Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 2 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In this series, I want to examine the thesis that online church is really church. More specifically, I want to consider whether an online church experience can ever be enough. Could a biblically-based Christian rightly believe that everything the church must be can be experienced through the Internet? Or is there a dimension (or many dimensions) of church that require face-to-face interaction?
But before I get to these questions, I want to share some ways that the Internet helped both my church and my ministry. I’m speaking, in particular, of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was senior pastor for sixteen plus years. In many ways, the Internet made a positive difference in church life and in my work as a pastor.
A Bit of Ancient History
When I began at Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, the Internet was used mainly by academics and geeks. We did not have email at church, nor did we have a website. In fact, the World Wide Web didn’t exist in 1991. It debuted in 1993. But in my first couple of years at Irvine Pres, a woman in the church explained to me that she was working in the computer science department of the University of California, Irvine, developing something called the World Wide Web. She told me that someday it would transform the world. I thought she was exaggerating in the extreme. (Photo: Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, before we built our sanctuary.)
The first impact of the Internet on my ministry came around 1993, I believe. I was deciding whether to buy a CD drive (read-only) or a modem with which to access the Internet. I chose a modem, which transferred information at the blazing speed of 14.4 kbit/s. The Web didn’t exist yet, so I played around with a few sites that used FTP and Gopher. Then I discovered AOL. Soon I was hearing the ubiquitous “You’ve Got Mail!” As one of the early AOL subscribers, my email address was actually “mroberts@aol.com.” Since very few people had email back then, I didn’t use this address very much for ministry. But I did begin to use AOL as a research resource for preaching, a very rudimentary resource, I might add.
The Impact of Email
Somewhere in the 1990s, Irvine Presbyterian Church got email. Many church members had email by this time, though I can remember when just about every committee had some members without email. Nevertheless, I began around that time to use email as a major means of doing church administration. This helped me to communicate with my staff and lay leaders with unprecedented speed and immediacy.
Yet I also learned how email could be a royal pain in my pastoral backside. I started getting copied on emails that really didn’t concern me, but took up my time nevertheless. More significantly, I learned the hard way how bad email was for communicating complaints and criticism. I myself sent too many emails while angry before I realized what a terrible idea this was.
Though I originally thought of email primarily as a leadership tool rather than a means of pastoral care, once my email address became known to my congregation, I started getting emails that were surprisingly vulnerable. Many men, in particular, seemed to find it much easier to open up in email than in person. In fact, many of the men who shared deeply personal struggles in emails would never have made an appointment to see me, but were boldly honest in their emails. Sometimes, after several email interactions, they would come in to see me. Sometimes our sharing would remain safely electronic. But this is not to denigrate the quality of the communication, though I always preferred a face-to-face conversation.
Some of the men who shared deep struggles with me through email were in small groups with other Christians. But they did not feel free to share what was really going on in their lives with their group partners. The safe distance of email allowed them to open up with me in a way they couldn’t do in person.
I’m not suggesting that email intimacy is best, or that it is even adequate. But I do think that, for some people, email fosters unprecedented intimacy. It allowed me to know some of the people in my congregation more deeply, to counsel and pray with them. Yes, I often prayed through email. (No, I didn’t know God’s email address.)
I know that some who read this post will bemoan the role of email as I’ve been describing it. But in many ways the story I’ve just told is not particularly new. Yes, email is relatively new. But, for centuries, people have shared deep things through written correspondence. Often, in fact, people were able to be more open or bold or courageous in letters than in person. This seems to have been true, by the way, of the Apostle Paul (see 2 Cor 10:10).
Before I finish this post, I should also mention that in the last couple years of my ministry at Irvine Pres I began sending an email blast to everybody in the congregation. My so-called “Pastor’s Letter” dealt with a wide variety of subject matter, from the theological to the programmatic to the personal. My congregation responded to the Pastor’s Letter with unexpected enthusiasm. Though they knew that I was sending this letter to a large mailing list, many church members felt as if they had received a personal letter from me. I only wish I had been sending an email blast like this years earlier.
In my next post I’ll say more about how the Internet impacted Irvine Presbyterian Church and my ministry there.

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