Part 5 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post in this series I made what I consider to be the strongest case for virtual church. It is based on the fact that millions of people spend a substantial chunk of their lives in Internet-based virtual worlds. If Christians want to reach these people with the love and truth of Christ, then we need to be substantially present in these worlds. We need, in a nutshell, virtual church.
Yet is virtual church enough? Can it satisfy the biblical and theological requirements for what a church ought to be? Would we ever be able to say to somebody, “As long as you’re involved in a virtual church, that’s all that’s necessary. You don’t need to feel obligated to be connected to some sort of physical church as well.”?
I can imagine situations in which I might say something like this. It would be to people who, for various reasons, are precluded from participating in physical church. They might be in a place where they are physically removed from other Christians, for example. Or they might have some sort of physical condition that requires they stay away from other people (a Bubble-Boy experience). But these people are clearly exceptions to the rule, representing far less than 1% of all possible churchgoers. Thus, I cannot imagine saying to someone who is fully able to participate in physical church, “Don’t worry about it. Your virtual church experience is enough.”
As you know if you been following this series, I have not denied the reality of virtual church. It is real in many ways that matter. But, by definition, it always lacks one crucial dimension of reality, namely, physicality. In virtual church, people don’t gather in the same physical space. They don’t sing songs together in the same room. They don’t see each other with their eyes, or hear each other with their ears, expect, perhaps through digital media. People in virtual church never shake the hand of their pastor. They never hug their friends. They never actually receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper from another human being, and have that person say to them directly, “This is body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
Yes, I’m aware that some of these experiences can be approximated online. And I acknowledge that certain aspects of Christian fellowship may even be stronger online than in the flesh, because some folks feel more freedom to share openly when they are not physically present with people. But I believe that what happens when Christians come together in physical space is essential to the full experience of church.
Let me put it this way. I believe that a person can experience much of what church is supposed to be in a virtual church. And I believe that a person can experience much of what church is supposed to be in a physical church. But I do not believe that a person can experience everything church is supposed to be without being physically present with other Christians. Thus the potential for church to be fully real is there for physical church, but not for virtual church. No matter how wonderful and authentic a virtual church experience might be, it is never able completely to be church.