Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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In yesterday’s post I reviewed some of the highlights of the recent Christian Web Conference at Biola University. In this post I mentioned several conversations I had with people who are convinced that online church can be truly and fully church. They believe that so-called “virtual church,” in which people interact only through the Internet, can fulfill all that is necessary for the church. Those who are involved in such a church needn’t feel that they are missing out on anything essential. Sure, they might decide at some point to become part of a church that meets in person, but there’s no reason why they should have to do this.
I had been vaguely aware of online church prior to my trip to the CWC. I had seen references to this phenomenon in various sources, including a recent critique on the Out of Ur blog (an online publication of Christianity Today). I even knew that growing numbers of churches are developing “online campuses.” But I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that intelligent, Bible-believing Christians would actually entertain the notion that online church is really enough. Then I met some of these people and talked with them at length. (Ironically, my longest conversation with a couple of them happened over dinner at Downtown Disney. Someone it only seemed right to talk about virtual church in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, one of the world’s sanctuaries of fantasy and illusion. Photo: Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California)
I must confess that my first, knee-jerk reaction to one who claimed that online church could be real church was to wonder if I was being set up as the dupe in a joke. Was I about to be the unwitting star of some Candid Camera sketch? My initial response to one who advocated the sufficiency of online church was something like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But I could see in his startled and hurt expression that he was not kidding, not at all. He truly believed, not only that online church was sufficient, but also that the advent of this form was church as a great thing for the kingdom of God.
Once I got beyond my initial surprise over the fact that somebody of apparent intelligence and integrity was making the case of the adequacy of online church, I thought it might be helpful to raise some objections. I thought my first one would euthanize the idea of online church once and for all. “How can you celebrate the sacraments?” I asked. “Surely you can’t have online communion, online baptism.”
“Why not?” my earnest interlocutor asked. “People do it all the time.”
Once more I had to suppress my astonishment. “How could this be?” I asked.
“It’s easy,” my online enthusiast explained. “For communion, each person prepares the elements. By using some form of live, online communication, somebody says the traditional words, and then everybody takes communion at the same time. When somebody wants to get baptized, they fill their bathtub with water. Then they proclaim their faith and dunk themselves while the other church members watch on their computers. It’s just like what happens in a physical church.”
Yet again I wanted to spit out something like, “You’re out of your mind!” But I realized that this wouldn’t be respectful or helpful. Nor would it help us get closer to the truth about the adequacy of virtual church. I found myself curiously confused at first about how to respond to what I was hearing. Yet as I asked more questions and tried really to listen to what I was hearing rather than just respond negatively to it, I began to grasp why somebody might believe as my new friend believed. Moreover, I also started to get clear on what I believe to be the inadequacies of virtual church.
I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced of the sufficiency of online church. I do not believe that we can experience the fullness of what church out to be if our interaction with other believers is only through the Internet. Thus I am worried about what happens when Christians think they can have an adequate church experience without ever being face-to-face with other believers.
But, having said this, I must also admit that I found my interaction with my online church supporters to be quite engaging. Many of their insights are worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, the places where they are wrong, in my opinion, are also worthy of serious consideration. They can lead us forward into a fuller and more biblical experience of genuine church.
Moreover, as I’ll explain in my next post, I think there are some marvelous benefits for the church in the creative and careful use of the Internet. I’m not opposed to virtual church per se, but rather to the notion that virtual church is enough.

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