Can “Church” Really Happen Online?
We have all heard Jesus’ words quoted and misquoted a thousand times: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20, TNIV). But can two or three gather together if they are hundreds or thousands of miles apart? Can multiple believers fully and truly commune with each other electronically with the help of technology? And, more importantly, can a group of Christ followers gather via the internet in a way that would build the type of community Jesus intended for a New Testament church?
Some would give a qualified “yes” to all of these questions; many of these same individuals now regularly gather together over the Internet through online churches. Some of these churches are established, most have sizable congregations, many have healthy budgets and a few are backed by major denominations. LifeChurch.tv has been an American pioneer in this arena, while i-church.org has existed since 1994. Alphachurch.org has about 6,000 regular online participants. Church on the Net, or “CotN” (www.church-on-the-net.com), is a joint initiative between the Methodist Church and the Church of England. In fact, every major religious tradition, including the Amish, now has an online presence.
We can all agree that internet communities are a phenomenal resource for those who are not physically able to attend church. For the bedridden, for missionaries in closed countries with no access to a local body or for individuals who are frequently abroad, this is a valuable alternative to a local, physical church body. It is hard not to be intrigued by these Internet phenomena, but are they New Testament churches?
It is difficult to determine the validity of a body of believers accomplishing a wonderful work like those mentioned above. Any Christian work that is building community, discipling believers and encouraging theological discussion should be applauded. Yet it is imperative that we speak of these communities in a way that is appropriately congruent with the scriptures.
The Greek word for church, ekklesia, helps illuminate the issue, and it’s where any proper discussion of the nature of church will begin. Though it is translated “church” in English, it is an amalgamation of Greek words meaning “assembly.” Though the New Testament allows for some elasticity with this word, ekklesia overwhelmingly refers to a group of people who actually, physically assemble together. So is it in keeping with the biblical meaning of “church” to apply it to a group of people, even a group of Christians, who never actually assemble?
Nicola David, spokesperson for CotN, says she believes her online community is the definition of ekklesia. “This is the one thing that people either get very excited about or very hot under the collar about when it comes to any online expression of church,” she says. “You can do worship online—but if someone is only judging from the comfortable standpoint of being an existing Christian in the embrace of a traditional church fellowship, they’ll never get that!”
But is David falsely equating the ability to worship with the existence of a Biblical church? And is she overlooking the usage of the word? Ekklesia is found 114 times in the New Testament. Although it has become quite popular to emphasize the invisible, universal Church at the exclusion of the local body, it seems Scripture paints a different portrait. Only 13 times does this word refer to the universal Church, while at least 90 times it is used to describe a local church or churches. Although geographical lines do not define the Church, it is clear that the New Testament emphasizes the existence of a local, regularly assembling body.
There are other problems with calling an online community a “church” apart from dusty, ancient language. Protestants historically have affirmed several distinctives or essential marks of a church. In Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George notes that the years leading up to the Reformation saw “an explosion in ecclesiology,” as it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine what a true church looked like. In general, the Reformers agreed that the two essential marks of a true church were preaching of the Bible and right administration of the sacraments.
While some online communities give gospel preaching a strong push, most online churches neither attempt to perform the sacraments electronically nor defend their inability to do so. They simply de-emphasize their importance or suggest that members take them physically at a standing church if they so desire. Some internet churches strangely attempt to offer them online, but it is difficult to see how a virtual church can meaningfully celebrate them. After all, in the most extensive teaching on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11), Paul uses the term “come together” five times. It is difficult to properly perform a corporate act when you never corporately assemble.
Moreover, certain aspects of church life and ministry seem to require face-to-face meetings. Accountability and church discipline, providing help to the sick and poor, offering hospitality to one another and many other commands seem to require a physical assembly. Ultimately, we must understand that the speed of communication does not change the nature of communication. It seems that internet churches have communication, perhaps even communion, but not the optimal community necessary to function as a New Testament church.
But perhaps most discouraging for those who gather online are those pesky “one another” passages. These verses emphasize the importance of physical community. As a local church, we are to serve one another (Gal. 5:13), bear one another (Eph. 4:2), speak to one another (Eph. 5:19), admonish one another (Col. 3:16), come together with one another (Heb. 10:25), offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9), and have fellowship with one another (1 Jn. 1:7). It’s difficult to see how any community could fit this description without ever meeting together.
I’m careful not to discourage any Gospel-minded community. We should seek to both learn from this movement and affirm its positive qualities. After all, there has always been an interesting interface between technology and church life. During the Reformation, the printing press—a technological wonder in the 15th century—played an important role in the widespread dissemination of knowledge. It is hard to imagine the impact Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses would have made on society without the ability to propagate them. But in the end, promoting an internet community as a “church” is problematic. An important part of church is sharing common life with spiritual siblings, and it’s hard to see how this can happen with little more than a laptop.