Part 5 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post I presented two arguments in support of the notion of online church. My main point was that, since so many millions of people are now participating in the virtual world of the Internet, the church needs to be present in this world. If we want to share the love and truth of Christ with people, then we need to go to where they are, even if this “where” is virtual rather than physical.
“But,” you might wonder, “aren’t there some aspects of church that are necessarily physical? No matter how sophisticated a virtual church experience might become, won’t it always lack some irreducibly in-the-flesh elements?”
You mean, like, the sacraments?
As a Protestant, I recognize two sacraments, baptism and communion. It does seem, on the surface, that these two essential functions of the church require people to be in the same physical space. Yet when I raised this objection with two supporters of the adequacy of online church, they were not swayed. In fact, they proceeded to explain to me how it would be possible for people to experience the sacraments in virtual church.
Virtual communion would still involve real bread and a real cup. (I think one could argue that the “bread” I had in the communion services of my youth was hardly real bread. I sometimes wondered if it was sweet, dissolvable Styrofoam.) Online churchgoers would have to prepare the elements, some sort of bread and grape juice or wine. Then, after watching the live streaming of a leader consecrating the elements in the physical worship service, all churchgoers would take the elements together at the same time. Thus, they would experience the sense of communal unity that is part and parcel of corporate communion, as well as the individual renewal of faith in Christ.
My online church advocates told me they had witnessed baptisms over the Internet. In one case, the person being baptized had a webcam to allow others to witness the experience. He filled a bathtub with water, confessed his faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and dunked himself under the water while others observed online and celebrated with their posted comments and prayers.
Now before I suggest some problems with these online sacramental actions, I would note that what I have just described does include some of the biblically-prescribed and traditionally-valued aspects of the sacraments (such as what we Presbyterians call the words of institution in communion). But it seems that almost anyone, even an enthusiastic proponent of online church, would have to acknowledge that something is missing here. In fact, this something is so essential to the sacraments that online church tries hard to include it.
I’m thinking of the corporate nature of baptism and communion. I realize that there are a few strands of Christianity that encourage people to baptize themselves or take communion by themselves, but these strands are clearly in the minority, and for good reason. The New Testament origins of the sacraments emphasize their essential corporate quality. Baptism is something new converts receive from other believers, not something they do to themselves. Baptism signifies, not only death to sin and new life in Christ, but also the joining of a person to the body of Christ, the fellowship of believers. Similarly, communion is something celebrated when believers are together. The “one bread” underscores the “one body” dimension of the church (1 Cor 10:16-17). Christians who think of communion simply in terms of their own individual experience need to think again, according to Scripture (1 Cor 11:17-34).
Even though online church can try to recreate a kind of corporate experience in the virtual sacraments, they nevertheless smack of an individualism that is hard to overcome. Communicants must prepare their own bread and cup, for example. And, though they can receive these elements at the same time as others, they cannot be handed the elements by another person, nor look at someone face-to-face as they receive them. Online communion can be coordinated in time, but it is still isolated in space. The unity experienced in the virtual sacrament is less substantial and complete than the unity experienced when people are together in the flesh. (Photo: In-the-flesh communion at my church, St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas)
Similarly, the person being baptized online is dunking himself or herself (or sprinkling, I suppose). Even if some observer were to say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” that observer would not be literally doing the baptizing (from the Greek word meaning “to immerse”). The person being baptized would not experience the feeling of letting go, leaning back, relying on someone else to lower him or her into the water. Thus online baptism is not only more individualistic than in-the-flesh baptism, but it also requires the person being baptized to be more active. This, I would suggest, is a substantive loss of the symbolic power of baptism, not to mention the subjective experience that mirrors theological reality. The fact that the church, through its leaders, baptizes people mirrors the fact that God, through Christ, saves people.
I realize that what I’ve said about the essentially corporate nature of the sacraments flies in the face of what many Christians believe and experience. I have been to churches where communion is available at the side of the worship space for anyone who wishes to receive it. A worshiper is free to help himself or herself to the elements in a thoroughly individualistic moment with Jesus. If Christians think of communion in these terms and if their experience is rather like this, then I can understand why they might believe that online communion is adequate. But, in fact, the basic meaning of the sacraments, the meaning given by Jesus and the New Testament, includes a corporate aspect at the core.
One of the reasons, I believe, that online church can seem adequate is that many of us have such an impoverished theology of church and such an inadequate experience of church. What many, many Christians think about church and experience as church each week might very well be approximated online. But, in fact, church is meant to be so much more than this. Meant by God, that is.
In my next post in this series I’ll think a bit more about ways in which church is necessarily physical, and why this is so.