The Ecclesiology of Virtual Christianity: Formal Sociality

The Ecclesiology of Virtual Christianity: Formal Sociality September 6, 2019

I have been writing about The Robloxian Christians (TRC), a church that exists in the virtual world of Roblox. We have looked at the mission, “reality,” and relationality of TRC. We also began an examination of TRC in light of general ecclesiology to theologically address the assert the extent to which an online church is, indeed, a church, an affirmation at which many balk.

We posited this basic ecclesiology: A church is where we corporately and formally enter into the presence of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and, hopefully, where we experience that presence. We then considered what is meant by “corporate” in this definition through the lens of “oneness” and “catholicity,” the first and third of the “Four Marks of the Church” laid out in the Nicene Creed. Let’s now look at what is meant by “formal.”

“Formal” does not here mean staid, or rigidly meeting conventions of etiquette (though there is nothing wrong with etiquette!). Quite literally, “form” refers to the structure, set of relationships, or arrangement of elements that contain, in a sense, the content or “essence” of a thing. The form of a house would include such things as its shape and size and color, but its essence would be something like “that thing in which people reside.” The form of a thing also changes depending upon its context; while there are commonalities in essence, houses are formed differently depending on culture and epoch, for instance. Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents posits the idea that, metaphysically speaking, the latter is always in flux while the former is not. We might say that the form of the church is akin to its accidents.

So, then, what is the formal nature of the church? It is not the shape and size and color of some physical structure; before the fourth century, “church” did not refer to any building! What, then, is the form of a church? In one sense, the form of a church is its people. When Luke refers to a church in Acts 9:31, he is speaking about a group of Christ-followers:

“Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”

However, a church is not merely people. Just because a group of individuals gathers together does not mean that it is a church, even if they are all Christians; this is true in the same way that a family is not merely a group of people with an affinity for each other. There is a difference between a church and Christian community and a gathering of Christians just as there is a difference between family and an intimate community or a gathering of friends. Let us suggest that the formal nature of the church is concerned with a particular group of people structured in a particular way for a particular purpose.

What do I mean by saying that the church is a “particular group of people”? In one sense, I mean Christians: people created by God who follow of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But, as mentioned above and in a past post, communality, even if Christian, is not sufficient for a group to be church. To be church, at least in the Pauline sense, the group has to embody some sort of institutional and spiritual connection to the Body of Christ. Now, this is not to say that a church must belong to any specific denomination, or even any denomination at all. But a church must identify with that global and historic sociality instituted by Jesus and propagated by the Spirit, meaning all those who are, have been, and will be part of the Christian church.

It is helpful to understand the formal sociality of the church by understanding it in terms of story. In other words, Christians are those who have been part of the grand narrative of the church, a narrative with a rich and varied past that exists presently in a multitude of rivulets, most of which we are not even familiar to any individual. Think of all the different sorts of Christian churches that have existed all over the world throughout history, and those that presently exist, most of which are not in the West.

However, though this narrative understanding of church is general enough to encompass many different sub-narratives, it remains a particular meta-narrative; the narrative understanding of the church does not encompass all narratives. Further, though the story of the church is ongoing and participatory, we don’t get to choose the church’s history nor the people currently in it. Though we are not yet at the end of the story, the part where you and I come in occurs after many, many chapters, and there are many, many other characters that have come before us and are in the story with us now. We don’t get to control who is included. That means that churches count themselves as part of a family with Christians who are like and unlike them. Christians who have done things heroic and horrible. Christianity with both its warts and wonder. To be a church is to be part of a tribe, not a club. And yet, this tribe is not so amorphous as to lose its distinction, either. The Christian church embraces a story that begins in creation and down through the history of God’s chosen people, culminates in the person and work of Jesus, and continues through the work of the Spirit. And this story shapes us.

In the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, the church is

“a society shaped and informed by the truthful character of the God we find revealed in the stories of Israel and Jesus. The remarkable richness of these stories of God requires that a church be a community of discourse and interpretation that endeavors to tell these stories and form its life in accordance with them. The church, the whole body of believers, therefore cannot be limited to any one historical paradigm or contained by any one institutional form. Rather the very character of the stories of God requires a people who are willing to have their understanding of the story constantly challenged by what others have discovered in their attempt to live faithful to that tradition. For the church is able to exist and grow only through tradition, which – as the memory sustained over time by ritual and habit – sets the context and boundaries for the discussion required by the Christian stories.”

Christians belong to a story. And, like other stories, we gather to tell it over and over, reciting our favorite lines, reenacting our favorite parts and bearing images of our favorite scenes. We debate the meaning of different parts or the motivation of different characters. And, as we relive this story over and over, it communicates certain measures of what is good, true, and beautiful, measures that take life in us. Like a book or movie or myth, this story has power. Yet this is not merely a book or movie or a myth. It is the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis says, to be sure. We are part of it, and it is not yet done.

Are the Robloxian Christians part of this story? Of course. They identify with this story no less than any other institutionalized set of Christians. TRC is not a church because of its physical structure; like the ancient church, it has no building. The members and leadership of TRC see themselves as a church not merely because they are Christians, but because they have been organized to identify with the global and historic sociality instituted by Jesus and propagated by the Spirit. They are part of the grand narrative. Perhaps their chapter of the story looks different than others, but it is in the same book. And, just as any other chapter, they are necessary so the rest of us might have our “understanding of the story … challenged by what [they] have discovered in their attempt to live faithful” to the same story. It may be that one of the ways that God is using TRC is by helping the rest of us think carefully about what it really means to be the church.

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