Part 8 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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Let me say, once again, that I am not opposed to online church if it is an extension of in-the-flesh church. When connected to an actual community, not just a virtual one, online church can be a point of entry for newcomers, a context for deepening relationships among members, and a way for people who are physically separated from the congregation to be connected for worship, prayer, learning, and fellowship.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this came in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in September, 2005. The campus of Canal Street Presbyterian Church in New Orleans was devastated by the hurricane, especially the flood waters. Moreover, immediately following the hurricane, members were almost completely cut off from each other. Cell phones and land-line phones did not work. People could not travel even short distances to check on their friends. For months the members of this church had no ordinary way to communicate, and could not meet together. BUT, shortly before the hurricane hit, they had established an online bulletin board for church communications. All of a sudden, this became the chief means for members to communicate with each other, sharing news, concerns, prayers, etc. For several months, this was the only way for the church as a whole to “meet.” The Internet was, in this case, a true godsend. (Photo: The building of Canal Street Presbyterian Church)
But notice that it was an adjunct to the fellowship of Canal Street Presbyterian Church. To my knowledge, none of the members of this church suggested that their future life could be solely online. In fact, the congregation was thrilled when they were finally able to meet together physically, after so many months of separation.
Their joy in gathering physically points to a deeper theological reality. In fact, it illustrates some of the most central truths of the Christian faith: creation and Incarnation.
When God created the heavens and the earth, he created stuff. When God created human beings, they were a special kind of stuff. But still they were stuff. Human beings are more than just stuff. We have (or perhaps “are”) souls. But the “stuffness” of our existence is not accidental or incidental. We are not spirits trapped in bodies that are either insignificant or evil. This is precisely what the Gnostics believed, and they were rightly identified as heretics for their denial of the value of creation.
Those who advocate the adequacy of virtual church, with any necessary, regular in-the-flesh component, come dangerously close to understanding human beings in the way of the Gnostics. Those who think that people can experience online everything that is essential for human fellowship are overlooking or denying who we are as divinely-created creatures. Thus, I would argue that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile online church with the doctrine of creation, unless the virtual experience is an adjunct to the real thing.
Then there’s the doctrine of the Incarnation. In a nutshell, this states that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The very Word of God became human in Jesus. This in-the-flesh presence of God was the ultimate revelation of God as well as a prerequisite to the Cross.
The Incarnation dramatically underscores the divine value of physicality. It shows us that the physical world matters to God. Being in-the-flesh is essential to being human and to God’s way of saving the world. If physicality didn’t matter, if bodies were just the insignificant containers of spirit, surely God would not have gone to the bother, not to mention the humiliation, of the Incarnation.
One who takes seriously the theological implications of creation and the Incarnation will not be inclined to argue that online church is enough. Being together in the flesh will always be part of a full experience of Christian community.
This theological truth is reflected in our psychological experience as well. No matter how much we are able to share our souls when we’re not present with each other, through the Internet or other means, there is nothing like being with the people we love. Nothing online can match the power of giving and receiving a hug. Nothing online fosters intimacy in the way that looking deeply into someone’s eyes can do. Through online communication we can share deep parts of ourselves with others. But that kind of sharing will never be complete because it lacks what can only happen through our bodies.
In my next post in this series I want to reflect a bit on the benefits and detriments of livestreamed preaching. These reflections will also touch on the growing excitement for multisite churches that utilize some kind of video preaching, either live or Memorex.