Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Could Virtual Church Be Real Church? Section 2

Part 3 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post I began to respond to those who might think that this whole conversation about the reality of virtual church is just plain ridiculous. “After all,” one might object, “how can ‘church’ that exists only in the electronic world of the Internet ever be real?” I began to answer this question by pointing to the fact that we Christians do believe in non-physical reality. Moreover, it seems to me that the question about whether virtual church is real or not is too simplistic. It could be real in some ways, but not in others.
This might sound odd, so let me provide a several thought experiments to illustrate my point. Let’s say that on a given Sunday I go to an in-the-flesh worship service at St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas (my home church, in photo to right) in the morning, and then log in to a virtual church in the afternoon. Is there any way in which my afternoon experience could be at least as real, if not more real, than my morning experience? Perhaps.
Case #1
Suppose, for example, that we have a visiting preacher at St. Mark. This preacher turns out to be theologically bizarre and says things that simply aren’t true, such as: “Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.” (I have heard preachers say things like this, but not in my own church, thanks be to God.)
Then, in the afternoon, a virtual church preacher (representing some in-the-flesh human being who is providing the words via the Internet) offers a theologically solid sermon, proclaiming, among other things: “Jesus is risen!”
Question: Which sermon was more real, the in-the-flesh but theologically false sermon, or the virtual but theologically solid one? Perhaps it would be better to say that both were real in a way. One was real in a physical way, while the other portrayed spiritual reality more genuinely. Which sermon would you rather hear?
Case #2
Suppose I attend St. Mark Presbyterian on a Sunday morning. On my way into the sanctuary, I shake hands with an usher and receive a bulletin. In the passing of the peace segment I say “May the peace of Christ be with you” to a few folks. When the service is over, I avoid the fellowship hall with its tempting snacks and friendly conversation, instead making a beeline for my car. What I experienced was very much like what millions upon millions of Christian experience every week in their physical church. Surely this counts as real, yes? More real than virtual church? Maybe. Maybe not.
Suppose further that, in the evening, I attend a virtual church that includes a live discussion group (a chat room). In this group, which is not itself physical, real people communicate about real needs in their life. Though they are not together in the flesh, their sharing is heartfelt and genuine. The safety of physical distance actually allows some folks to be more honest than they might be in “real life.” In the end, we have a time of prayer together.
Was this real? Was it more or less real than my relatively shallow experience in the morning? Which experience of church was closer to the biblical ideal?
Case #3
Suppose when I attend St. Mark Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning that several friends give me hugs. (I can always count on my Down Syndrome friend Adam to give me a big hug at church.) Then, in the afternoon, I visit a virtual church where characters on the screen hug my character.
Which hugs were more real? Which hugs would you prefer?
These three examples indicate, I think, that there are different kinds of reality operating when we talk about church. They also suggest that we should not too quickly dismiss the potential for virtual church to be real in certain ways, even in certain crucial ways, even if it will never be real physically. I would, for example, prefer the reality of a truthful virtual sermon over an in-the-flesh but false sermon. But I would not prefer the reality of a virtual hug over one that I can actually feel with my body and return with my own arms.
I’m reminded of an example I have used in my discussion of online church. When I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I liked to meet personally with members of the congregation for conversation and prayer. Many people would come to my office and share their joys and struggles. But some folks, especially men, were reticent to come in for a personal visit. They preferred to email me. In many cases our email exchanges would involve quite deep and vulnerable sharing. Sometimes I would end one of my emails with a prayer. Sometimes, after engaging in tender sharing through email with some man, I would run into him on Sunday after church. There might be a moment of awkwardness, followed by a handshake and “Have a good week!”
So, what was more real? What was a more authentic experience of church? I would never say that our face-to-face interaction on Sunday wasn’t real, even though it was superficial. But I would say that, in many ways, our email conversation was more real and closer to what we’re supposed to experience in church.
Now I’ll lay some of my cards on the table right now and say that I would prefer face-to-face conversation that is also open and honest. Speaking for myself, I’m much more drawn to physical church than virtual church. But I’m also compelled to admit that sometimes relationships mediated through the Internet are deeper and truer than face-to-face relationships. And, given the fact that I believe the Holy Spirit can be present in a real though non-physical way, I’m open to the possibility of virtual church being real in ways that count, even though it can never be real in some ways that also count.

  • Evan

    Mark, I think the discussion is veering around to an extent. Is the question whether Virtual Church is “real,” is it “church,” or is it a vehicle for Christian ministry? Certainly there is valid ministry that can be performed by constituent parts of the Internet. One can “counsel” in a chat room, by strict definition, and it certainly can yield valid Christian fruits. But it clearly is not the same as “in-person” counseling. Indeed, some important cues for the counselor will not be present, unless the counselee types in something like “You are right… *weeps*” And even then, it is obviously not the same.
    And at some point, we find ourselves in the sort of silly “Ontological” discussion my professors so adored. (“Ontology” being in essence the study of the nature of reality and being. They loved it because they got to use big words like “ontological.” :) )
    So we could belabor the point as to whether being online qualifies as “assembling together” from a technical standpoint until the cows come home, and that would be a different issue as to whether any valid ministry can occur online. I would venture that as “assembling together” could only be done physically at the time Hebrews was written, that is what is contemplated. (Perhaps they had a discussion as to whether exchanging papyrii could count. :) ) There may be benefits available online, especially to those who cannot otherwise attend, but for the standard Christian, regular virtual church does not seem to be a good idea. My two cents.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Evan: Thanks for your comment. I am in basic agreement with you. But I’m pushing the “real” point because I think a lot of folks, including some critics of the whole virtual church idea, make assumptions about reality that need serious scrutiny. Moreover, I think this conversation pushes us to rethink what church should be whether virtual or physical. Does someone who attends worship services and shakes a few hands actually experience church in a significant way?

  • Ray

    I’m willing to concede that the POSSIBILITY of true “virtual” church exists. And I can go along with the examples you cite of people having more “real” interactions online than in real life.
    But, isn’t the right answer both/and, rather than either/or?
    We shouldn’t choose one language or the other when we should be speaking both.
    By the way…thanks for taking time to honor your father in law. I really appreciate what he and his generation sacrificed for me.

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