Is an Online “Church” Really a Church? Why we need better arguments (ETS Papers)

Is there something distinct about physical people gathering in a physical location to worship and serve as Christians? Or, with the advent of modern technology, is there a sense in which the people of God can still gather, even if they are physically distant from one another? In other words, can a church meet online?

This is the question that Robert Herrington addressed in his ETS paper “Online Churches and Christian Community: Does Christian Fellowship Require Embodied Presence?” And it’s a question that many people are wrestling with today.

But I’m not convinced that the answers we’re offering do justice to the questions involved. And I’m afraid that if we don’t do a better job answering the question, people attracted to online communities will (justifiably) ignore our answers. So I’d like to summarize Herrington’s argument and then identify 5 things I think are commonly missing in these discussions.

1. How did we get here?

After a few comments on the widespread use of the internet for religious purposes, Herrington points out that most of those who use the internet for religious purposes use it as a supplement to some more traditional form of Christian worship. But a real shift is beginning to take place with younger Christians, who are more likely to see the internet as a viable form of community not just a means of communication. It thus becomes a viable replacement of, rather than a mere supplement to, traditional churches.

2. Types of Online churches

Herrington reported that there are 580 or so churches that are run entirely online. But he pointed out that most churches today maintain some form of online presence, even while retaining a significant physical presence  as well. So he broke churches down into three rough categories:

  1. Traditional churches that have some minimal online presence (e.g. a church website or Facebook account).
  2. Traditional churches that have online extensions (e.g. a church with both a physical campus and an online campus).
  3. Churches that are entirely online with no physical campus.

In this section, Herrington also offered a brief summary of key arguments used by those in favor of fully online churches.

  • Missional Effectiveness. Online churches are an effective way of reaching a large population with the Gospel. Indeed, many proponents point out that the internet is possibly the largest mission field in the world today. So wouldn’t it just make sense to plant churches in this key mission field?
  • Community Restoration. Proponents often point out that traditional churches are far from perfect. Rather than being bastions of intimacy and community, traditional churches often allow people to hide behind shallow masks of perfection. Online communities, on the other hand, provide a safe environment for many people to share their struggles, develop greater intimacy, and form better expressions of Christian community.
  • Union with Christ. If all believers are united with Christ in the Spirit so that we form one, universal body, does it really matter that we’re not physically present with one another when we worship?
  • Media Neutrality. Many proponents of online churches presuppose that media are essentially neutral. We all use various media in ministry; online media are just different. They’re all tools for accomplishing the same purpose.

3. Media ecology

Herrington spends some time critiquing that last point. Drawing on Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, he points out that media are not mere conduits that transmit content unchanged. Instead, the  media we use to communicate a message necessarily affect and shape the message itself. We need to think of media in more ecological terms. Everything in an environment affects everything else. Change on thing, and you affect the whole ecology. And he thinks that online churches have not given sufficient consideration to this fact and the ways in which online technologies might be reshaping the church and its message.

4. Does Community Require Embodied Presence.

In this final section Herrington argues that online churches fail because they cannot adequately address 7 things necessary to true biblical fellowship (koinonia).

1. Sharing. The early church placed a high value on meeting “material” needs through sharing. But Herrington thinks that online churches will necessarily struggle here. This is partly because the people involved in these churches are physically distant from one another, making it more difficult even to identify material needs, let alone meet them. But he also thinks the internet has a “bias” toward nonmaterial realities (all media are biased in certain ways). So an online church is predisposed from the beginning in ways that will make it difficult to address material concerns.

2. Gathering. The biblical authors all argue that the church needs to gather on a regular basis. And Herrington argues that online churches not only downplay the value of gathering, but they actually contribute to the growing isolation of the modern person. He reports that for every hour that someone spends online, their face-to-face interaction with other people decreases by thirty minutes. So online churches, along with other forms of social media, actually create isolation rather than community.

3. Sacraments. No surprise that one of his key concerns is with communion and baptism. Although he recognizes that online churches have tried to find ways of including the sacraments in their worship (e.g. avatars taking communion together, physical baptisms streamed on the internet, etc.), there’s no question that online churches face a significant challenge here.

4. NT metaphors. According to Herrington, several NT metaphors for the church suggest that online churches are inadequate. The body and family metaphors suggest more organic, embodied relationships that cannot be sustained by online interactions alone. And he thinks that online churches downplay the gifts of the Spirit in that he doesn’t think the whole spectrum of gifts can be adequately expressed in online churches.

5. One anothers. This one seems similar to the first, but Herrington points out here the many “one another” commandments in the NT. And he doesn’t think that online churches are up to the task of living out these one anothers.

Yes, I know that’s only five things. But apparently I missed the last two. Maybe someone will chime in and let me know what I’ve left out.

5. Conclusion and Critique

This was an interesting paper on an important topic. And I must say that I have my own strong reservations about church that meet entirely online. But, like many of the arguments against online churches that I’ve run into, this one left me dissatisfied in several ways.

1. Engage technology more seriously. Even if you contend that current technology isn’t up to the task of sustaining biblical forms of Christian community, you still need to address the question of whether this is actually a theological problem or merely a technological limitation. What if technology reached the point where we could “meet” in the form of fully interactive 3D holographic images or physical avatars? I realize that sounds like science fiction, but it can be a useful thought-experiment for considering if the real problem is theology or technology. For this argument to work, it needs to demonstrate that the former is the real issue by engaging the latter more seriously.

2. Recognize the limitations of biblical technology. We really need to stop pointing out that NT churches met physically. Of course they did. What else were they going to do? Yes they could write letters, but no one is going to argue that letter writing can replace physical gatherings. But letter writing is a far cry from modern social media. This isn’t to say that the latter is adequate either, but we need to stop making facile moves from the limitations of NT technology to the inadequacy of modern technology to sustain true community.

3. Define terms more carefully. These discussions are always frustrated by a failure to define terms like “community” and “presence” more clearly. Herrington made moves in this direction by associating “community” with biblical “koinonia,” but this needed to be fleshed out more and extended to other terms as well. It’s hard to determine if online presence is better/worse than physical presence if I don’t really know what we mean by “presence.”

4. Stop letting preferences guide judgments. This is probably impossible, but these discussions always seem overly colored by a person’s personal preferences. For example, Herrington’s point that “gathering” is a problem for online churches seems to be driven by his own preference for physical gatherings. So of course he’ll see an online gathering as inadequate. But that simply presupposes his conclusion (i.e. online gatherings are inadequate) and then uses it as an argument to support the conclusion.

5. Let the arguments cut both ways. How many of these arguments could also be used against many traditional churches? I know that many of the churches I’ve been a part of have struggled with recognizing and meeting material needs, living up to the NT metaphors, expressing the full range of spiritual gifts, and carrying out the “one anothers.” Does this mean that those weren’t real churches either? If not, if those were simply real churches with important weaknesses, why not view online churches in the same way? (I’m not saying this is the right conclusion, only that this question needs to be addressed.)

We need to engage this issue in a more nuanced way and in a way that takes seriously the concerns and ideas of those attracted to online communities. Otherwise, they will simply reject these arguments as inadequate and continue with what they’re doing.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 22, 2011, in The Church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Indeed whatever the blog is, even the Christian blog, its not the meeting of the Church local or Catholic. At best it can be a parachurch element. And there can be no local church without both physical Word & Sacrament! (Matt. 18:20)…That’s how I see it at least! 🙂

  2. I’m curious, what would be your main arguments *against* an online church (type 3)? (Or would you not be very opposed to it?)

    • I’m definitely not in favor, though I’m trying to check myself and make sure that I’m reacting for the right reasons (i.e. not just because it doesn’t seem right). My main reservations come from my understanding of the human person (God created us as physical beings for a reason) and the sacraments (even if you have a “low church” view of the sacraments, this has to be addressed.) I agree with Herrington that these other issues need to be considered (esp. the unexpected impacts that new technologies always have), but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we apply these arguments.

  3. In Acts 15 they struggled over what is a Christian and what MUST a Christian do. Some wanted to preserve Christianity as they interpreted it while others moved beyond their restrictions. The result was an astoundingly minimalist definition of acceptable worship. We are still locked in the same struggle today – Church is only Church if it’s what I say it must be! With so many churches failing to engage and impact their communities today and with the lamentable lack of impact we are having, it’s easy to understand the need to bridge to new technology. The alternative is the slow death we are experiencing. Resist as we will, we will not survive unless we change. Instead of explaining why something new won’t work it is time to start grappling with the solutions to make it work. Necessity trumps comfort and familiarity. It is time to fan the flames of creativity as we work out better ways to take the good news into all the world.
    Thanks for raising this vital topic.

  4. Thanks for this! Those of us who study online religion do get irritated with theologians and church leaders “discovering” the same arguments every few months. Online churches have been around since the 1980s, and these critiques date back to radio. It’s definitely time to move the argument along.

    I haven’t met Robert Herrington or read any of his work, but his five reservations shouldn’t be too hard to answer. Participant observation would dispose of 1 and 5 (because online churches do share material and social support). I have no idea what data 2 is based on, but I strongly suspect it’s out of date. 4 is an argument about metaphors, to which the only sensible answer is, “find some other metaphors”. 3 is a good point, but just means that online churches need to partner with local churches for baptism (not difficult).

    The crucial point that’s missing here is some attention to who goes to church online. Pretty much all the evidence we have about digital religion shows that people combine online and offline resources. In the majority of cases, people who go to church online are also going to church offline. If they don’t, they have good reasons – bad experiences, remote locations, illness. Herrington’s critique seems to rest on the assumption that online churches are luring people away from local churches, which isn’t true.

    Anyway, I’ll be sure to look out for anything Herrington writes in future – it’s good to see theologians look at these questions, and a full article on this topic would be well worth reading. Digital religion has been extensively studied by sociologists (like me) but digital theology is still in its infancy. Your concluding recommendations would be a great starting point.

    • Great comment. I should say, though, that Herrington did comment in his paper that the majority of people who use the internet for religious purposes do so as a supplement to local churches, rather than a replacement for then. So he’s definitely aware of that reality. But he’s rightly concerned about the small but growing population that use the internet as their sole outlet.

      But it’s great to hear from someone who had been thinking about this for quite a while. Thanks for the comment.

      • Thanks for replying. It’s true that a small number of people use the Internet as their sole outlet. Unfortunately, this has been *the* major focus of Christian commentators since the 1990s – exaggerating one minority and distracting attention from more common patterns of use.

        At the very least, we need to look at why that minority doesn’t attend local church. Some examples of exclusive online attendance (ie, no local churchgoing) from my research:

        – a woman who attended church online because she lived in a remote rural area
        – a man who attended church online temporarily while housebound with illness
        – an elderly couple who attended church online together because they could no longer travel to a local church
        – a woman who attended church online because her local vicar abused her, and she wanted a safe way to reconnect to Christian community
        – a man who attended church online temporarily because he’d moved to a new city and had no local friends yet
        – a woman who attended church online because all her local churches were liturgical and she wanted contemporary, relevant evangelical preaching

        Notice that most of these had to choose between attending online and not attending at all. Many of them also shifted their allegiances over time, initially attending a local church as well but then relying on their online church during an illness or change of location. We are not looking here at people lured away from local community by online church.

        The most controversial of these examples, I suspect, is the last one – who attended an online church just because it was better than her local options. That’s a question theologians could consider: is it better to attend a church that’s local, or one that teaches you sound theology?

  5. I believe we are entering what I call “the golden age of communion” in Christianity. That phrase is not about the sacrament, but about gathering. The only thing that I cannot do in a virtual or online church assembly is to hug someone. I can enjoy the highest quality of everything else (prayers, song, encouragement, teaching, and so on).

    Mission field? Yes. I can sing a song or teach a lesson or say something encouraging online today and reach people with those things worldwide at an incredibly low cost.

    And I guess we should discuss finances around these things. The cost per eyeball to reach people with an online mission is lower than anything that has ever been done.

    What is holding us back? I think the answer is lack of faith.

    • I think your comment helps highlight the difficulty of the discussion. The first part of your comment points out something that online communities necessarily lack. But the rest of it notes areas where online communities might be uniquely strong. So should we conclude that they’re not real churches (on the basis of the former) or that they are (on the basis of the latter) even though they have notable weaknesses just like all churches? I’m ask inclined toward the former conclusion, though I think the latter has more going for it than we often recognize.

  6. On-line “Churches”? Just an oxymoron to my mind! 😉 But yes, a para-church tool, certainly!

  7. Your critique of the way the EChurch has been analyzed is also deficient because it has a defiecient starting point. The primary need is not a more serious analysis of modern technology. The primary need is that we begin with the Scriptures as the revealed word of God which direct us to the Word of God who became flesh. A 3-D avatar would still fall short of being flesh. If we follow the path you have laid out, we’ll probably end up as 21st century gnostics. Oh well… Whoever said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” was right after all, I guess.

    • Indeed when we can even consider the Church apart from its visible and sacramental reality, we are moving toward “gnostic” ideas!

    • I think if you went back and read my argument and comments a bit more carefully, you’d see that I didn’t present this as an argument for online churches, something that I have said that I’m not in favor of. And, as I indicated in one of my comments, I see the essential physicality of the human person as one if the more important arguments here. My only purpose was to point out some issues that are often neglected in this discussion (incarnation and physicality didn’t get mentioned because those are two issues that almost always get discussed).

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