I had a very interesting lunch meeting yesterday with some Western Pennsylvania pastors. Much of our conversation revolved around the merits, drawbacks, and challenges of a burgeoning phenomenon in ecclesiastical circles called the “cyber” or “internet” or “online” church. No matter which nomenclature is utilized, the reality at the heart of this phenomenon is the formation of a Christocentric cyber-community, the members of which engage in an online practice of the disciplines of worship, Bible study, prayer, and spiritual formation.
It is incumbent upon the church, I believe, to think carefully about the theological issues surrounding cyberspatial ministry, some of which are these:
1. INCARNATION: It might be said that a cyber church struggles to manifest fully the incarnational nature of the church’s gospel. The essence of our kerygma, after all, is a Word made flesh, an eternal God who became fully corporeal in the person of Jesus. Such an Incarnation reveals to us the eagerness of God to redeem our corporeality in such a way that we might experience our humanness (our “in the flesh-ness”) in an entirely new way.
The danger of the cyber church is that it is less incarnational than it is cyber-spatial. Gone in the cyber church are the nuances of the flesh, the gentleness of a touch or a held hand, and the intimacy of shared breathing (all of which are a portion of the corporeality that Jesus came to redeem).
Therefore, in a cyber church, incarnation has to be redefined, reframed, and re-imaged. While certainly not flesh-oriented in the literal sense, it might be said that cyberspace is the “new flesh” of postmodernity—a new flesh in which corpuscles are replaced by bytes, in which breathing is replaced by browsing, and in which the beat of a heart is replaced by the pulsations of a modem.
We would do well not to become cynical about the matter of redefining incarnational community. In many ways, the church has been about the business of such redefinition for years. Our homebound church members, for example, who cannot be physically present for corporate worship, must experience incarnation differently—through televised worship, through tapes or CDs, and through the brief and intermittent visits of pastors and laypersons. The fact that such homebound (or hospitalized or institutionalized) persons have been part of the church’s ministry for centuries is clear evidence of the fact that the church has a long history of helping people to redefine incarnational community. It may very well be that cyber church ministry is merely the most recent expression of that redefinition.
It is also worth noting that, according to the leadership in many internet faith communities, the members of such communities soon begin to express a strong and urgent desire to meet face to face. Although these meetings occur more frequently in coffee shops and restaurants than they do in church buildings, I cannot help but imagine the dynamism and synergy generated by the capacity to put faces on the souls with whom one has connected in cyberspace.
2. SACRAMENTAL LIFE: It might also be said that a cyber church runs the risk of diminishing the church’s sacramental identity and integrity. How, after all, can a cyber church member receive the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper? And how can he or she draw near to the water of Baptism and give expression to the congregation’s vows of support to the newly baptized?
These questions cannot be taken lightly, especially given the centrality of the sacraments in the church’s ministry and mission. However, these sacramental issues may not prove to be insurmountable for a cyber congregation. If incarnational community can be reframed in cyberspace, perhaps the experience of Baptism and Eucharist can be reframed as well.
What might it look like, for example, for the bread and cup to be consecrated through cyberspatial blessing? Could Eucharist take on an even deeper meaning if a family or an individual had to prepare their own elements (and become their own communion stewards)? And could the water of Baptism flow even more profoundly into a human heart if it were drawn from a kitchen sink, consecrated from a cyberspatial distance, and “witnessed” by an online congregation? Or what about those coffee house face to face meetings that I referenced in the preceding paragraphs? Might those gatherings be an opportunity for a uniquely interactive and multi-sensory experience of the church’s sacramental life?
Please do not think that I am raising or answering these sacramental questions in a cavalier fashion. I am simply illuminating the possibility that an online worshiper might have something in common with the Ethiopian eunuch in the 8th chapter of Acts, who dared to say, “Look, there is water. What is to keep me from being baptized?” It may be that, like the Ethiopian eunuch, online worshipers are finding their sacramental water in new places.
The danger, of course, is that sacramental celebration in cyberspace might become far more individualistic than communal. But, then again, we are speaking of the reframed and re-imaged community of an online congregation. Could it be that, in such a context, people could actually be just as sacramentally attentive and connected as they are in a church sanctuary (albeit in an entirely different manner)?
3. MEMBERSHIP AND ACCOUNTABILITY: What about the covenantal promises of membership in a cyber church and accountability to those promises? Can one support a church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness in the context of a cyber congregation? And where is the discipline of accountability to those promises when there is not the tangibility of other disciples sitting, singing, and living around us?
It would be arrogant and unnecessarily dismissive of me to assume the absence of accountability in a cyber church, especially given this testimony of an online worshiper that I read about an hour ago:
In the institutional church, there would be times when I would miss church because of work or sickness, and nobody asked me why I wasn’t there…Nobody ever asked me if I were growing in my prayer life or involving myself in ministry or fasting or reading the Bible…But here at cyber church, people ask me about those things every day. I can’t always see their faces, but I’ve moved deeply into their lives, and they’ve moved just as deeply into mine. (an open forum response by ‘Carolyn,’ who lives in Seattle and who joined a cyber church 13 months ago)
In light of Carolyn’s testimony, it seems reasonable to consider the possibility that a cyber congregation stands a chance of incarnating a more vibrant form of accountability than can be found in some of our more traditional congregations. This possibility becomes all the more real when one considers the fact that the online conversations reported by many cyber churches are actually far more probing and personal in their content than many of the conversations that occur in church lobbies.
4. MOTIVATION: Perhaps the most compelling danger in cyber church ministry has to do with the motive behind one’s connection to such a ministry. Do people become part of a cyber church in order to deepen their discipleship in the freshness of a new way of doing church? Or do people join a cyber church because of the way in which it lowers the bar concerning one’s investment in community?
The first motivation has potential for becoming something redemptive. The second motivation merely fosters the misguided notion that discipleship has more do with catering to one’s personal proclivities than it does with subordinating one’s life to the Lordship of Jesus.
The issue of motivation is a difficult one to regulate. How many people, after all, join a traditional congregation because they find it less demanding or more artistically pleasing than the church down the street? In that regard, it may be that the cyber church is in the same boat as every other church. It may be, in other words, that all churches (online and offline) share the common struggle of resisting the temptation to lower the bar of our obedience to the calling of Jesus and our commitment to the life of discipleship.
Do I have concerns about the continued development of online churches? Yes, I do. But, if I might be completely forthright, they are no more significant or prohibitive than the concerns I have about ALL churches. Every one of our churches, for example, is faced with the struggle of being vibrantly incarnational, reverently sacramental, and accountably communal in a world that demands authenticity at every turn. In that regard, cyber churches merely represent a new setting in which to engage in the redemptive struggle that all churches face.
The deciding factor for me is that cyberspace is a highly powerful and influential realm in contemporary culture, entered into regularly by searching souls who suddenly find themselves exposed to a wide variety of narratives. Some of those narratives are gracious, others are hateful; some are relational, others are violent; some are loving, others are pornographic. Interestingly, cyberspace makes room for all of them, much like the human community itself.
Given such a complex array of narratives, my sense is that the church cannot afford NOT to be meaningfully and redemptively present within the “walls” of cyberspace. If we were to remove the church’s voice from that vastly diverse community, we would, in effect, cyberspatially silence the narrative of Jesus and his Way, thereby withholding—or at least compartmentalizing—the Story that we believe defines and illuminates all other stories.
In addition, if we were to refuse to acknowledge cyberspace as a mission field, we would close the cyber-door on a number of online seekers who rely upon the internet as the primary resource in their personal search for truth and who will never find their way into a traditional sanctuary.
In the church’s ministry, we must never become utilitarian at the expense of our theological integrity. By the same token, we must never become so idolatrous about our polity and structure that we dismiss a new way of being church simply because it is unconventional (even though it might be theologically defendable, practically viable, and evangelically effective).
Richard Thomas, the Director of Communications for the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, recently offered these words concerning the development of “i-church,” an online Christian community initiated by the Anglican Church:
It should be no surprise to discover that there are some people, maybe more than a few, who want to be part of a Christian community, to commit themselves to one another in prayer, in learning, and in social action, without the hassle and clutter of participation in the local parish church. We could, of course, simply respond by saying that the Church is, above all things, a sacramental community where meeting together is of the essence of what we are.
But if that were the sum of our response, we would merely add to the number of people that we fail to reach, and increase the number of people that we alienate because we want them to be other than what they are.
Although Richard Thomas’ comments are helpful, I am also interested in your thoughts and reflections. Help me to think theologically about the reality of online church—a phenomenon that is already making its way into the Western Pennsylvania church.