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 (http://digital.leadnet.org/2007/10/churches-with-a.html). By one estimate, 10 percent of Americans will rely solely on the internet for their "religious experience" as early as 2010."(http://www.denverpost.com/technology/ci_7228105)

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