Virtual Church in the 1940’s

I haven’t had much time to blog or chat in the last week but I did listen in to one chat – the interesting conversation that Shane Hipps ignited during the week about virtual communities through his video. Especially relevant to me because we are less than one month away from the Cyberchurch Symposium in London that I will be attending and hosting.

In my absence, others responded to Shane including Scot McKnight, who wondered whether Shane was talking about ecclesia or koinonia, and John La Grou who found Shane‘s argument a little on the dualist, techno-phobic side of the fence for a guy who has written a book on electronic culture [see my review]

If I were to add a thought to these thoughts on virtual church, which i might do during the week if i get more time, I would start by saying that the church has been dealing with virtual church for a lot longer than people think. In fact, the church dealt with a similar scenario in the 1940’s which might be worth another look.

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No, not computers. They were just big number crunching monsters back then. I am talking about radio and its impact on the idea of virtual church.


Christian broadcast through radio, by the 1940’s, had a strongly evangelistic flavor in the USA but in the UK it was seen as an extension of the church service. While the Americans were preaching the gospel on as many stations as they could find, the Brits were exploring the impact of radio on worship, eucharist and church life.

“It was discovered that some of those listening on Sunday evenings were either on the fringe of organised religion or lapsed members, while others had never been at a church service and had no personal faith.” Religion By Radio: Its Place in British Broadcasting”, by Melville Dinwiddie, 1968.

Yes, the author of that really cool book that I found was Melville Dinwiddie. Try saying that name three times without laughing.

Melville Dinwiddie.

Melville Dinwiddie.

Melville Dinwiddie.

he he ha he . . . No, I couldn’t do it either.

And, if you will forgive me, just another observation: Early forms of emerging church that appeared in the 1980’s on both sides of the Atlantic were, just as 40 years earlier, concerned with evangelism (USA) and worship (UK). Thank you. Thank you very much!!

Back to the 40’s. By the 1940’s, war had broken out, millions of British people had gone overseas and the idea of widespread virtual church was suddenly not so far fetched. Soldiers serving on the continent could not attend an English service BUT they could tune in to a broadcast . . .

“Worship was next to impossible in crowded huts or barrack rooms, but on isolated gunsites and on ships on patrol in dangerous waters, participation was sincere and meant a great deal to those taking part, as did listening in hospital and sick-room. The audience to such broadcasts could be numbered in the millions, many more than attended all the churches in Britain on any Sunday. . . This vast multitude of home or national service worshippers could not be placed in any recognised category except as men and women in search of a loving

page 47.

When the war was over, Britain was more open to the idea of a radio-resourced church outside the brick and mortar. 1946 was the year of the experiment.

Interested??? Keep reading.

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“As a result of much consultation with CRAC, the Episcopal form of the Communion service was broadcast as an experiment on six occasions during 1946. A devotional commentary was included, and it was regarded as a ‘means of presenting the faith and practice of the Christian Church more completely.’ This was done in the full realisation that to overhear or to eavesdrop on such an intimate experience could result in feelings of apprehension, disappointment or frustration or even derision. To those who knew and loved the service, it became a wonderful spiritual occasion, reviving tender memories of ‘blessed moments on the Mount’ . . .”

Church services through radio were OK which led to more freedom in the next technology – television.

“The consequence of broadcasting Holy Communion on sound radio was that it should also be televised. If the problems of bring able to make this service available for listeners were considerable, they were greatly increased by television, both for those making the technical and presentation arrangements, and for viewers in their own homes. Distance was eliminated, and the whole action of the consecration and partaking because as clearly visible at home as to those in church directly receiving the symbols of bread and wine. The risks of irreverence were far greater than when hearing only and, for the sick and housebound, many of them loyal members, there was the temptation to make the sacrament real and complete by taking similar elements to those used in face of the congregation, and partake in private or in the family circle. Cases of this kind were reported and, though they might seem to be sacrilege of a serious nature, there is sufficient Biblical evidence to show that, in the earliest days of Christianity, the Communion was a rite of the home rather than the sanctuary. The Apostles broke bread from house to house because there were no meeting places for corporate worship.” page 50

Amcgeorge-21946 was also the year that virtual church through radio appeared in Australia. Australia is a huge country with remote places. Over the years, they have pioneered in distance based school and other services, including church. In 1946 Pastor Laurie C began the “Advent Radio Church” in Sydney. [Source: Adventist Media Centre]

Anyway, virtual church on many levels has been happening for a long time. From the radio based church in the 40’s, to the the television resourced church in the late 50’s [and its unfortunate siblings], to virtual pastoral counseling by telephone rather than home visit, and most recently, virtual church through the internet. In most cases, technology did NOT replace personal relationships but rather enhanced and extended them.

Even today, our complex lives are such a mix of technology and human touch, lo-tech and hi-tech, that its really hard to see where the virtual and real meet. “Nothing new under the sun”, as a wise man once said.

Related: The Skinny on Cyberchurch

Cyberchurch on Wikipedia


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Dude, you always pull such fascinating rabbits out of the church’s hat.
    I think that one difference might be the way that religious radio was centered on extending the church service, either through broadcasting the liturgy or the sermon (which, as you know, is really the point to church… :^* ), while the interwebs are primed for magnifying each individual voice.
    Of course, I still say that virtual church began with Paul’s letters.

  • andrew says:

    good points – both of them.

  • You make some very good points. However, radio and TV are both one-way mass medias. It think its fairly obvious that that can’t replace real community. With the Internet, though, you can experience two-way, one-on-one communication, and thus real community.
    So, in some respects the concerns about the “virtual church” are nothing new, but when it comes to community this is era is really the first time you can have community (or something that looks very much like it) without actually being in the same physical location.
    – Paul

  • andrew says:

    thanks Paul. Its true the internet is more capable of two-way interaction but it is still a mediated platform, like radio and tv and telephone. I know we can virtually break bread but there is no substitute for eating a meal together.
    Also, I think the Celts were able to maintain their dispersed and distributed community despite great distances and time spans and they did so without technology.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    If the 1940s were concerned with radio, the 1960s were concerned with TV as a medium, and media gurus like Marshall McLuhan were all the rage. I went to one emerging church meeting a couple of months ago, and was struck by how similar it was to meetings I had been at 40 years before — people seemed to be looking for the same things. I blogged about it at Tshwane emerging cohort. So I asked the question whether similar things emerge in every generation.
    Looking at the other comments, though, I would say that blogging is not much of an advance on radio. It is still a “one-to-many” medium, with the difference that it allows questions and comments from the floor. Back in the early 1990s, however, we had Fido Technology Networks, which were true many-to-many communication.

  • Yolanda Winsky says:

    yooooooooooooooooooo i’m trying to complete a project. add more information about the types of emerging religions please. THANKS!

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