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.

October 27, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 31 comments

IT Courses

August 31, 2011  5:40am

One thing that makes going to church special is the concept of "sacrifice". Online prayer communities can be called as just that, "communities". While online universities work, physical and spiritual presence is needed to make a church experience real.

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gifts for her

November 03, 2009  6:05am

Church is a place where people find peace and pray to god. I don't think that ON line or virtual church can give you this.

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Jessica Edwards

October 31, 2009  9:56pm

I want to thank you, Bob, for the seriousness with which you take this issue. You really do have some very good points. There really cannot be Biblical eldership in an online community. St. Pixels has several pastors that are part of the community, but none of them function in that capacity officially. The services are essentially lay led, even if the person leading that particular service is ordained in a brick and mortar church. But, if I recall correctly (remember, I am not a scholar, so please forgive me for my errors), the earliest churches also did not have elders. Church leadership came about pretty early on, during the time of Paul, but house churches did not always have ordination. However, St. Pixels does equip people for leadership. There are studies, and people who are more learned than others in particular areas, tend to do more leading in those areas, although granted it is usually in an unofficial capacity. People are chosen for positions as moderators or hosts of various areas. But, granted, it isn't the same. I agree that simultaniety does not equal community. To be honest, I've had some experience visiting churches where the service consists of watching a large screen, maybe singing along with a worship band, and then exiting. To me, those experiences have always felt very isolating, even though they have taken place in mega churches. We are "meeting" together in the same physical presence, but there truly is no community nor relationships. It is primarily a passive experience. Perhaps because of how it is arranged, and the size, I have not felt that same experience at St. Pixels. The largest attendence has been 50 people, and generally services consist of around 20 or so. This makes for a far more manageable group, especially when it is hampered (and yes, in some ways, it does hamper) by the lack of physical presence. But in a group that size, participation is possible and necessary. As to what percentage of people actually sing along, it is probably a fairly smallish number, maybe 30% or so. Of course, I've noticed more than a few people in brick and mortar churches not singing, either. In the prayers of the people, most people do participate. Probably about 80% or so. Equipping for ministry is a trickier issue. In some ways, St. Pixels does an excellent job of equipping members for membership. People get experience in things (preaching, leading worship, conducting Bible studies) that they might not have the confidence or opportunity to do in real life. However, it does suffer from an inability to equip ministers for many areas of ministry (physical ministries, education of children, etc). That is a real limitation. You are correct that online we cannot be truly present with other people in ways we can be off screen. But, in some other ways, we can be more present. I can worship with my community when I am traveling. When I moved, my church moved with me. I can be in dialogue and worship with people all over the globe, in a myriad of time zones. And frankly, I was able to be honest at St. Pixels about my spiritual struggles, largely because it was a virtual space. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but in some ways, communication and intimacy are enhanced, because we may be less threatened. I was able to talk about my problems with God with a pastor BECAUSE he was a thousand miles away. For thirty years, I had been too scared to be forthright or honest with someone in the same room. It was a pretty big breakthrough, one that has allowed me to expand, to be more real with people who are located in the same geographical space. Quite frankly, I am more comfortable calling St. Pixels a church than calling internet outreach done as part of a larger congregation "church." At St. Pixels, this is it. This is what we have. This is our community and our congregation, and as such there is remarkable stability of membership and pretty extensive commitment to the congreg

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still

October 31, 2009  1:36pm

"My prayer...that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you...May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me..." (John 17:20-23) The "virtual church" is STILL a good idea in promoting spiritual unity vs. the "brick and mortar church" that, sadly and ironically, perpetuates the divisions of Christianity.

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Bob Hyatt

October 31, 2009  8:34am

"Is online church a replacement for brick and mortar churches? By no means!"- exactly. My point precisely. And yet, the simple act of calling it "online church" implies the opposite. Look- no one is saying significant ministry can't happen via the internet. It can and does. You say "the church does not consist solely of worship. If it lacked a cohesive community, then I believe we would be justified in calling into question the ecclesiastical nature of it." This implies your definition of church is "worship+Fellowship = Church". I'm saying that biblically, that falls short. "Obviously, sacraments (baptism, eucharist) cannot be served in a virtual manner." And there's just one way it falls short. I've listed a few others in this article. (By the way- what percentage of people logging in would you say are singing along and actually worshiping, as opposed to sitting passively and listening? I'd bet it's pretty high) Again- significant ministry can happen on the internet- preaching, encouragement, etc. But some very essential elements for what it means to be the body of Christ are missing when engagement is primarily online. God is present everywhere. We CAN'T be. God calls us to be present to people in a local assembly for many good reasons that the internet just will never be able to replicate.

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Bob Hyatt

October 31, 2009  8:32am

"Is online church a replacement for brick and mortar churches? By no means!"- exactly. My point precisely. And yet, the simple act of calling it "online church" implies the opposite. Look- no one is saying significant ministry can't happen via the internet. It can and does. You say "the church does not consist solely of worship. If it lacked a cohesive community, then I believe we would be justified in calling into question the ecclesiastical nature of it." This implies your definition of church is "worship+Fellowship = Church". I'm saying that biblically, that falls short. "Obviously, sacraments (baptism, eucharist) cannot be served in a virtual manner." And there's just one way it falls short. I've listed a few others in this article. (By the way- what percentage of people logging in would you say are singing along and actually worshiping, as opposed to sitting passively and listening? I'd bet it's pretty high) Again- significant ministry can happen on the internet- preaching, encouragement, etc. But some very essential elements for what it means to be the body of Christ are missing when engagement is primarily online. God is present everywhere. We CAN'T be. God calls us to be present to people in a local assembly for many good reasons that the internet just will never be able to replicate.

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Jessica Edwards

October 30, 2009  7:00pm

I would like to offer a differing perspective. Online church has saved my soul. Truly, that is not too strong a phrase. I am not a scholar, but I have been a seeker for most of my life. I have been an active participant in brick and mortar churches, but I never was able to make the leap of faith from seeker to disciple. In February 2008, in what could only be the work of the Holy Spirit, I was led to an online church called St. Pixels. (www.stpixels.com) St. Pixels has many components. There is a chat room area which has both social areas (the porch and the bar) and worship areas (the sanctuary.) Every day at 9 pm British time, there is a service. There are services held at other times during several other days of the week. Obviously, sacraments (baptism, eucharist) cannot be served in a virtual manner. However, worship can and does take place. There is a congregational leader. The service consists of hymns or songs, a reading from Scripture, a sermon or message preached from a virtual pulpit, and prayers led both by the congregational leader and the community. If these components of worship were held in a brick and mortar church, would this be considered a worship service? Of course! Therefore, it is difficult for me to say that this does not meet the criteria for worship. God is clearly present! His Word is proclaimed. Prayers are offered. Furthermore, the church does not consist solely of worship. If it lacked a cohesive community, then I believe we would be justified in calling into question the ecclesiastical nature of it. However, members spend a great deal of time in fellowship in "the porch" or "the bar." We come to know one another well and to share in joys and sorrows of our community. Members also participate in blogs, in which they talk about things of a personal nature. There is a "discuss" stream, in which larger, more generalized discussions (including the notion of whether or not we are a "real" church) are discussed. Bible studies are held, both in real time in the chat room, and through discussions on Biblical verses and books in the discuss forums. Many members have met face to face. We are a truly international community, although the majority of the members are from either the UK or the USA. We have members in Australia, France, Africa, India, and South America. We have telephone meets. In terms of serving one another, obviously casseroles are difficult. However, cards and gifts are mailed between members. We minister to one another. One of our beloved members, who was part of three generations who worship at St. Pixels, died earlier this week. The community is in mourning, but we have gathered together to support her daughter. Hundreds of prayers have been said. Fellowship and support have been extended to her daughter and grand daughter. Gifts have been sent. Telephone calls have been made. Members have discussed flying to be there with the family. These are real relationships that develop. Hundreds of hours have been spent getting to know one another. We are truly not strangers; we are brothers and sisters in Christ. While I have heard the words of the Good News proclaimed from pulpits in churches across the country, it was not until I heard it proclaimed at St. Pixels, and felt it extended through the support of the online community that I have come to true faith and experience of grace. It has been at St. Pixels that I have come to understand the Good News. A pastor (a flesh and blood pastor, from Illinois) met me there and heard my questions and searching. Thank God that he felt the call of John Wesley to preach the gospel throughout the world. He has spent literally thousands of hours in pastoral counseling via the medium of the internet. In the age of the virtual world, time and space have less meaning than they used to. If I am not mistaken, it is possible that this is also a feature of the heavenly Kingdom. This pastoral relationship, along with the support of the larger st. pixels comm

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Bob Hyatt

October 30, 2009  11:26am

Nathan- the poster to which you refer has been "deleted." It appears she's in need of some help- she's posting some pretty wild things all over the internet- some pretty slanderous. The editors at UR have wisely left out her "contributions" to this conversation (even though nothing she said on this thread went beyond incoherence). But that does leave some of the comments responding to her looking a bit odd!

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nathan

October 29, 2009  9:20pm

oh...you're writing poetry/being poetic? like stream of consciousness/flow type stuff? i asked my wife, a woman, to read your posts...she thinks they're bordering on incoherent. that being said, if you see yourself as poetic...well, that at least helps me see where you're coming from. would you be willing to break it down and put your last post in "non-poetic" form? that might be a way of helping people understand your contributions to the conversation.

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nathan

October 29, 2009  5:24pm

@Tim asking for basic syntax isn't gushing over eloquence. feh...

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