Latin, or preaching from a pulpit high in the air, or preaching from a hill in a field, or preaching from a microphone hundreds of yards from the back row. Good change is not always DRIVEN by theological reformation. Sometimes change is DRIVEN by a pragmatic realization of the size of the mission that Jesus gave us and an understanding that it ain't gonna get done without utilizing technology.

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Nathaniel Starlin

August 30, 2009  11:39am

Not sure that's at all what the digital church is all about. It helps those who don't make it out because they are shut in.

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