Imagine a world in which there are no church buildings. There are no formally organized online communities to sustain religious faith but only grassroots connections made by likeminded people. As a member of a religious minority, this might not be a speculative future scenario but real life. I have seen among the Mandaeans how young people in different parts of the world have connected online, even as their local Mandaean community might have fractured along lines of disagreement, dividing a tiny community in ways that threaten the survival of all of them.
That situation, minus the internet, is of course in fact the situation that the early church found itself in. The irony is that many of the most conservative Christians (and thus the ones who freak out most at the prospect of changing how things are done) claim to want to get back to the faith and way of doing things of the original Christians. Liberal Christians like me have long pointed out the impossibility of genuinely doing that. However, the way trends are currently headed in society as a whole and in faith communities is towards a reality that more closely resembles what the first Christians experienced.
It would, in my view, be inappropriate to celebrate that as though it were an inherently good thing. But it is only a reason for doom and gloom if churches are either too conservative to be able to change even when the adaptation required is reverting to an older situation, or too liberal to be willing to make any changes that do not seem like “progress” as they define it.
The future of Christianity may be as a meme (in the sense of a way of thinking and doing things that perpetuates not through institutional structures but because people think, believe, and act in certain ways). It may move away from any realistic expectation that everyone will be in the same physical or even virtual space at the same time once or more a week.
Imagine the situation of the earliest Christians, but with the internet and faster means of travel through physical space. Is it really that terrible? Even if not optimal, it is by no means as existentially threatening as some claim.
Educators involved in online education (and their predecessors who were involved in distance learning when it entailed mailing physical papers back and forth) know about asynchronous learning. There are ways to facilitate people doing things at their own pace. Instead of focusing on virtual church, perhaps we need to focus on asynchronous church. What would it entail for sermons to be available that can be watched at any point, and space made for conversations about the sermon and about other matters of faith that can happen throughout the week?
Nothing more than the use of already-familiar technology. The future is here, and I think some of us are already ready for it.
Here are some articles related to this topic:
Several from Sojourners: