Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

But Aren’t There Some Aspects of Church That Are Necessarily Physical? Section 2

Part 6 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In my last post I suggested that the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have essential corporate aspects, and even physical aspects, that cannot be adequately experienced online. When the sacraments are included in a virtual church experience, vital elements are lost. I’m not suggesting, however, that it is necessarily wrong for people to experience the sacraments when they are not physically with other people. I’ve always that it was cool that Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two men who walked on the moon, received communion while on the moon’s surface. (Photo: If you look very closely at the classic photo taken by Neil Armstrong of Buzz Aldrin, you can see his communion elements.)
The problem comes, as I have explained before, when people try to argue for the adequacy of online church, as if one can be fully a follower of Jesus without ever actually being together with other Christians for intentional worship, fellowship, and service. The Christian who never actually receives communion from another person who is physically present is missing out on something essential, not to mention wonderful.
But there are many other experiences of church that simply cannot be reproduced online. Consider what happens in worship, for example. One of the most sublime experiences of the Christian life is singing with other Christians. There is a sense of unity in worship and joy in praise that comes when congregations sing to the Lord together. If people are streaming church services online, they will miss out on this experience. Oh, I suppose they might turn of the volume and singing along. But, still, they miss the sense of being with the body of Christ in worship.
Besides, I wonder how many online worshipers would actually participate, rather than just observe. Would they stand, kneel, and raise their hands? Would they sing the hymns and songs? Would they say the Lord’s Prayer? Would they pass the peace of Christ in a chat room or with Twitter? Or would they mostly observe as others do this. My guess is that observation is the order of the day for online church participants.
Beyond worship gatherings, there are many aspects of church life that cannot be experienced if you are not physically present. For example:


• You could virtually observe a mission trip without being part of it, even supporting it financially. But how could you embrace orphans or build homes for the homeless if you’re not physically present?
• How can you lay hands on the sick and pray for them virtually?
• How can you embrace those who are weeping?
• How can you teach kids in Sunday School?
• How can you bring a meal to a person who is house-bound?
• How can you visit those who are in prison?
• How can you offer food to the hungry?

Oh, to be sure, a clever person could come up with some virtual approximations of these activities. But I think it’s clear that some key parts of the Christian life require physical presence with people.
I wonder if advocates of the adequacy of virtual church would argue for the adequacy of virtual marriage? After all, one could get to know somebody through the Internet, sharing deep thoughts and feelings. One could engage in an online wedding ceremony, with vows texted or tweeted or chatted (though I don’t know if this is legal). One could even remain in a faithful, emotionally-intimate relationship for a lifetime without ever being physically present with one’s spouse. But wouldn’t you think something is missing? Isn’t there something essential to marriage that requires physical presence?
In my next post I want to consider why physical church is not just an accident of the pre-Internet age, but something essential to the nature of church.

  • Ben Simpson

    Good stuff, Mark. I think it is critical for us to be together, physically, just as Jesus walked among us in a physical body. There are many aspects of discipleship that I believe require for us to stand face to face, shoulder to shoulder with others as we walk, and that the web simply cannot serve as an adequate substitute for those practices which require physical togetherness–many of which you have mentioned.
    Thanks for helping the church think about these issues.

  • Ray

    I was going to use the marriage analogy, but you beat me to it. Two of my best friends met through an online matching service and later married. Their “virtual” dating was tremendously valuable to them as they got to know each other. But, before they could develop the depth of relationship that would lead to marriage, they found it quite necessary to meet in person.
    As Christians, we live in relationship with each other and with Christ. I would argue that it is impossible to develop deep and genuine relationships with each other if we exclude Christ; and conversely, it is impossible to cultivate a deep and genuine relationship with Christ if we are not also in relationship with other Christians.
    Worship involves giving God our best. For the limited number of people who are physically confined to the point that online, radio or television options are their only real opportunities for worship, then by participating in “virtual” worship they are giving God their best. But, what about the people who choose to live their “church” lives online? Are they giving God their best? I honestly don’t know. I speculate that the online option is driven by convenience, preference, laziness, or even avoidance. But, again, I don’t know. I’m just asking the question.
    I think your point about the Church going to where the people are is dead on. If people are online, then the Church needs to be there too. But, a totally 100% online church? I’m not so sure. I think that high tech and high touch have to work together. It reminds me of when I bought a used car recently. I shopped virtually, and I made great use of the internet. I found my car online. But you bet I drove the darn thing in person – in real life – before I wrote the check.
    And how do you have a pot luck dinner online?
    This is a thought provoking topic. Thanks.

  • RevK

    Dear Mark,
    Could you please inform me of any creed or confession that actually calls the Lord’s Supper, “communion?”
    That would be helpful.
    Peace, my friend!

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