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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.