Part 7 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
In my last post in this series I offered an existential response to the question: Is virtual church enough? I suggested that when you take away the physical aspect of church, something essential is missing. I supported this contention more intuitively and emotionally than theologically. Now I’d like to muster some theological support.
I would begin by pointing to some of the most formative truths of the Christian faith. God created the physical world and called it good. Physicality is not an inessential vehicle for spirituality, but is part and parcel of what matters to God and to us. This is why, in the end, God doesn’t incinerate the universe and take believing souls to heaven with him. Rather, God renews and restores his creation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. The basic facts of creation and new creation suggest that physical life is extraordinarily important.
But the clincher, it seems to me, is the Incarnation. Christians believe that in order to save people and renew the cosmos, the very Word of God became human. And not just apparently human, as the Gnostics believed, but really and fully human. The Incarnation underscores the fundamental value of the material world and physical human existence. It was not enough for God simply to shout from Heaven: “I love you. I forgive you.” Rather, God chose to be born in a human baby, live a human life, and die a truly and horribly physical death on the cross.
Those who advocate the adequacy of virtual church wouldn’t disagree with anything I’ve said here, at least they wouldn’t if they’re orthodox Christians. But they don’t seem to see how the value of the material universe, combined with the fact of the Incarnation, suggest that non-physical, non-incarnational church could never be quite enough.
Here’s where my theological and existential arguments against the adequacy of virtual church converge. Christian theology says stuff matters; Christian experience says stuff matters. Sure, you can have lots of authentic experiences of church in virtual worlds. I fully expect that, in time, thousands of people will become genuine Christians through virtual church experiences, thanks be to God! But for these folk to fully experience what church is meant to be, at some point they’ll need to gather with other believers.
If they don’t, they will miss things about church that require physical presence. In my series dealing with online church (Internet-based experiences of physical church, such as streaming of worship services), I asked a number of questions I’d like to ask again:
• 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 actually embrace those who are weeping?
• How can you bring a meal to a person who is house-bound? (It wouldn’t be quite the same to order take-out and have it delivered to their home, would it?)
• How can you visit those who are in prison?
• How can you offer food to the hungry?
By pointing to the necessary inadequacy of virtual church, I’m not thereby saying Christians shouldn’t mess with it. Quite to the contrary! Here’s where I agree most strongly with some of the conclusions of Douglas Estes in SimCity:
It seems to me that real-world churches will accomplish ministry objectives that virtual-world churches and internet campuses will struggle to accomplish, just as virtual-world churches and internet campuses will accomplish ministry objectives that real-world churches will struggle to accomplish. . . . I also believe that the more each type of church steps into the other type’s world, the more unity and cooperation there will be. (p. 224)
Some physical churches do have a substantial online or virtual presence. And some virtual churches also have some kind of physical community. I wonder if, in the future, the Church of Jesus Christ wouldn’t be best-served by intentional partnerships between virtual and physical churches. Virtual churches could do what physical churches struggle to do, such as reaching people who spend much of their time in virtual worlds. Physical churches could do for virtual churches that they could never do themselves without having a physical aspect: provide contexts for real people to gather in real space for flesh-and-blood community and full-orbed sacramental worship.