Virtual Church: Are Online Digital Spaces Real Places?

Let’s Talk about online church. Sometimes I don’t know where to draw the line between being prophetic and being annoying. I think I am starting to become annoying to some of my colleagues when I insist on talking about how the church is completely missing the boat when it comes to the digital realm.

I am not talking about missing it strategically or tactically. This isn’t about communications staffing or social media budgets. This is about the meta-concept of the digital world as a real place.

The Word Became Flesh

Christians are, quite appropriately, drawn to the physical. This makes sense. The core of the Christian faith is the idea that our transcendent creator became imminent. The Incarnation informs us that “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (The Gospel of John, chapter 1.) It takes some amount of theological imagination to consider a church that is not connected by hands but by bits and bytes.

But we have adjusted before. The Word itself used to be much more physical. What we read in the Bible originated as oral tradition. People gathered together sharing the stories of the faith. Even when it was written down, barriers of literacy and language meant that people assembled to hear and learn those stories.

The Apostle Paul put his words in writing, but only for them to be transported to gatherings of people hungry to hear about Jesus.

The Forces of History Toward Online Church

But eventually, two forces of history came together to forever change how the Word of God was read, studied, and shared. The Reformation sought to decentralize control of the faith, and the printing press was the vehicle that made that happen. Suddenly people could own a Bible. And, in possessing it, they could read and study on their own without necessarily gathering with other people.

bibleNow, I carry a number of Bible translations in my pocket. I still remember one of the first times I read from the Bible on my iPad in church. I received many comments. Some people felt it wasn’t sacred to be reading God’s word from an electronic device. Honestly, I understand where they were coming from. We are drawn to the physical. For some of us, the Bible has always been a thing we could see and feel and touch. I still remember my sister’s confirmation Bible. It had a leather cover, a zipper, and unbelievable thin pages with edges trimmed in gold.

It just doesn’t feel the same to read those words from a device that I used just hours before to play Bejeweled. But we don’t ascribe any value to the pages and binding. God’s word is just as essential and powerful whether it is printed on pages bound in leather or dancing as pixels on a digital display.

The Place of Church

pewsThe church has recently begun rethinking the place of church. No longer is the concept of church tied to a certain physical place. Churches meet in movie theatres, community centers, schools, and even bars. A recent movement called “Fresh Expressions” pushes the concept even further, looking to connect with people in coffee shops, yoga studios, barns, and even in the woods or on the water. These fresh expressions are designed to reach people who might not consider attending a traditional church.

But, even with these new thoughts on how to be the church, the focus is on the physical gathering of people. The major shift in the Fresh Expression movement that makes it different from similar movements in the past is that these expressions are not designed simply to get people through the doors of the traditional church. There is a belief that the life of faith can be lived out in this non-traditional space.

Gathering in the Digital Space

So what is the spiritual and mental barrier to thinking of gathering together in the digital space?

Some might argue that the church is recognizing this digital space through the adoption of sermon podcasts, videos of worship services, and live streaming. This is a good start. However, these are mostly seen as an extension of the physical space into the digital. In many cases, they are a begrudging accommodation of the realities of shifting worship attendance patterns.

The goal for most of these online efforts is to move people, when possible, into the physical location of the church. Churches hope people will watch the live stream when they are away, or when they are ill and can’t come to church. In the end, the church expects people to find their way to the pews and chairs of physical space.

Churches hope that people will watch the live stream or sermon recordings a few times before deciding to visit in person. But what if someone continues interacting online and never shows up in person?

There are exceptions.

Online service from Life.Church

Check out this post from Capterra, where you can read about Life.Church which reports 70,000 people engaged with their online church each week.

The 5 Biggest Online Churches – Capterra
I am not yet ready to propose a model. I am not laying out a plan for my denomination (The United Methodist Church). Honestly, we are too busy arguing about other things to make a paradigm shift.

What Do We Do?

What I am asking is that these ideas be taken seriously.

Large churches that already have live streaming should seriously consider dedicating a full-time pastor to growing and shepherding the online community.

Annual Conferences (United Methodist) and other denominational regional and governing bodies should be staffing and resourcing the move into digital spaces. They should use those resources to help local congregations begin to embrace new practices. They should also consider leveraging the size of the collective footprint of their congregations in outreach to those in digital spaces.

As the church has done many times before, it is time to start imagining a church that doesn’t look like the one we have grown comfortable with. It is time to start imagining the future.

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