I’ll be the first to admit that I’m skeptical of an online church, which is one reason I’ve chosen to reflect on Tim Hutchings article entitled Online Christian Churches: Three Case Studies. I’m skeptical because I really do believe in church. I believe that we’re better together than we are apart. I believe that the church is the locus of the Misso Dei. I believe that communal worship reminds me that God is God and that I am not. I take church seriously which means I take being together seriously. Can an online church adequately address my skepticism? I’m skeptical, but I also like to think I’m open to God’s spirit working in new ways. I must also say that my own church has been toying with the idea of having an online worship presence and thinking through this article has proven insightful. Our church identity is divided into 4 callings: Worship, Discipleship, Community and Mission. I’m going to highlight some concerns for those who only attend an online church.
Discipleship – Can online communities help create fully devoted followers of Jesus? I’m skeptical, in part, because I’m not sure physical churches do that very well. Does an online church make it too easy to mask the parts of me that aren’t fully submitted to Jesus? I’m fearful it does. Could it make it more likely that someone is willing to be more vulnerable because there isn’t someone right there? Maybe.
Community – Community is important for a variety of reasons. It helps us see God differently, it challenges our assumptions, and it keeps us from easily deceiving ourselves. In Hutchings article there does seem to be a genuine sense of community, among those virtually present. In fact, in the i-church model it seems like conversation and friendship are the very reasons why people attend online. But, on my deathbed do I want to type with an online community or do I want someone sitting in the room with me that I have intensely shared life with? Can community work that’s solely online? I don’t know. Can it be a supplement to in-person relationships? Absolutely.
Mission – I had a hard time imagining what Mission looks like with each of these churches. If mission is solely defined as evangelism, than maybe the argument that it is successful can be made (though that argument sounds akin to short-term mission trips participants who go to Mexico and say 5,000 people got saved, yet there isn’t a new church nor an increase in church attendance). But, if mission is broader than evangelism and encompasses things like hospitality, helping the homeless, volunteering at a local school then its success is much more in doubt.
Worship –Worship is a corporate experience with, as we say at our church, An Audience of One. I can’t imagine what a solely online experience would do to the essence of worship. In an already individualistic society it isolates us even more. I think worship would become even more about my wants and desires than it already is. I think the most viable worship model would be the Lifechurch.tv model that broadcasts a live worship over the internet, as a supplement to an in-person experience.
After thinking through these categories and reading Hutchings paper, I think online churches are at their best when they are fostered and surrounded by in-person relationships and are not a substitute for physical attendance. This seems to be the case by indications from a survey that suggest 75-80% of online churchgoers have a local church, but I’m afraid the 20-25% are missing out on something important. So, can God use an online church? Sure he can. But, should he have to?