Part 4 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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It seems to me that in certain circumstances online church allows people who would otherwise be unable to do so to connect with other Christians for worship and fellowship. This would be rather like the experience of my grandparents in the latter years of their lives. They were no longer able to make the trek to their church because of their physical limitations. So they watched church on television: Lloyd Ogilvie, Robert Schuller, James Kennedy, and the like. On the average Sunday, they took in at least three or four church services. Surely this was a good thing for them. And, though they were getting “church” from broadcast television rather than live streaming Internet, what they experienced was rather like online church.
Arguably, it would have been even better if my grandparents could have watched the worship service from their own church, something that live streaming would have made possible. Most churches could never afford televising their services. But live streaming is possible even for smaller churches. Because my grandparents could no longer participate in the worship of their own church, they felt increasingly disconnected from the congregation. Plus, most of their friends were homebound or had died.
So, a case can be made for the benefits of online church for congregation members who are, for some reason, unable to be physically present in worship. This could be true for people who are sick or traveling or otherwise precluded from worshiping at their home church.
My argument for online church assumes, however, that a person is connected to an in-the-flesh church. Virtual worship services are an adjunct to actual worship services. But the trickier issue has to do with the adequacy of online church. Some have claimed that it is enough for someone to participate online. In-the-flesh church is fine, but unnecessary.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of this view takes seriously the increasingly virtual world in which we live, especially if “we” happen to be under 30. Vast numbers of people in our society today communicate with their friends and associates through various online media (email, social media, chatting, etc.). Chatting on a cell phone, though not strictly online, is also pervasively popular, especially among younger folk. The “world” where many people meet, converse, debate, joke, confess, and live is an online, virtual world. And, though it is not the same as the in-the-flesh world, it is quite real. When I’m away from my family, for example, and communicate with them through some sort of online media, this is real relationship, even if it’s not the same as a hug.
Ever since Christianity began, Christians have sensed that they need to be where people are in order to share and live the good news of the Gospel. For the earliest Christians, this meant hanging out in synagogues and marketplaces, because that’s where the people were. Since that time, missionaries have gone to far away places, Young Life leaders have gone on high school campuses, pastors have met with their members in their workplaces, and so forth and so on because that’s where the people are. So, in today’s world, if multiple millions of people are hanging out online, and if the Internet is an extraordinarily popular tool for communication and community, it only makes sense for Christians to be there because that’s were the people are.
When I first joined the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I had strongly mixed feelings about the television ministry of our Senior Pastor, Lloyd Ogilvie. I knew how much of his time flowed into the TV ministry and felt jealous for the church. I also knew that it took a large pile of money to televise our worship services, including Lloyd’s sermons, and I wondered if this was a wise use of funds. Because of my personal loyalty to and love for Lloyd, I kept my concerns to myself. But I didn’t have a sense of peace about the TV ministry.
After I had been on staff for just a few months, I was asked to participate in a fundraising banquet for the TV ministry. My job, in particular, was to be the guy with the roving microphone. During a portion of the banquet, people would be invited to share what the TV ministry had meant to them. I would hold the microphone so their witness could be heard in a hotel ballroom with several hundred people. As you can imagine, I had ambivalent feelings about this assignment, but I did it in order to support my pastor (who also happened to be my boss).
When it was time for the open sharing, hands shot up around the room. I hustled from one person to the next, making sure that all who wanted to share were able to do so. What I heard was stunning. I listened to stories of people who were terribly ill in the hospital when they “just happened” to catch one of Lloyd’s sermons that gave them hope. I watched as people got choked up talking about how much the TV ministry had made a difference in their lives. I remember one woman in particular, a highly-successful attorney, who “accidentally” stumbled upon our TV ministry in a difficult period of her life. She became a regular watcher of the program. In time, in response to one of Lloyd’s invitations, she accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. By the time of the banquet, she was an active member and leader of her local church.
Lloyd’s television ministry was effective because he entered the “world” where people were, the “world” of television. He was able to be present with people in their hospital rooms, hotel rooms, and living rooms. Similarly, online church seeks to be where people are on the Internet. It reaches people who might never visit a church. It allows people to “check out” a church, even a worship service, before actually showing up.
Though there may be limitations to online church, some of which I’ll discuss in this series, I would hope that we Christians would take seriously the need and opportunity to connect with people online. Even if virtual church is not enough, even if in-the-flesh church is necessary for one to experience all that church ought to be, nevertheless, online church is an effort to be where people are today. And this, I believe, is a worthy endeavor.