Is Virtual Church “Real” Church?

Question: What makes a gathering “church”? What are the elements that turn a gathering into a church meeting? Is it “church” when I have coffee with two Christian students? Is a Bible study “church”?

There was quite the dustup at Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog this week over Douglas Estes’ article on virtual churches, and this article emerges out of his new book: SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World
. I include his concluding paragraph, but I’ve got these two questions first:

Do you think “virtual” church is “real” church? Or, what makes connections, gatherings, etc into “real” church?

The good news for the world today is that virtual churches, Baptist churches, banana-tree churches, underground churches, Lutheran churches, communal churches, house churches, and yes, even tragically-hip Pacific Northwest alternative ‘pub’ churches are real churches. You may not want to meet in synthetic space–and I would not want to meet in a bar–but it doesn’t change the fact that when the people of God meet together for the purpose of glorifying Him, it’s a real church. Online churches are real churches with real people in real relationships with a real God simply meeting in synthetic spaces.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • nathan

    i think mr. estes stretches the meaning of “incarnational” a bit thin. (and this is on a good day…)
    he may not prefer to meet in a “pub”, but that’s an embodied space and you can’t replace “face to face” life.
    virtual portals (yes, i refuse to call them church) may be gate ways for connection, initial missional contacts, places for targeted encouragement, but i think anything that disembodies the christian life from…well…bodies is a profoundly bad theology.
    christian community is not merely about “feelings” and “thoughts” shared, it’s about a way of living together that, as a public and embodied reality, speaks of visible oneness grounded in love that reveals the One to whom we belong, and how that One was sent of God to redeem the world.

  • beckyr

    no, virtual church is not real church. Some real sharing can go on virtually, but there is an element missing from when you are f2f with a person that makes it less than a full human experience.

  • http://damascus9.blogspot.com Steve S

    I say, ‘no’ but at the same time think it is quite funny that we would think face to face is somehow sacred…
    In the end, a lot of virtual communities are better approximations of real community than most ‘churches’ with flesh and blood meetings that don’t actually reach the place of real relationship…

  • Zach Lind

    It’s pretty staggering that this is even a debate at all. It is categorically misleading to call any kind of online interaction a kind of “church” experience that can stand on it’s own (which is what is implied by the term “virtual church”) At best this kind of online experience is a supplement, a Flintstone vitamin if you will, to what Church can ultimately be. And notice we don’t call vitamins “food.” We call them vitamins and rightly so.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    I remember when computers and cell phones were coming into their own and we were told that the “high tech” world would need “high touch” experiences. Yet, alas and anon, the high tech has no need of high touch. In my view, the virtual church is an oxymoron.

  • Travis Greene

    I agree that an only virtual church is not a real church, but it is a bit ironic that we’re insisting on that here, at a blog.

  • nathan

    but the challenges of real bodies in a real space is part of the actual work of the church.
    that’s not the “failing” of a local church so much as it is the primary work of the community…
    virtual portals have no embodiment, if they are “churches” then they implicitly deny the value of incarnation and what that means before it is redefined/stretched beyond recognition.
    the church is not merely relational, it is “incarnational”.
    if it was merely relational, then virtual portals may have a leg to stand on when they identify as “churches”.

  • RJS

    Alas – no.
    Much as I value the interaction – even this blog suffers from the lack of face-to-face opportunity, connection, and commitment. Of course attendance at a brick and mortar church doesn’t guarantee “real church” either. It is far too easy to be a consumer and a face, an unknown entity drifting in and out. Real church requires real commitment – both ways. The church must be committed to the people (not to numbers and prestige) and the people must be committed to each other as the church.
    You know – it goes both ways. With our consumer mentality and our pastor as CEO culture – people feel free to come and go if the church does not suit – and leaders feel free to simply tell people to go along or get lost. We have no need for commitment to actually work together.

  • Marlena

    I have to agree with most of the comments here. And I am echoing RJS and John Frye. I am sure the virtual church (I actually feel uncomfortable calling it church) has some positive elements. However, if our Christianity is best measured by how we treat those closest to us, seldom will we have to practice love in a virtual church. Because in a virtual church, we can quickly shut people down (I realize this happens in our non-virtual churches). And althugh we can love those far away to a point, it is not the same as loving someone in person. A virtual church reminds me of gnosticism. It is a disembodied church. Are we just minds or what we appear to be on-line? Certainly not.
    Peace in our Lord.

  • http://chrisridgeway.blogspot.com Chris Ridgeway

    I guess I’ll be the one running against the crowd here… :)
    The incarnation is mediated to us via Word and Sacrament and Spirit, not a body. Not face to face. We haven’t shaken Jesus’ hand.
    Does this stretch us at all when using “incarnation” to invalidate experiences of the church?
    I do believe that online mediated “church” best supplements or extends physical encounters. But RJS hits it dead-on: brick and mortar/face to face – doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing this value we’re calling “real church.” There are too many sad examples of this.
    I’ve been thinking/saying this for a little bit now, but what we need for a digital ecclesiology is not so much a theology of *embodiment* but a theology of *presence*. Starbucks lines and dusty pews have “bodies” without presence.
    Where are we?
    What is it theologically to say we are *present*?
    How is the church constructed of presence in a meaningful, mutual, Body-of-Christ sorta way?

  • Naum

    Lots of tunnel vision in the post comments here… …so focused on what a “virtual church” is missing from a brick & mortar church, that fails to acknowledge an opposite direction — “virtual church” or rather, internet communication sowing seeds, spawning and fostering real life interconnections…
    As internet access (and more essentially, usage) permeates 95%+ of people, it not only augments or replaces, but facilitates face to face meetups. Tweetups, tumblr meetups, gamer meetups, meetup meetups (any group of people connecting over a common interest), etc.… …why will not the same phenomenon manifest in ecclesial gatherings? Or that fellow “virtual congregants” would not be able to give, share, receive and bless each online, especially as the online communication tools evolve and become increasingly richer in function and texture?
    I can testify that I’ve seem many real life churchgoers exchanging no more than virtual friends.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Took too long to compose that comment, captcha timed out and didn’t even get the last thoughts out coherently…
    Not a given to me, as my real life experience in “real life” church as many “real life” churchgoers engage in less spiritual and tangible exchange than many virtual communities I’ve been witness to.
    With every technological advance of communications medium, as Neil Postman has described and detailed, we blindly apply the same paradigm of the previous tools…

  • http://deetsjohn.blogspot.com Deets

    We have become so accustom to thinking that the things we do are church. More precisely, we think the environment in which we do them is our church.
    There is only one Church. That is the people of God; those called out into his kingdom.
    To say, “I did church today because I went online” is ridiculous. But it is no more ridiculous that saying “I went to church today” because I sat and listened to somebody talk to a crowd of people in a building with a steeple.
    The virtual world must be a part of how the church is the church, just like email, telephones and restaurants have been.
    It is meaningless to ask if the virtual church can be the real church. Only the people can be the real church. People are when they are living in community (real community even when that demands a technological involvement) and actively achieving the mission of the kingdom of God.

  • http://kriscanuck.wordpress.com Kris Fernhout

    I’m not sure where I fall on this one…
    If I consider it from a contextualization stand-point, perhaps a ‘virtual church’ is a real church given the virtual nature of our culture and the fact that through Christian websites, blogs, etc we nurture this sense of virtual culture…as Christians we don’t stand in opposition of this tendancy.
    On the flip side…I’d feel like some sort of vampire World of Warcraft addict for attending a ‘virtual church’…not my cup of tea. I think churches, depending on their vision should have a virtual component, but not overly dependant on it.

  • http://kriscanuck.wordpress.com Kris Fernhout

    Oh and Adbusters magazine current issue deals with the virtual nature of our culture…highly recommend it.

  • nathan

    the face to face reality of embodied church has never been claimed to be a guarantor of community.
    the “face to face reality” of the church is the context in which the work of incarnational ministry is lived.
    virtual church can’t do that.
    i would be very careful to limit this to the sacraments…God is made present in God’s people, by virtue of their being God’s people and being gathered.
    that’s the point.

  • nathan

    i don’t think anyone claims brick and mortar “guarantee” anything.
    christian life is necessarily embodied, communal, public.
    the failure of any particular embodied community doesn’t demonstrate anything other than the simple fact that part of the particular work of the Church is to nurture embodied, communal and public community in itself as the primary basis of missional credibility.
    the failure in f2f settings only underscores the normative nature of f2f ecclesiology.

  • nathan

    arrrrrgh!
    stupid captchas…
    i thought i lost my initial post.

  • http://newleaven.com T.C. R

    Virtual Church should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

  • RJS

    Scot, I am supposed to be getting some work done – you keep asking thought provoking questions and it is quite a distraction.
    Is “church” a meeting (gathering) or is “church” the gathered community of believers – who, among other things, meet for worship, teaching/learning, and exhortation?
    Meeting can be virtual – community is harder to have virtual.

  • http://www.thewayofapilgrim.com Matthew C

    Of course virtual church can be real church. There is no difference between gathering at a building or gathering online. My physical presence does not make me present and my physical absence does not make me absent. That is not gnosticism it is a recognition that I am no longer limited by my physical location (just ask any telecommuter if virtual work is “real” work).
    At one time most people were illiterate, books were not widely available, and it was believed the common people should not read the Bible. Today, most of us believe that we should all read the Bible and that God is able to reveal himself to each of us corporately and individually. Time and technology change us and how we are able to be God’s people in this world.
    The virtual world is just another aspect of God’s creation into which we are called to go, make disciples, and worship.

  • Adam S

    I think that virtual church will likely move people from non-Christian non-interaction to physical interaction in most cases. It is a low bar to entry and many people that are already christians will use it as a supplement to their current (maybe quite weak) physical church interactions. We already have podcasts of sermons, we already have tv sermons. We have online small groups. We have most of the pieces of online church already and many people don’t complain when you don’t call those pieces “the church”.
    My best example is that many people did not think you could meet your spouse online. But this year 1 in 8 couples that get married will have met first online. That is the ultimate moving of virtual to physical. If that can work to move people from singleness to marriage (a very physical state) then why can’t virtual church move people from non-Christian to Christian.
    In many ways, the online world is a subculture just like many others that need to have “missionaries” go to it in an intentional way and work to reach people there. Those “missionaries” do not need to assume that all the values of that culture are true, and they don’t need to assume that everyone will need to stay online, but they do need to start with where the people are. If people are online, and they are, then the church should be online as well.

  • Willie Krischke

    It’s surprising to me that, both here and at the CT blog, the people who feel online church isn’t a church are so forceful about it, treating the question like it’s almost too stupid to bother answering and generally shutting down conversation.
    I’m not part of an online church – it’s a new idea to me. But I’m willing to entertain the notion and explore, for a couple of reasons:
    1. I have met many people online, primarily through Livejournal and poetry forums, who have grown to become good friends. A few of them I have actually met face to face. Most of them I never have. But I care about them deeply. I have shared Christ with folks I’ve never “met.” I have had long conversations with them about deep and vulnerable things, spiritual and otherwise. We’ve celebrated together, grieved together, encouraged each other, spoken hard truths to each other, taught each other. We never called this church, but we’ve certainly called it community.
    2. Someone brought up the issue of church being “incarnational” and used that term literally – in the flesh. But I think that deserves another look – isn’t “incarnational ministry” really about meeting people where they are? (When Christ incarnated, he met us where we were – in flesh.) There are a lot of people in our world today whose communities exist primarily online – whether through gaming, or blogs, or facebook, or whatever. Instead of clucking our tongues at them and saying “that’s not real,” perhaps we should meet them where they are.
    3. The idea of online church appeals to me, simply because I prefer writing to speaking. I’d rather send you an email than call you on the phone. I like that I can edit and rethink what I want to say. I like that you can’t interrupt me, or me you. Others won’t feel this way. That’s fine. I don’t see anybody saying online church is going to replace fleshy church.
    But in the end, I reserve judgement. Before I could say whether online church was “real church,” I’d have to be part of one for several months(at least) and then decide.

  • RJS

    Fascinating observations Adam…
    We can meet online – and move from non-Christian to Christian for sure. We can also have community interactions.
    But using your marriage example – eventually the relationships have to move beyond “virtual” or there is something seriously lacking. We wouldn’t think a virtual marriage was a real marriage.
    In the same fashion – if church (all church) remains virtual isn’t there something seriously missing? Virtual simply isn’t enough – or at least so I think.

  • Diane

    Willie,
    I largely agree with you.
    Where two or more are gathered …
    Face-to-face is best if it really involves a caring community, but in lieu, cyber-church is fine by me

  • Mark Z.

    RJS #24: Excellent point about “virtual marriage”. Ain’t no such thing. It’s a union of flesh, not just thought, and church is the same way. This might be lost on some wanna-Gnostic Reformed types, but the simple answer for me is that if you’re not close enough to eat from the same loaf of bread, what you’re doing is not church.
    (Consider Eucharistic visitation: a way of “de-virtualizing” the presence of those who can’t come to church for health reasons. This might be a good practice even in churches that don’t place so much weight on the Eucharist. The sacrament aside, it ensures that these people get visitors on a regular basis.)
    We should also consider how “virtual church” completely excludes those who don’t have the technical savvy or equipment to participate. To the guy sleeping in a shelter or on a park bench, you might as well be meeting on the moon. He can’t even sit on the steps.

  • Dean

    No

  • nathan

    @ Willie,
    i signaled the “incarnational” thing in this thread.
    i’ve never denied that virtual can be a portal, or an entry point…

  • Mike M

    Our old church broadcasts its services on a local cable channel. This is so shut-ins and the disabled can “participate.” A couple of those congregants have never been to the church building.
    Our new church puts its services on the internet not only for the above reasons but so that even the congregants out on missions can “participate.” Some of their children were born in the mission countries and so have never been to the church building.
    I don’t see much difference between these and virtual churches except maybe the involvement of a priest figure. So is that involvement what really defines a “church?”
    For that “captcha” problem here, I have learned to copy my text prior to submitting it.

  • Nils

    I agree with Mark Z. Whilst for some people who live in remote locations, online church can be the only way they can experience some sort of community with other believers, generally I believe the idea of online church is an oxymoron.
    For those people who have access to a community where they can meet people face-to-face though, there can be no such thing as online church as it is not real community.
    In the virtual world you can just log off anytime it is convenient for you, whereas in real life you can’t do that; you have to go through the discomfort of learning to relate to people, even the ones you don’t like. A Christian leader in Australia said once that real community is when there is always someone you don’t want to be around. Like a marriage where you are forced to grow and mature, Christian community is where we are forced to grow and mature as well.
    We are born for relationship and that means giving, and learning to deal with people who can sometimes be difficult. I believe the example of Jesus is the best we have of this. He could have just ‘logged off’ with his disciples but instead he dealt with them in their weakness. Likewise the early church had to work through debates over theology and leadership, to name just a couple of issues, but they worked at it in community because they had to and we all know the impact they had on the Roman world.

  • http://www.mrshields.com Adam S

    RJS, I think I must have been unclear with my point about the marriage.
    I think that most virtual churches are not ends of themselves but a step into a physical church (or a supplement to a physical church). That is not to say that the virtual churches are not real churches but that I agree that most people do need physical interaction. So I when I was using the illustration of marriage I was actually agreeing with part of your point. But with the understanding that not only is it possible to move from virtual to physical reality, but that even in the most physical of relationships (marriage) that seems to be working quite well.
    I do want to hold the “realness” of virtual church for those that cannot attend physical church for one reason or another. I have a friend that has been communicating on line with someone and sharing the gospel with them, and it was only after 6 or 8 months of communication that my friend learned that he was communicating with someone that had muscular dystrophy. The famous New Yorker cartoon says, “On the Internet no one knows your a dog”, but the reality is that for many the internet is a very safe way to communicate and build community for people that can’t for a variety of physical, mental or social reasons. These people need Christ just as much as anyone else.

  • http://missional.ca Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    The work of the Gospel is one of reconciliation, restoration & reintegration. It is a process, or better yet, a journey. That journey is inevitably going to be very diverse in expression and nature. It is going to be filled with the vert imperfections for which the work is changing. We take great risk by limiting God in that process, especially where His capacity to redeem us and our failings are concerned. Consider many of the richest traditions of our Judaeo-Christian history, how so many of our human failings underpin the very feasts and celebrations we mark. It is rare that our expectations of God’s ability to redeem overshoot what is possible with Him.
    Further, let us not forget that (small c) church cannot be understood apart from (large C) Church. The Body of Christ is one, regardless of the barriers of time, distance, language, culture, etc. That internet gatherings can play a role to bring together is enough for me to be convinced that God’s hand can and must be involved when His people faithful pursue Him in it. The connection between our identity as the Body and the question “What is church?” are very closely linked and therefore should lead us to pause before too quickly rejecting or judging certain expressions.
    That being said, the questions need to be asked. And the wrong questions need to be challenged. After all, not matter how true it is that genuine community is not guaranteed in face-to-face/bricks-n-mortar contexts (and that is true), neither is it true that this then proves that “virtual church” can have genuine community. While it challenges a significant assumption, ultimately that tells us nothing meaningful about the other context. I have little doubt that people have found meaningful relationship, even community, in virtual contexts. However, I also believe that this should be exceptional, not standard, meeting a need where the alternative is not (yet) available. Again, seeing the work of the Gospel as a process moving towards reconciliation/restoration/reintegration with God (& others, self & Creation), then I believe that process must ultimately be moving towards a more physically present relationship. Since will one day see Christ face to face, be united with the whole Body in perfect unity, discover fullness and wholeness of being and participate in the restoration of all Creation, all that we are as Christians should be MOVING us in that direction.
    “Virtual churches” will increasingly play an important part in the spiritual and missional formation of the Body of Christ. We must be willing to engage with them meaningfully and critically, but also faithfully, trusting God’s capacity use any means for His glory. We must never become complacent or overly comfortable in our faith journey, be that online or in the pew, recognizing that we are moving towards becoming His Body, united in whole relationship- spirit, soul and body.
    Peace,
    Jamie

  • Ethan Magness

    I read the post on Out of Ur and was nodding along with Doug until he gave his definition of church. It began, “A localized assembly…”
    I just can’t see how a virtual anything can fit that definition, unless I reduce people to disembodied minds and let a chat room be a location and the people chatting an assembly. But I cannot do this. (I want to say this is gnostic but I know name calling won’t help.)
    Perhaps the problem is just the name. When we ask “Is virtual church, church?” I have to imagine what a virtual church is. It would be easier to look at a specific set of relationships and practices and try to figure out if this particular thing is church. The term “virtual church” could describe a wide range of practices and relationships and therefore could mean different things to different people.
    Do we mean a group of people who participate entirely via computers. That is, they never are physically present with each other at all. If this is the case then there are many aspects of church life they could never do?
    Or do we mean a group that participates in “worship services” online but meet together or with other believers for feeding the homeless, and mission trips, Eucharistic celebrations and baptisms.
    I will confess that part of my difficulty is that I can’t think clearly about the issue because the whole concept breaks my heart. Especially as I think about raising children and caring for the elderly in a model like this, I am heart broken. Do we ask our children so sit in front of a screen as their way to worship God and fellowship with other believers. Do I tell myself that our church does not need to visit widows but instead teach them how to log in to our online companionship service.
    If the phrase “virtual church” means instead a program that is part of a church that is designed to connect people in online relationship with the purpose of broadening the community and connecting to others, then I am all for it. How do I sign up?
    But if it is going to be the church, then I must ask, how is it caring for children and the elderly? That may not be very theological. I don’t even know how to ask if online community is “real” community. But I do know that I could never in good conscience advise a young Christian couple to raise there children in the context of a church that they could only access through a computer. (I have very little patience for a church model- virtual or otherwise – that excludes the young or the old.)
    The question should never be, “Does this expression of God’s kingdom meet the minimum standards to be a ‘church’?” That just leads to fighting about rules. The questions should be, “What is the full expression of Christian community that scripture to which scripture call us?” If an online tool helps us get there, then great, let’s use it. But there is no need to argue about whether it is really the church. (Like we have about mega-churches, and house churches) Every expression of Christian community is incomplete, the question is if it points us in the right direction. And surely that direction will eventually include relationships that have moved beyond the intermediary of the computer screen.

  • pds

    I would rather ask, is it “ekklesia”? Yes, because it is a gathering for mutual edification. Is it complete or wholistic ekklesia? I don’t think so.
    But then is a Sunday gathering where a person sings songs and hears a sermon and does not interact with others in a meaningful way “wholistic ekklesia”? No, it is not.
    Tim Keller and John Stott agree on the elements of NT church, which I discuss here:
    http://peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/the-biblical-teaching-about-ekklesia/
    Virtual church can enhance elements that a person finds lacking in her local face to face gathering.

  • Randy

    Is this discussion about on-line “churches” or about alternative churches more broadly?
    Last evening, I attended a “Boiler Room” community service. This was not their larger public “Love Feast,” which my schedule rules out, but a gathering of committed individuals for prayer, reflection and conversation.
    I see this as church in a real sense. We confessed, prayed, learned and “communed” over peach pie.
    I think the key to these kinds of “churches” is that for many who have grown up with a church background, it makes church strange enough that they can really grasp what our churches should have been about and how we should have presented the gospel all along.
    Peace,
    Randy

  • http://catalystspace.com Jesse Phillips

    I was unable to read all of the comments, but I just don’t think “virtual church” is church. Well, first of all, church isn’t even church. WE, all Christians – the Body, not a building or 501.3c – are The Church – this is Abundantly clear from scripture.
    Scripture tells us to not give-up meeting (as some are in the habit of doing). And tho the scripture does not go a long way in describing how our gatherings should go, when it does describe the body and our gatherings, it seems to imply deep relationship, discipleship, investment in each others’ lives, contributions from several members of the body.
    This seems incongruent even w/ what most of us call church in buildings – an anonymous spectator sport that cares little about – and does little to affect – how you live the rest of your week. If this is how regular “church” is, much more so “virtual church” which makes connection, relationship, using of gifts for mutual edification even less possible.
    well, at least that’s my impression. I’m interested to see how this plays out. I’m afraid it’s just a shiny new toy that’s just the logical extension of our already broken church system. I say “broken” b/c it doesn’t seem to be creating Christians who love and act like Jesus, who live sacrificially, who are filled with the fruit of the spirit, who are any different from non-Christians. Seems to me (myself included).

  • Willie Krischke

    Nils said:
    “In the virtual world you can just log off anytime it is convenient for you, whereas in real life you can’t do that; you have to go through the discomfort of learning to relate to people, even the ones you don’t like. A Christian leader in Australia said once that real community is when there is always someone you don’t want to be around. Like a marriage where you are forced to grow and mature, Christian community is where we are forced to grow and mature as well.”
    I can log off in real life. I get up and leave the room. Or I change the subject.
    I have been in plenty of forums/chat rooms where there are people I don’t like. And people I wish would just shut up. And people I wish would speak up. I’ve been in online conversations where I wanted to leave, but stayed in it because too much is at stake.
    It seems most people’s biggest issue with online community is that it feels too anonymous to them. People can create images of themselves that aren’t real, or just leave when they want to, etc.
    Putting aside that you can do those things just as easily in real life, I don’t think this is the right track to take. Everything can devolve into something ugly. Seems the real question should be, what potential, and what insurmountable limitations, does online church have? If committed people with the right heart and attitude decide to “do church” online, where will they be frustrated by the limitations of the medium?
    And it seems to me the biggest problem would be getting out into the community and being light and life and love. Online church probably isn’t local to anywhere, so acting locally is going to be difficult. Helping widows and orphans is going to be difficult. Being with the poor is going to be difficult – few of the poor have access to online church. Problems like this seem much bigger than problems of community and relationship.

  • Jessica Edwards

    I would like to offer a differing perspective.
    Online church has saved my soul.
    Truly, that is not too strong a phrase. I am not a scholar, but I have been a seeker for most of my life. I have been an active participant in brick and mortar churches, but I never was able to make the leap of faith from seeker to disciple. In February 2008, in what could only be the work of the Holy Spirit, I was led to an online church called St. Pixels. (www.stpixels.com)
    St. Pixels has many components. There is a chat room area which has both social areas (the porch and the bar) and worship areas (the sanctuary.) Every day at 9 pm British time, there is a service. There are services held at other times during several other days of the week. Obviously, sacraments (baptism, eucharist) cannot be served in a virtual manner. However, worship can and does take place. There is a congregational leader. The service consists of hymns or songs, a reading from Scripture, a sermon or message preached from a virtual pulpit, and prayers led both by the congregational leader and the community.
    If these components of worship were held in a brick and mortar church, would this be considered a worship service? Of course! Therefore, it is difficult for me to say that this does not meet the criteria for worship. God is clearly present! His Word is proclaimed. Prayers are offered.
    Furthermore, the church does not consist solely of worship. If it lacked a cohesive community, then I believe we would be justified in calling into question the ecclesiastical nature of it. However, members spend a great deal of time in fellowship in “the porch” or “the bar.” We come to know one another well and to share in joys and sorrows of our community.
    Members also participate in blogs, in which they talk about things of a personal nature. There is a “discuss” stream, in which larger, more generalized discussions (including the notion of whether or not we are a “real” church) are discussed. Bible studies are held, both in real time in the chat room, and through discussions on Biblical verses and books in the discuss forums.
    Many members have met face to face. We are a truly international community, although the majority of the members are from either the UK or the USA. We have members in Australia, France, Africa, India, and South America. We have telephone meets.
    In terms of serving one another, obviously casseroles are difficult. However, cards and gifts are mailed between members. We minister to one another. One of our beloved members, who was part of three generations who worship at St. Pixels, died earlier this week. The community is in mourning, but we have gathered together to support her daughter. Hundreds of prayers have been said. Fellowship and support have been extended to her daughter and grand daughter. Gifts have been sent. Telephone calls have been made. Members have discussed flying to be there with the family. These are real relationships that develop. Hundreds of hours have been spent getting to know one another. We are truly not strangers; we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
    While I have heard the words of the Good News proclaimed from pulpits in churches across the country, it was not until I heard it proclaimed at St. Pixels, and felt it extended through the support of the online community that I have come to true faith and experience of grace. It has been at St. Pixels that I have come to understand the Good News.
    A pastor (a flesh and blood pastor, from Illinois, who is a long time belief net user) met me there and heard my questions and searching. Thank God that he felt the call of John Wesley to preach the gospel throughout the world. He has spent literally thousands of hours in pastoral counseling via the medium of the internet. In the age of the virtual world, time and space have less meaning than they used to. IM truly can be an effective vehicle for pastoral care. For some folks, it may be the most effective medium. For the profoundly self conscious, or people living with bodily shame, the internet can be a tremendously helpful medium or vehicle for pastoral care. If I am not mistaken, it is possible that the breakdown of time and space is also a feature of the heavenly Kingdom. The pastoral relationship I developed through virtual church, along with the support of the larger st. pixels community, has shown me what grace truly is. I have a relationship with Jesus because of the worship, prayers, and fellowship of a virtual church.
    Is online church a replacement for brick and mortar churches? By no means! Physical church relationships are vital. Nobody at St. Pixels have doubted that. Incarnational, bodily interaction is a good thing, an important thing, both in terms of theology and in terms of ministry. The Sacraments are important means of grace that cannot be administered online. Most, although not all, st. pixelites are also involved in physical church. But for many members, including several elderly or infirm members who have had difficulty getting to a brick and mortar church, online church has provided experiences of worship, study, and community that have served to proclaim the Good News. For some seekers, virtual church has served as a place of exploration that they experienced as less threatening than the brick and mortar establishments, and have led them to both knowledge and love of God, as well as encouraging them to find a brick and mortar place of worship. Evangelism is another ecclesiastical experience that is possible in virtual church.
    I believe there is a difference between Paul’s experience of being present with churches “in spirit” and communicating by letter and the experience of virtual church. Real time community and relationships changes the dynamic and makes it more immediate. Real time interaction allows relationships and worship to take place in a way that being present “in spirit” alone would not allow.
    Where two or three are gathered together in His Name, He is in the
    midst of them. He is truly, and surely, present in virtual communities.

  • Robert Morwell

    I happen to tbe the “felsh and blood pastor” from Illinois, Jessica writes about, and an important thing to note is that she lives a thousand miles from me and we have never met in the “real world” but we have shared some very…even excruciatingly…real moments.
    Neither of us would calim that a virtual presence is the same as a physical one, but it is, nonetheless a powerfully real one.

  • Robert Morwell

    OOps. Let’s make that “flesh and blood.”

  • Brian

    I think if you combine Deets (#13) and RJS (#’s 20 and 24), you get to the heart of the real question. I agree with the point Deets made regarding what church is. Then, when you understand that, the question, as RJS said, becomes, is a virtual community a real community? I believe it is very difficult to create a virtual community that resembles the collective nature of the church in the first century.
    Jessica’s testimony (#38) is interesting. The gospel can be spread virtually. Relationships can begin virtually. But eventually, the time comes when food needs to be shared with the needy or when a hug needs to be given becuase of a death. And that is where community comes in. I think it takes extreme devotion for a virtual community to grow to the point where you consider flying across the country to be with a grieving brother or sister. While it seems to be possible, I think a local community serves individual needs in a much more efficient manner than would even a committed virtual community.


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