There Is No Virtual Ecclesia

There Is No Virtual Ecclesia March 30, 2012

In the early 50’s when Robert Schuller and others across the nation combined a growing car culture with “Church” they believed they were reaching a segment of the population traditional church wouldn’t or couldn’t. Drive-In church allowed parishioners to attend, hear a sermon, sing some songs, even receive communion and give- all without the fuss and muss of face-to-face interaction beyond a passing usher with elements and a communion plate or maybe being greeted by a through-the-window handshake from the pastor as they rolled away.

And while they may have been able to point to a number of folks who “attended” that otherwise might not have, the question of what was being formed in these car congregations through limited interaction, a completely passive experience and a consumer-oriented “Come as you want/Have it your way” message (and yes, I’m aware those questions could be asked of MANY churches), along with perhaps the obvious absurdity of sitting mere feet from others and yet remaining separated by the cocoon of one’s own vehicle meant that (thankfully) after a brief period of vogue, “Drive-In Church” has remained a niche curiosity.

Please don’t misunderstand me- The problem with the drive-in church model isn’t that it isn’t church- it’s that it is just “church” enough to be dangerous. The people are there, hearing the sermon, giving their money, putting in their time… and completely missing some of the most vital aspects of what true “ecclesia” is meant to be. Far from “reaching” some who might otherwise not be reached, what this almost-church does is park them in a cul-de-sac where they have access to some of the easiest and most instantly satisfying parts of church while simultaneously exempting them from the harder and more demanding parts of community.

When Shane Hipps said a few years back of virtual community “It’s virtual, but it ain’t community” he set off a mini-blog storm of posts and comments, many agreeing, many defending their Facebook and Twitter time as real community. Beyond just the usual social media outlets, Internet campuses and even online churches are now a reality.

And after giving this some thought I think I want to say that the problem with online churches and internet campuses isn’t that it’s not church… it’s that it is just church enough to be dangerous.

What I mean by that is this: because it has all the easiest and most instantly gratifying parts of community without the harder parts, it ends up misshaping us.

No, in an internet campus I never need to see that person I “just don’t get along with.” I don’t have to listen to so-and-so tell me about their hard week (again). I see NO needs around me and so feel zero compulsion to move to meet them.

And that’s the problem. The absence of those things forms me. But not in a good way.

When I am taught week after week after week, more and more sermons, more and more content, and yet never asked by someone who sees me week after week and knows me how I am or am not applying what I am learning, I am being formed. But again, not in a good way…

The Reformers defined “church” as where the Word is preached, the sacraments are received and church discipline practiced.

I think that’s a good summary of the some of the defining characteristics of the NT Ecclesia… and a good summary of the main problems with internet church.

Is the word preached “at” an internet campus? Yes- absolutely. In fact, it becomes the centerpiece. Church becomes boiled down to singing a few songs and hearing a message. We challenge (or at least we should challenge) people in our communities not to let Sunday be that- to come with an attitude of service to God and to others, open and available to be used. To see the “service” as just one part of their worship, along with being present to others and open to knowing others and being known by them.

And while Internet Campuses provide a great sermon delivery vehicle, and even allow you to virtually raise your hand in response, what they don’t and will never be able to do is allow you to be missed. And to be known– to have someone who knows what’s happening in your life read your body language, see your tears in worship and know it’s time to come alongside you. You can’t stand at the end of the gathering and ask for help moving. You can’t help tear things down and clean up afterwards. You can’t look after someone’s kids while they pray with someone else. You can’t take a visitor out to lunch. You can’t be the Body in so many necessary and vital ways.

Missing from virtual church are these vital things

  1. the Sacraments
  2. Discipline and accountability
  3. Service
  4. Equipping (beyond the Sunday sermon)

Now, I know that “virtual” communion and baptism are practiced. I watched one pastor “baptize” someone from their internet ministry via video. I had to laugh as the screen presided over this woman being dunked in a pool by a local friend- someone she actually knew. I just had to wonder- why wasn’t that enough?

I know too that every week thousands in virtual communities practice virtual communion- each taking their grape juice and bread bits if not together, then at least simultaneously. And I have to wonder- why can’t they see that’s not enough? That simultaneous is NOT together and that taking communion in this way completely misses the whole point?

As for discipline and accountability, some say that online churches encourage more transparency with people sharing things like “”I struggle with porn addiction” or “I’m considering suicide” or “my marriage is failing and I need help” online in the chat rooms and virtual lobbies of internet campuses. And while the anonymity of internet campuses may provide the same impulse to self-revelation and disclosure as does the internet as a whole, my question is “What next?” How is not simply the pastoral care of prayer and recommending a good book resource but accountability, in-depth counseling and even church discipline practiced? Short answer- it can’t be.

And in fact, because of the nature of internet relationships, only what people choose to reveal (“I struggle with porn”) will ever be known. Internet churches are no help for the wife whose husband really needs someone to open a can of Driscoll on him… unless, of course, you can get him to wander into the virtual lobby.

In the same way that internet campuses lack the mechanism for true discipline and accountability, they also lack the mechanism for true service. While I may be encouraged to serve other by a virtually-delivered sermon, and while some internet campuses have even organized short-term service trips abroad (yes, they found it necessary to actually all show up physically for those), what I can’t be encouraged to do in an internet community is take a meal to someone in my church community who’s sick or just had a baby, help someone else move or paint a house, babysit for a couple in need of a date night. How can our community be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom when our method of gathering keeps us from ever physically serving, loving, being present to one another? I know how participating in a congregation begins to make me more like Jesus. I’m unsure how that happens with an internet campus. All the little pieces that go into making the ecclesia “life together” are missing from virtual church.

And so too is the equipping piece. While content is delivered and digested, and some are even trying virtual small groups, the truth is that discipleship happens in the nitty gritty of life-on-life. While content can be delivered via the internet, character tends to be shaped in more incarnational ways, through presence and practice.

How does one become a leader in an internet church? Is it being made a moderator of the chat room?

And further- What does it mean to “desire to be an elder”? How am I confirmed in my gifts in an internet church? How do I exercise them?

The internet may present a wonderful way for me to connect with the larger Church in ways not possible before- but it can’t, and shouldn’t replace connection with a local expression of Church community. We should have internet options like podcasts, forums and chat-rooms available for the home-bound and those otherwise unable to engage in a local community, but if we baptize that as an equally valuable and valid option for any believer we effectively cut the heart out of the growth to maturity we as a Church desperately need to see.

The Ecclesia of Jesus, the called-out, gathered together ones may find great utility in the internet and technological tools, but in a world struggling to retain its humanity while being drowned in technology and to remain deeply connected to a few while filtering through 1000+ Facebook “friends,”  the Church can and should be a counter-culture that says- “We will use technology, but we will not let it shape (or misshape) us.”

The choice is either to show up physically and be formed through the harder parts of community and having to learn through life together… or log on and enjoy the easy access, low-commitment and low accountability world of the virtual pseudo-church.

My fear is that like the drive-in church, internet campuses have that potential to make half-formed Christians who believe one of the highest values is convenience, not service… what I can get, not what I can give.

How could it not?


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