Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

What is Online Church?

Part 3 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
Online church, sometimes called virtual church, is church mediated through the Internet, and it can contain a variety of modes.
The basic element of online church involves live streaming of a worship service. For example, this summer I attended a conference at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (near Kansas City, Missouri). This amazing church, one of the newest and largest in its denomination, offers at least six different worship services on three different campuses. But you can also watch the worship service live over the Internet on Sundays at 10:45 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. CDT. If you miss the live service, you can watch a video of the sermon online. The Resurrection Live! webpage includes a variety of other Web-based resources. (Photo: The Church of the Resurrection)
Online church often includes ways for people to communicate with each other via the Internet. This could be through a social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) or a chat room. In theory, one could have a small group, prayer meeting, or a variety of other interactions in this way.
Online church could also involve teaching through the Internet. The most obvious modes would be blogging, posting teaching notes, podcasting of teaching, or even live streaming. Though I haven’t heard about a church doing this, one surely could use webinar technology to have a “live” teaching time with lots of online interaction (questions, discussion, etc.).
Of course online church would make use of ordinary Internet avenues, such as web pages and email. Moreover, by using online chatting with a webcam (or Skype), it would be possible for visual church to include Internet-mediated face-to-face, visual and auditory interaction.
With a little creativity, online church could serve many of the functions of in-the-flesh church. For example, suppose a member of an online church were sick. That person could communicate her need online. Another church member could use the Internet (or cheat, and use a cell phone) to have food or flowers delivered to her home.
Obviously, all of these online media could be used as an adjunct to traditional in-the-flesh church. Members who usually attend the church worship services could watch a service if they were sick or out of town. Social media sites could foster lots of personal communication, prayer requests, Bible study discussion, and the like. And, as I described earlier in this series concerning my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church, pastors could use a blog or e-blast newsletter to enlarge their teaching scope.
It is surely worth thinking carefully about the impact of online media on in-the-flesh churches. I expect I’ll offer a couple of thoughts about this as I write. But, in this series, I am mainly interested in the proposition that online church could supply a fully adequate church experience for a Christian. There are some who are proposing that a Christian could experience all that is necessary in church online. If that person chooses to attend an in-the-flesh church, that’s fine, but certainly not necessary.
Before I begin to address this proposition, I want to respond to those of my readers who think this whole conversation is just plain stupid. If you’re not convinced of the need for the church to find wise and theologically-solid ways to use the Internet, check out this YouTube video on the Social Media Revolution. I haven’t been able to verify all of the “facts” in this video, but they impress me as being more-or-less correct. No matter what you think of them, they demand our attention and creative response. (HT: my colleague, Perri Rosheger).

  • Andrew

    Hello Mark,
    Have you considered including church’s that use satellite to stream live-video feed of one sermon from site to site in your analysis or are you strictly focusing on ‘online’ compared to in-the-flesh church’s.
    I have been very interested in the variety of ways that church’s have been using technology and often wonder what effect ‘Big Box/Walmart’ style church organization (i.e., ensuring the same ‘experience’ is had a each campus site) will have in the long run.

  • Andrew Conard

    Thanks for your post. I am glad that you had a good experience at Resurrection and I value your ideas about why online church might be. If it would feel good, please send me an email and we can talk more in detail about what might be possible. I will begin as full time Internet campus pasor at Resurrection on November 1

  • RevK

    I was teaching a Sunday School class many, many years ago, and knew that an upcoming conference would take me out of town. So I videotaped my Sunday School message and gave it to someone to play during my absence. The week I came back to teach on-site again, several people had set up video cameras in the auditorium, in the seats they would have occupied, with that same “someone” telling me that the class participants couldn’t attend that week, so they decided that videotaping it would suffice. Classic!

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