The Virtual Church: Keeping it Real

Today is Mass Blogging Day which has nothing at all to do with a virtual Roman Catholic eucharist but rather is about a number of bloggers writing today about the Web, and in particular its relation to church and mission. Many of us are meeting in LA in September at the Christian Web Conference. Actually, one of the highlights of the conference is a debate on the on-line church between myself and Matthew Anderson of the excellent blog Mere Orthodoxy. Matt will be taking the more conservative approach to new media and I will be arguing the positive.

Heres my little blog entry on the topic of virtual church. Its called The Virtual Church: Keeping it Real.

Some people have asked if the online virtual church can be a real church. The common misconception is that the invisible is less real than the visible. As if the physical and touchable is the standard of reality and the virtual its poorer shadow. Can the virtual ever be as real as the non-virtual?

This raises many questions regarding the ministry of the church:

Did that global-based web-community experience “real” fellowship or should they all fly to the same city to do it right? Did the pastor’s phone call count as “real” counseling or do we demand a return to the neglected practise of pastoral home visitation? Did those Christian soldiers in WWII experience “real” church as they sat around the radio broadcasts, or just a shadow of the real? Did those paypal money transfers to missionaries constitute “real” giving and therefore “real” worship? Can the church, in its web-based forms, utilizes on-line tools to achieve real and legitimate forms of spiritual expression?

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16.jpgFirst of all, a confession. I also like touchable stuff. I recently bought an old vinyl record and thoroughly enjoyed the ritual of gently slipping the album out, sniffing the musty smell of the paper sleeve, reading the words on the cover as I placed this gorgeous shiny black object on my record player. It was a product that I could touch and feel. More than music, it was a sensual experience and far more memorable than my last music purchase on Amazon.

Amazon, for me, was not nearly as satisfying. I sent them some virtual money and they sent me a virtual electronic letter containing a virtual password so I could download a virtual record. I bought the “album”, I guess, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as buying an old smelly vinyl record.

Did the sum of those numbers I downloaded amount to a “real” album? Did they send me a “real” product? Is Amazon a “real” shop?

Actually, I dont think the employees at Amazon.com sit around asking themselves if they are a real shop. They are more concerned with connecting products to consumers. They want to succeed in business more than they want to satisfy their philosophical yearnings to appreciate their identity as a virtual, online shop and the metaphysical differences between them and their brick and mortar equivalents. A shop sells books. Amazon sells books. It is probably a shop, but most people dont care if Amazon.com is a shop at all. They just want to get their dang music and enjoy it.

Same with church. Why ask if an online community is really a church when we can ask “how can we as the church use the tools of the internet to fulfill the church’s mission”?

Obviously there are some functions of church that are done better off-line than on-line, especially when I consider how the church functioned in the book of Acts. Breaking bread, for example, has no online substitute. Experiencing the awe of God together needs a physical expression. Getting persecuted or martyred is not the same online, although it is little less messy. I would add evangelism and missions to that list. The moment we substitute actually going and entering peoples homes to eat with them (Luke 10) with some form of distance-based mediated communication strategy, or replace missions with just sending a cheque and not going ourselves, is the moment we as the church stop running on all cylinders. But the church in both its off-line and on-line expressions often fail in this regard. In fact, I have been to off-line churches that promised a “service” and neglected to serve the communion meal. The worship service had teaching, singing and praying, but they didnt serve any food. There was no love feast, no breaking of bread. How can it be “church” when there is no breaking of bread? Shouldn’t we do this in remembrance of Jesus every time we meet or am I reading the wrong Bible? Maybe the off-line church needs to get “real” as well as the on-line church.

I could digress here, and probably already have, but lets get back to on-line church. How can a church be a real church when there are no buildings, no touchable rituals, no material evidence? Can can the virtual be real?

Maybe we should think about “virtual” in a new way. “Virtual”, according to Pierre Levy in his book Cyberculture, does not mean “not real” but rather it means “not yet fully actualized”. “In a philosophical sense”, Levy argues, “the virtual is that which exists potentially rather than actually. . . The virtual stands in opposition not to the real but to the actual, virtuality and actuality being nothing more than two different modes of reality. . . Although we are unable to assign it any spatial or temporal coordinates, the virtual is nonetheless real.” (Cyberculture, page 29-30).

Could the church, then, as an eschatological promise of God’s holy city the New Jerusalem, be considered virtual in its current form, as opposed to actual, but still real? I think so.

There was once a new community of believers that was having difficulty coming to grips with their virtuality. They missed the tangible nature of their previous worship, the regularity of ritual, the permanence of their building. They had to be reminded that their new worship was real, their expression was legitimate, and even though it might be invisible, it was actually a better way. Thus, we have the letter to the Hebrews in our Bible.

The writer encourages this community of “holy brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 3:1) with these words. “For you have not come to something that can be touched . . . . But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myraids of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.” (12: 18-24)

Their worship was real, even though it was invisible, and not because it was a virtual copy of the Hebrew sacrifical system. The writer makes it clear that even the old temple system with its buildings and animal sacrifices, laws and ritual meals was only a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (8:5) something built by man after the pattern given to Moses of the true tabernacle designed by God. “By faith, we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command, so that the visible has its origin in the invisible.” (11:3)

I like that. The visible is both preceded and legitimized by the invisible, not the other way around. Now thats gotta mess with your head, ay?

Legitimacy for both the touchable and non-touchable, the visible and the invisible, the tangible and the immaterial, lies in its correspondence with the heavenly pattern that originates with God – and it is something we cannot touch or see but believe by faith that it is very real.

The Hebrews writer reminds them that they are”partners in a heavenly calling” (3:1) they belong to God’s house (3:6) they are aspiring to a better land (11:16), have a better hope (7:19), are receiving an unshakable kingdom (12:28) and following a better priest under a better covenant (7:22). Therefore, they are told to confidently approach the throne of grace to find mercy and grace (4:16), to exhort each other daily (3:13), share their possessions, to do good works (13:16, 10:24), not forsake their assembling together (10:25) or neglect hospitality (13:2), and continually offer a sacrifice of praise that is based on personal communication (13:16).

When I read through the letter to the Hebrews, I am reminded that we, the church of God, are essentially the invisible, virtual, spiritual, mystical body of Christ operating in the world in ways that are tangible and lasting and transforming, although not always visible. There is no defining boundary that divides the on-line church that meets in cyberspace with the off-line church that meets in buildings. We are a spiritual, invisible, community that represents the firstfruts of an unshakeable Kingdom that will last forever. We are a virtual church that finds tangible ways to live out our calling in the world, whether the forms we chose are touchable or not. Reality is not found in bricks and mortar. Reality is found in the ways in which our worship and service correspond to the God’s invisible Kingdom reality and purposes.

Pierre Levy’s description of”virtual as being “not yet actualized” has profound impliciations for the body of Christ as the eschatological promise of something already begun but not fully downloaded. He also says that “the virtual doesn’t replace the real; it simply increases the opportunities to actualize it.” (Cyberculture, page 70). The virtual online church happens every day as believers in Christ aggregate on the web around missional tasks, fulfil their obligation to each other to share all things and exhort each other daily, as they publish glad tidings daily in electronic forms that will outlast paper books, as they meet globally in ways that could never be achieved in the physical realm.

Can some expressions of church online be considered real? I say yes they can . . . if and when they mirror God’s heavenly design and fulfil his Kingdom mission through his people in the world. God’s Kingdom is coming, on earth as it is in heaven, and the virtual church is making it visible both offline and online. Lets keep it real!

Related on Tallskinnykiwi: Church 2.0, EmergAnt and New Media Fluency, Virtual Church in the 1940’s, Is the Virtual Church a Real Church?

TSK on Relevant Mag “Linking to Cyberchurch”

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” :-)

9 Comments

  • Andrew,
    I’ve always been intrigued by technology and its many uses. On the one hand, it is incredibly exciting to see the rise of virtual churches, as people tap into the new resources for ministry that are now widely available.
    Yet, on the other hand, I’m not sure what to think of the whole scenario. Oftentimes, it seems as if these churches are planted overnight without much consideration of theology/ecclesiology. Rather, the virtual is perceived as an environment which is working- so we might as well jump headlong into things.
    All this to say that I greatly appreciate your post. It is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. As I continue to wrestle with the idea of virtual communities, I’m sure that your post will be one that I visit time and again.

  • I have a friend who is young would love to go to church but has very ill children. I am going to get her pluged into vertual church, but one thing church has that you miss from just watching a message. That is community, and I prayed over this, how do we bring the community of believers into the home of those watching. One way I see is to do weekly remotes from their home, something extra only seen on vurtual church. The second idea and wow its a big scale.. Having teams of voluteers from our church, and other churches who would go out weekly or upon request to visit those in their homes (whereever they are).. They could pray with, give communion, be a friend and bring the Love of Christ right to their door.. Thank u for all you do.

  • Virtual reality has also affected war. Here’s a personal account of a US Air Force pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq & Afghanistan but then was transferred over to the Predator fleet. Now, instead of actually flying over hostile territory, he sits in an air-conditioned base in Florida in front of a screen guiding an aircraft thousands of miles away. This change brought personal struggles – is he still a combat pilot even though he’s no longer in danger? What do his buddies who are still flying combat missions think of him now? In this article he comes to grips with being a “virtual warrior”:
    http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/07/back-to-basics/

  • Great post. I like how you surfaced the fact that questions about on-line churches (like communion) often reflect back on the practices of the off-line church.
    Regarding those passages in Hebrews, I wonder if we are confusing things by using the ‘spiritual, universal’ nature of the universal Church as a metaphor for understanding virtual churches. I realize that the spiritual world and the virtual world are both in some sense ‘invisible’, but beyond that I think comparison of the two is probably more confusing than unhelpful. If the church is spiritual, and spiritual = virtual, is God then virtual?
    I totally agree that technological interactions are ‘real’ I just want don’t want us to confuse the virtual world with spirituality. Of course, I know that’s not what you were trying to do…

  • hi john. what i like about Hebrews is that it shows us the standard for measuring what is legitimate and what is real – in this case, the invisible reality of God’s design. So many people say that online church is not real because it is dissimilar to physical material building centered worship. But both of these must look beyond themselves to see what they point to.

  • Andrew,
    Good discussion of the reality of the virtual world (though I echo John and caution against confusing virtual and spiritual). Virtual and actual churches have danger zones. For the virtual church, the danger is forgetting the physical. We are embodied and gathering as bodies is important. For the actual church, the danger is forgetting the spiritual. We are souls and spiritual connection is important.
    I have frequent virtual fellowship (though not as part of an official on-line church), but the in-person gatherings I have with my fellows is critical to my life as a Jesus follower.

  • Hi Andrew
    (Welcome back by the way!)
    I have thought a lot about the issue of virtual church- possibly because our situation (isolated small town Scotland) means that finding connection with others on the fringes of organised religion has made on line stuff extremely important.
    However, the problem for me is that the nature of on line ‘community’ (for me) has serious deficiencies. That is not to say it is not useful, but that it is limited.
    1. It is ephemeral- most online networking things start well, then fade and die very quickly.
    2. On line relationships lack all sorts of nuances and complications present in face to face ones. Less messy, but perhaps also less human.
    3. On line communication tends to allow for people to fire off and flare up, then withdraw with apparently no damage done. It might even foster a certain kind of dehumanisation along with the obvious detatchment? Contrast this with on-line therepeutic interventions. There has been some success with fairly one dimensional CBT programmes, but beyond this, it just don’t work.
    4. Community seems to me to be the painful-glorious-life affirming place where we practice becoming the beloved of Jesus. It is where we knock spots off one another, but then learn again to love. It is about the long haul, the fostering of love that costs. It is perhaps also about an arm around the shoulder. A virtual arm may do if there is no real one- but I would so much rather have a real one.
    5. Community is also about service. On line stuff often seems to me about convenience and a kind of narcisistic portability. It is easily self centred, not other-centred. This is not restricted to on line church, but I would contend that this makes the problem more real. How can we serve if there is no cost- particularly cost in terms of time and companionship.
    6. At it’s heart, community needs to be hosted and nursed and fostered. Most people who are good at this (in my experience) are not the people that have much interest in the on line stuff.
    I have come to realise that I need both- but I need the real stuff much more.
    Cheers
    Chris

  • I have been a Christian for 34 years, and have a very bad church attendance record. Why?
    Because I am a nurse/midwife and hospital rota came before the preaching, coffee, sunday school and anything else.
    I desperately wanted to get involved but those seen as ‘reliable’ dominate the precious institution positions. The same I have found now in virtual churches.
    I found a release in virtual reality. I do not ‘do’ a church but created a virtual garden in second life with scriptures I have placed in objects. Thus calling this ‘Scripted Scriptures’
    I love my brothers and sisters in Christ but once the ‘institution’ gives them perceived authority some actually are really hard to deal with. Even being asked to leave a church in the East End of London.
    I do not enjoy but prefer being on the fringes and technically ‘dechurched’.
    God Bless.
    Lorraine

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