There is NO Virtual Church (Part 2)
Three reasons John Calvin would be opposed to online churches.

(Read part 1)

Calvin's definition of "church" is where the Word is preached, the sacraments are received, and church discipline practiced. That's a good summary of the defining characteristics of the New Testament ecclesia and a good summary of the main problems with internet church.

Is the word preached "at" an internet campus? Absolutely. In fact, the Word preached becomes the centerpiece. Church is boiled down to singing a few songs and hearing a message.

And while internet campuses provide a great sermon delivery vehicle, and even allow you to virtually raise your hand in response, what they don't do is allow you to be known and missed. You can't stand at the end of the gathering and ask for help moving. You can't help tear things down and clean up afterwards. You can't look after someone's kids while they pray with someone else. You can't take a visitor out to lunch. How can our community be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom when our method of gathering keeps us from ever physically serving, loving, or being present to one another? I know how participating in a congregation begins to make me more like Jesus. I'm unsure how that happens with an internet campus.

I know that "virtual" baptisms are practiced online. I know too that every week thousands in virtual communities practice virtual communion, if not together, then at least simultaneously. And I have to wonder, Why can't they see that's not enough? That simultaneous is not the same as together, and that taking communion in this way completely misses the whole point?

As for discipline and accountability, some say that online churches encourage more transparency in the chat rooms and virtual lobbies of internet campuses. But how is the pastoral care of prayer and recommending a good book, accountability, in-depth counseling, and church discipline practiced? Short answer: it can't be. Because of the nature of internet relationships, only what people choose to reveal will ever be known. Internet churches are no help for the wife whose husband really needs someone to open a can of Driscoll on him—unless, of course, you can get him to wander into the virtual lobby.

As for equipping: How does one become a leader in an internet church? Is it being made a moderator of the chat room? What does it mean to "desire to be an elder"? How am I confirmed in my gifts in an internet church? How do I exercise them?

The internet may present a wonderful way for me to connect with the larger Church, but it can't—and shouldn't—replace connection with a local church community. My fear is that like the drive-in church, internet campuses have that potential to make half-formed Christians who believe one of the highest values is convenience, not service—what I can get, not what I can give.

In a world struggling to retain its humanity while being drowned in technology, and in a culture fighting to remain deeply connected to a few while filtering through thousands of Facebook "friends," the Church can and should be a counter-culture. We should use technology, but we must not let it shape (or misshape) us.

August 31, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 24 comments


September 28, 2009  3:57pm

Amazing that hardly anyone here is talking about the ongoing activity of God in the world, and yes, in the online world. God is present there too. Is it so hard to believe that if those who are called to online ministry (and online community-building) are spending time in prayer and discernment, they might actually be doing God's will? Instead of spending so much energy trying to define what is or is not church, why not think about this: Do you believe that God can use all things for good? Then, think about how much time people spend online, and the increasing variety of things they can do there (many of them a lot less life-affirming than going to an online church). If anything, online church is competing against those activities and sites, not against the millions of brick and mortar buildings where people go on Sunday before patting themselves on the back and sitting down to a hearty meal at Cracker Barrel. Wouldn't you rather see someone join an online faith community than spend their online time looking at porn, or playing endless games of "Farkle" on Facebook? I would.

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September 24, 2009  7:57am

Hi, I read the article and I am surprised that the man is ridden by the technology such that he forget the religious values.The virtual church mustn't be the reality in this world.Such things must be prevented.

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Larry H

September 08, 2009  3:30pm

WHY do we keep trying to deny the fact that HUMANS need face time with each other? It is part of what it means to be human and Christian community - brother reconciling with brother; sister praising and praying with sisters - people in an "iron sharpens iron" type relationships are essential to becoming Christian.

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Kevin Chaney

September 08, 2009  2:44pm

I agree with both sides of this issue: When Jesus said 'when two or more of you are gathered in my name, etc.', this leads me to go and be a part of a congregation. (Beyond that, I also teach Sunday School to our teenagers.) However, the other side of the coin is perhaps much larger than what anyone has stated till now, and it also has two manifestations. 1) How many people, because of their external 'appearance' (re: Jjoe above) have been rejected by the congregations they have tried to 'join'? Christians, being human, can often be extremely critical of others, and judgemental because they are 'Christians' and others don't fit their own specific guidelines. These experiences frequently cause 'new' Christians to leave the church and resort to other means to learn the Word. Are we to say that any method of learning for these should be looked upon critically? Agreed, community is necessary, but who is to say that people who learn of Christ via the Internet cannot create their own community and perhaps use the Internet as a resource in concert with others, as I have. 2) I have enjoyed and experienced many services and worship styles via the Internet and podcasts that I would not have been able to experience at my own church. By being able to hear and see others, just as through the TV, I can gain fuller understanding of the Word and how it can apply to my daily life. As with anything though, as Jesus said, we must discern for ourselves. I agree with the comment above from Robert Angison: You are the Church!

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Steve Davis

September 08, 2009  2:37pm

Our church was preparing to launch its web campus in about three weeks. We were going to focus on two things: 1) With a membership about 80% military, services timed so our deployed soldiers and airmen could participate, even letting families say "hello" on camera to their deployed spouse/father; and 2) we were wanting to use it to locate good spots to launch house churches in rural WV. However, since Calvin wouldn't have approved, we're canceling the whole thing (and getting rid of our worship team's instruments as well).

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September 08, 2009  12:42pm

Good post Bob. Personally, I'm about as confident in these online churches as I am in someone claiming they are participating in a virtual online marriage. Though this is something we should be concerned about, it makes me wonder how many of the people who participate in this "fast food" Christianity are real Christians. Really, how many emotionally and psychologically sound born-again believers would be satisfied with this stuff. My judgement is that it's more pabulum for nominal Christendom.

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September 06, 2009  5:00am

It isn't about church. "It isn't the thing you do, dear, It's the thing you leave undone, That gives you the bitter heartache At the setting of the sun; The tender word [untyped], The [e-mail] you did not send, The [e-flower] you might have sent, dear, Are your haunting ghosts at night. "The stone you might have lifted Out of your brother's way, The bit of heartfelt counsel You were hurried too much to say; The loving [warmth] of the [chat], dear, The gentle and winsome [emoticons], That you had no time or thought for, With troubles enough of your own. "These little acts of kindness, So easily out of mind, These chances to be angels, Which even mortals find - They come in nights of silence, To take away the grief, When hope is faint and feeble, And a drought has stopped belief. "For life is all too short, dear, And sorrow is all too great, To allow our slow compassion That tarries until too late. And it's not the thing you do, dear, It's the thing you leave undone, That gives you the bitter heartache, At the setting of the sun." - Adelaide Proctor

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September 03, 2009  11:11am

I wonder if the online church movement is a response to churches that have become cliques and social clubs. Often we see changes in culture as an overreaction to things that don't work. Perhaps the online church movement started as a response to virtual community in a real setting.

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September 02, 2009  4:03pm

One of the more striking differences between a community on the web vs. a community in person is the absence of visual cues and the resulting misconceptions / preconceptions. We've all seen those studies where, given a bunch of pictures of different people and asked to label them, most select the tall white guy the CEO and the black guy as the criminal. Well, all that disappears on the web. I visit a lot of churches, and they are for the most part assemblages of people who look the same. Imagine a world in which visual stereotypes didn't exist. Imagine a world in which you couldn't tell that the person worshiping beside you was gay, or black, or teenager, or senior, or poor, or rich. Through evolution, our brains have been hardwired to believe that "looks like me = safe; doesn't look like me = threat." This is the fundamental reason we can't find community virtually. It's not technology and it's not scripture; it's that we need visual cues to categorize people.

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September 02, 2009  3:52pm

Saw this on the NY Times website the other day. It has direct relevance to teaching of the Word via sermons, IMHO. "Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile."

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