Criticism of Virtual Community and Cyber churches

Is the cyber-church a REAL church?

I was studying and writing last weekend on virtual communities for a number of articles and also for speaking in Las Angeles next September at the Christian Web Conference.

There are lots of arguments against virtual communities being “real” but there one quote that is probably the most comprehensive one I have come across. The author hits about 7 criticisms on cyber church. I have some answers to this but I want to throw it out to you guys to get you thinking on how you would respond.

Read on for the quote.

Here it is:

“Cyber-worship and churches have begun replacing traditional Christian worship and churches. This increasing phenomenon will result in a certain wearing away of the historical institutional churches and worship.”

The problems of the cyber-church are as follows. First, the cyber-church can never be a spiritual church. It risks the danger that in the electronically mediated virtual world the experience of the holy will become visual and secularized. It also faces the danger that the Word of God pervading the depth of the soul will be changed into the on-screen messages of the electronically reduced multimedia. Second, the cyber-church is not a real church. It is merely a virtual church, existing only in the electronic network of the Internet. Third, the cyber-church lacks face-to-face encounter and personal fellowship. Dialogue with a partner on-screen is not the same as dialogue with someone whom one knows personally. “

Yuang Han Kim, The Identity of Reformed Theology and Its Ecumenicity in the Twenty-First Century: Reformed Theololgy as Transformational Cultural Theology, Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity, Wallace M. Alston, Michael Welker editors

See the quote in context on Google books.

So, what do you think?

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

15 Comments

  • First, while there are cyber churches, I don’t think there are a ton of people that are doing them exclusively, so I am not sure that he going after the right end point. Most people that I know use them as supplemental, not replacement worshiping communities. I might be wrong about that but I would start there.
    Next, if you compare with other worshiping communities I don’t think you will get where he suggests. For instance, mega churches tend to be visualized because they meet in such large spaces and have quite a distance from the member in the seat to the stage. We can say there are issues with that, but saying that that means that mega churches are secularized would not be the direction that I would go.
    His second point is unexplained. So I don’t know what for him is a real church. Is it a physical building? If so then there are many churches around the world that would not be considered churches because they lack a physical building (either because they are mobile, rent or actually meet outside. If it is community that is what he means, then that can be disputed as well. There are many churches that virtually have no community. What about worshiping communities that meet at campgrounds or conferences that have time limited community?
    The third part is also a common complaint against mega-churches. I attend a church that has about 20,000 people attend three different locations. I haven’t ever sat next to someone that I know (other than my family that I go with.) But I have community through electronic media like twitter and blogs with that congregation. I follow dozens of people that go to my church on twitter, many of whom I have never met in real life. I wouldn’t consider these people best friends, but they are as close of community as what I had at my last church of 50. In fact many are closer because I know what they do throughout the week. I pray for them when they are hurting and I know when they are joyful. In several cases I can physically do something for them when they need it.
    Overall, my response would be that cyber-churches may not be optimal in some characteristics, but that does not make them any less of a church. All churches are sub-optimal, in part because all churches are made up of humans, who by our theological convictions are necessarily sub-optimal creatures.

  • I agree that his second point is the weakest but it has the potential to be the strongest. He is assuming an ecclesiology that is unexplained but somehow makes cyber-church illegitimate as a ‘real’ church. Fleshing out the ecclesiology would make for a much more compelling argument and one that could receive a clearer response.
    I might try to anticipate the ecclesiology that is driving his conclusions and respond to that.

  • I wonder what the difference between a cyber church and a radio church (people who are in very remote places and who have only ever heard the Gospel or discipleship via radio–e.g. in China, North Africa, etc.) is?

  • On the Internet, both in time-displaced fashion and in real time, I have received prayer and prayed for others. So… what was that? One argument he might make against that is that these are fleeting moments of fellowship, not a cohesive group that has made a commitment to each other. Are there examples of such cohesive groups online? I bet there are many.

  • Sadly, I feel very few churches in the more traditional settings accomplish these points either especially in congregations that exceed 500 members (or so). So many critics of “alternative” forms of church are convinced that the tradition model is THE most biblical and spiritual. Unfortunately, the most common expressions of “church” (at least here in the States) are no better at the points Yuang Han Kim emphasizes even though a bunch of people show up on Sunday. If a trained group of instrumentalists leading a concert constitutes worship and one man with one gift standing on a podium talking at upwards of 1000 people constitutes face-to-face ministry then “yes” Cyber church falls short (ironically, video-casting that same man to satellite campuses is becoming more common – that’s intimate). You can visit the best known Emergent church who tout community and find many attendees coming to the meeting in absolute anonymity.
    Sure, we should never stop being wary of heresy. Apostle Paul was always seeking to realign people to Christ when a new doctrine sprung up. But, we need to also be open to when the Spirit is doing new things and going in new directions. Even though they are unfamiliar doesn’t make them automatically errant.

  • hey – you guys ROCK. thanks
    Adam – good stuff. agree that cyber church participants are not exclusive – its modular and not singular. he is coming from reformed background that hints of a 16th century attractional building-centered model as the starting point.
    Luke – yes, and the letter to the Hebrews carries a good ecclesiolgy of a church that is REAL and yet not visible or yet actualized [VIRTUAL]
    Justin – exactly – i have blogged about radio church in the 1940’s as virtual church here
    John – it was REAL, even though it was mediated with new media.
    Kathleen – yes – thanks. And Kim’s model should not be taken as first base when the early church in the book of Acts was such a great model of fellowship and community.
    thanks all.

  • There’s been a sort of anti-tech movement in certain circles since Shane H’s book dropped, but I don’t get it. Seems FAR more symbolic than substantive.
    Virtual tools are a profound gift which enhance community – they are making us more connected, not less; more aware of the global church, not less. Used wisely, these tools enhance physical relationship rather than detract from it. IME, the synergy of both (virtual & F2F) is more generative than one without the other.
    Sure, there are exceptions, as Kim points out. But, on balance, I think the benefits of on-line ecclesia vastly outweigh the “dangers.” It’s like any tool – learn how to use it wisely.

  • Cyber churches will always not be churches, in my view, because the Word became flesh. There was already a written form of the Word before the incarnation, but this was not enough. Neither did Jesus ‘virtually’ suffer upon the cross for our redemption. Lastly, Jesus was not ‘virtually’ raised from the dead, nor did he ‘virtually’ ascend. The “testimony” of the fourth gospel is insistent on the image of the water and the blood, which again impinges upon this. So, for me, theologically those ecclesiologies which claim an equivalence of ‘virtuality’ are based on a docetic soteriology. I think the Church should wake up to this and realise that a lot of the anthropology undergirding contemporary communications technology is fundamentally non-Christian. Geeky churches will fall hook line and sinker for this heretical slide unless they wake up and do some theology. Let’s keep technology in its place, but get real people, get real. (As you can guess, this is a much self-edited comment!)

  • Paul, the Word became flesh, but the flesh became Spirit. Healthy communities, and healthy theology, find a certain balance of Word, Spirit, and flesh.
    So go the parallels of Spirit and virtuality. I have no idea “where” the Spirit is (physically), but I sense its presence everywhere. I don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes, but it is here.
    The anthropology of technology (such as books and papyri) as non-Christian is an interesting thesis. Tell us more.

  • Andrew,
    If this is the best criticism you can find, I think you will have an easy time rebutting it. I think the biggest mistake here is the idea that we have some definite idea of what a “spiritual” church is. Every church, every religious act and system, is an attempt to instantiate spirit. An attempt to make the infinite incarnate. As such it will always be flawed, limited, and imperfect. As such it will always be incomplete and in need of renewal, change, and increased depth / spirit awareness.
    On a deeper level, I think it comes back to the question: “of can you ever have unmediated access to an event?” When you get there, questions about real and virtual mean a lot less.
    One of the best critiques I have heard of communities of faith that engage primarily online came from a long time bio-regionalism friend. He asked me if it was possible for a primarily online community to share the care of every living organism in specific location they were in. Can you have worship that is aware of and sensitive to the entirety of the local space if you are not sharing that space together?

  • I tend to think the point is whether virtual churches *replace* physical churches. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of cyber church at its core. But when I read the scripture about not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25), I can’t help but get a literal impression of it. Obviously, attending a physical church is next to impossible for some believers around the world; for them cyber church is literally a Godsend. However if you *can* go to a church, isn’t there something indescribably special about raising your voice in song with dozens or hundreds of other believers at once? And the feeling of a warm handshake from a caring congregant? Christians should ways be on the cutting edge of technology to use it for good–it is a mighty, mighty tool. I believe it should be used to augment, but not substitute for, the assembling of ourselves together and breaking of bread.

  • The biggest problem for me is his third point, “the cyber-church lacks face-to-face encounter and personal fellowship.”
    When I have encountered people face to face that I have been churching with online (in some cases for years) there has unvariably been a revelation about how little I really knew about them from those low bandwidth virtual interactions. It’s forced me to conclude that ‘virtual church’ can at best only completement face to face church, not replace it. That makes it more parachurch than church.
    Insofar as megachurch is subject to the same problems, I wouldn’t say that validates virtual church, I would say that should bring people to have a long hard look at the validity of megachurch.

  • I liked what you said in the comments about it being “modular,” but then maybe we need to define our terms. Is it really “cyber church” if the people participating are also actively involved in a local face to face church? It seems like it might be more accurate to call it a cyber supplement to the person’s total community life. Virtual communities can offer something that local churches can’t. But then I wonder if we are all talking about the same thing.

  • Andrew,
    I saw your post just now, but I hope I have refuted or at least challenged each of these ideas in SimChurch. We’ll see – but it just confirms to me I was right to make a large section of my book deal with this central (and red herring) issue of whether a virtual church is ‘real’ or not. Blessings,

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