Mark D. Roberts

Part 6 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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In my last post, I suggested that, though virtual church has many benefits, a personal cannot 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.
I’m not quite sure if Douglas Estes, who makes a strong, persuasive case for virtual church in SimCity, agrees or disagrees with me here. I think he disagrees, but I’m not positive. Nevertheless, his fine book shows, even in its effort to defend virtual church, some of the inherent inadequacies of virtual church. This is evident, for example, in Estes’ chapter on “WikiWorship” (pp. 103-134). There, he devotes considerable space to explaining how people might participate in the sacraments of communion and baptism in a virtual church. In several of Estes’ own scenarios, some sort of physical relationship with other people is required. Thus these are not fully virtual experiences. The options Estes presents for fully online communion and/or baptism are laden with difficulties, as Estes’ own critique shows. To be sure, some of what the sacraments signify can be experienced through the Internet alone, but something will always be missing: physicality, materiality, full human contact.
Estes makes strong arguments in support of the notion that water is not really necessary for baptism, or real bread and liquid for communion. I know this might sound crazy, but if you read Estes’ book, as I have suggested, you’ll be impressed with his points.
Yet I think he underestimates the extent to which the power of the sacraments lies, in part, in their materiality. Communion, for example, isn’t just a chance to signify and remember Jesus. It is an opportunity to experience and solidify that memory through consuming actual bread and drinking actual juice or wine. Baptism, when experienced by one who is old enough to understand what’s happening, involves physical sensations that amplify the spiritual meaning. When one goes down under the water and then comes up, there is an experience of something like dying and rising, and this experience simply cannot be duplicated emotionally through something one watches online.
And if one baptizes oneself in real water which participating in some virtual ceremony, though the water is real, that person will never know what it’s like to receive baptism. Rather, his or her experience will be that of doing it to him or herself. And this, I suggest, is theologically suspect and subjectively inadequate.
As soon as one solves the sacrament problem for virtual church by coming up with some physical church experience, then that makes the case: virtual church is not enough.
To this point, I have been making an existential argument for the inadequacy of virtual church, based on the experience of the sacraments. I recognize, as Estes rightly points out in his book, that Christians believe many different things about the sacraments and experience them in widely different ways. Yet one thing all Christians have had in common, at least until very recently, is the conviction that the sacraments necessarily include material elements and happen (almost always) in the context of physical Christian community.
If you take away materiality and physical community from the sacraments, you may have something that approximates them. You can still remember the death of Christ. You can still celebrate that fact that a believer dies to sin and is raised to Christ. But something profound is missing, something which, I believe, is not just optional, but essential to a full experience of church.
In my next post I’ll suggest a theological reason why I think virtual church can’t ever quite be fully church.

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