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« Christian Web Conference: A Review | Home | How the Internet Helped My Church and My Ministry, Section 1 »

Is Online Church Really Church? Introduction

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, September 17, 2009

Part 1 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In yesterday’s post I reviewed some of the highlights of the recent Christian Web Conference at Biola University. In this post I mentioned several conversations I had with people who are convinced that online church can be truly and fully church. They believe that so-called “virtual church,” in which people interact only through the Internet, can fulfill all that is necessary for the church. Those who are involved in such a church needn’t feel that they are missing out on anything essential. Sure, they might decide at some point to become part of a church that meets in person, but there’s no reason why they should have to do this.

I had been vaguely aware of online church prior to my trip to the CWC. I had seen references to this phenomenon in various sources, including a recent critique on the Out of Ur blog (an online publication of Christianity Today). I even knew that growing numbers of churches are developing “online campuses.” But I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that intelligent, Bible-believing Christians would actually entertain the notion that online church is really enough. Then I met some of these people and talked with them at length. (Ironically, my longest conversation with a couple of them happened over dinner at Downtown Disney. Someone it only seemed right to talk about virtual church in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, one of the world’s sanctuaries of fantasy and illusion. Photo: Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California)

I must confess that my first, knee-jerk reaction to one who claimed that online church could be real church was to wonder if I was being set up as the dupe in a joke. Was I about to be the unwitting star of some Candid Camera sketch? My initial response to one who advocated the sufficiency of online church was something like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But I could see in his startled and hurt expression that he was not kidding, not at all. He truly believed, not only that online church was sufficient, but also that the advent of this form was church as a great thing for the kingdom of God.

Once I got beyond my initial surprise over the fact that somebody of apparent intelligence and integrity was making the case of the adequacy of online church, I thought it might be helpful to raise some objections. I thought my first one would euthanize the idea of online church once and for all. “How can you celebrate the sacraments?” I asked. “Surely you can’t have online communion, online baptism.”

“Why not?” my earnest interlocutor asked. “People do it all the time.”

Once more I had to suppress my astonishment. “How could this be?” I asked.

“It’s easy,” my online enthusiast explained. “For communion, each person prepares the elements. By using some form of live, online communication, somebody says the traditional words, and then everybody takes communion at the same time. When somebody wants to get baptized, they fill their bathtub with water. Then they proclaim their faith and dunk themselves while the other church members watch on their computers. It’s just like what happens in a physical church.”

Yet again I wanted to spit out something like, “You’re out of your mind!” But I realized that this wouldn’t be respectful or helpful. Nor would it help us get closer to the truth about the adequacy of virtual church. I found myself curiously confused at first about how to respond to what I was hearing. Yet as I asked more questions and tried really to listen to what I was hearing rather than just respond negatively to it, I began to grasp why somebody might believe as my new friend believed. Moreover, I also started to get clear on what I believe to be the inadequacies of virtual church.

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced of the sufficiency of online church. I do not believe that we can experience the fullness of what church out to be if our interaction with other believers is only through the Internet. Thus I am worried about what happens when Christians think they can have an adequate church experience without ever being face-to-face with other believers.

But, having said this, I must also admit that I found my interaction with my online church supporters to be quite engaging. Many of their insights are worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, the places where they are wrong, in my opinion, are also worthy of serious consideration. They can lead us forward into a fuller and more biblical experience of genuine church.

Moreover, as I’ll explain in my next post, I think there are some marvelous benefits for the church in the creative and careful use of the Internet. I’m not opposed to virtual church per se, but rather to the notion that virtual church is enough.

Topics: Online Church |

9 Responses to “Is Online Church Really Church? Introduction”

  1. Randall A. Boltinghouse Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 4:34 am

    I agree with your last sentence. True, baptism and communion could be self-administered if no other community of believers could possibly be present. And, the virtual experience could keep us connected in situations where flesh and blood interaction could not happen. That said, are we not wired more for flesh and blood vs. zeroes and ones? And are we offering an alternative for convenience sake in our consumer-driven society? These important questions need to be thought through to arrive at a sound theology of technology. How does my theology of technology interact with my theology of Christian community? Thank you for addressing this.

  2. Rodney Reeves Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Does a virtual church imply virtual disciples?

    And, where does Incarnation fit into the virtual church?

  3. Vaughn Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 6:18 am

    There’s one aspect of this, that I think is difficult for many understand. The thought of an online church appeals to me on many levels. Not so much for convenience, but because it’s a lot easier to be open and honest with people online than it is in person.

    I have a much more engaging relationship with people online than I do with anyone in real life. The problem is with me, most likely, but that would serve to explain why a lot of people are drawn to the “online” church.

  4. Greg Smith Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    It’s amazing how some folks are willing to diminish the faith portion of their lives, but not the secular. I wonder if the same people who advocate a virtual church would stay home on Saturday night and party at a “virtual nightclub”? Would they be supportive of “virtual weddings” followed by “virtual receptions”? If we are so insistent on personal contact in other parts of our lifes, why are we so open to doing less for God?

  5. Ben Simpson Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Hey Mark, great thoughts. I’d invite you to check out an article I wrote for Collide Magazine on this subject. Here’s the link:

    I did my best in the article to mediate between those who are advocates and those who are critics. I find myself unconvinced, as of yet, whether we can call these online interactions “church.”

  6. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Friends: Great comments, as usual.

    I checked Ben Simpson’s article (see previous post). It is excellent. I highly recommend it.

  7. Dave Hackett Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Since it hasn’t been mentioned in Mark’s piece or the comments yet, I would recommend the new Zondervan book “SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World” by Douglas Estes. I’m still reading the book, but it presents very cogent arguments on the virtual church proposition. Folks, it’s not as easy to dismiss as you might think.

    And not many places in the world, frankly, are as accessible (for geo and political and religious reasons) for fellowships to meet in flesh and blood as we are in the West, making the case all the more compelling for virtual gatherings that are for all intents and purposes the normative gathering for sets of people.

    And the brother who mentioned his greater freedom to truly share personal stuff online raises a great point: What if our own culture here in the West has brought us to the place where we are too susceptable to hide our true selves from one another when we are in person? What if the deep authenticity sought by so many next gens and burned out boomers can be found in the startling freedom to be “real” when in an online experience? It could be the very hope for Christianity that we find a way of coming together that lets us be as we are, seeking healing, through online or virtual Church.

    Full disclosure: I’m a Presbyterian clergyman.

  8. online church Says:
    September 30th, 2009 at 5:46 am

    Hi there

    Very interesting topic. I happen to be one of the first founders of online church. Being a minister serving in the current church system for many years; It was a shock when the Lord first led my wife and myself to start one of those internet churches. Being very analytical I tried to oppose the Lord. But you know, you can never win an argument with the Lord.

    The full understanding only came when we obeyed and started asking him to show us what it was all about rather than arguing with Him. Ever since we have been having online church for about 3 years now. What I will say is that you need a combination of face to face meetings as well as online church meetings. So for those reasons, every quarter we have retreats where people get the chance to fellowship in person as well.

    If we understand the basic definition of a local church according to Jesus, “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am in there midst”, it would be easy to understand the concept. But it would be hard for those we cannot separate the church from the building (which is not the church). The internet is also a place where real people come to use various services that we use offline as well.

    I hope this helps someone here

    Remain Blessed in Christ

    Your Brother

    The Internet Church Guy

  9. online church Says:
    September 30th, 2009 at 5:48 am

    By the way for those who are interested and who would like to know more, you can visit one of our sites, From there, you can contact us for more information or help.



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