The Washington Post ran an article last week about a new trend in American religion.
The article reported that “the World Wide Web has become the hottest place to build a church.” These new online churches are, “fully interactive, with a dedicated Internet pastor..[and] one-on-one prayer through instant messaging ”
For those of you who are not technologically savvy, let me explain.
This is more than a church simply having a website. This is a completely new approach to “doing” church.
At an internet church, people do everything church related (e.g. worship, listen to sermons, have Bible studies, fellowship, etc.) simply by clicking a mouse and watching a computer screen. The church members may be living in Nevada, Alaska, and France but they are all members of the same online church. It’s a digital church for the digital age. As one Facebook pastor stated, “We live in a day…and a culture where people go to school, bank, date and do other things online…why not create a platform for them to go to church online?”
While that pastor may have been asking a rhetorical question, I want to give him (and you) an actual answer.
Here’s why internet churches are a bad idea.
1. The church is instructed to physically assemble not digitally interact.
One of the most notable differences between an internet and a local church, is the lack of human contact. It seems odd to even have to defend such a simple concept, but physically gathering together is one biblical element of true church life. As I have said before, just as a green apple is green and fuzzy poodle is fuzzy, so, too, a local church should be…(wait for it)…local.
We are instructed in Hebrews 10:25 to
“not forsake the assembling of [ourselves] together”.
The Greek word for “assembling” is the verb form of the word “synagogue”. The synagogue was the place where people physically met, communed, and gathered together for worship. At the synagogue people could reach out and touch one another. Therefore, what this verse literally says is that believers must be sure to “synagogue” together or meet with one another face to face. An internet church does not provide that.
In fact, the digital age seems to be slowly taking the “human” out of humanity altogether. Many today can effortlessly chat online with complete strangers but find it difficult to have a face to face conversation with a flesh and blood human being. That, so far as church is concerned, is not a good thing. The church is to be a physically gathered, personally communing body of believers who do more than have occasional “chats” with one other. Church members should spend time with each other in prayer, fellowship, service, and evangelism.
Digitally interacting with other believers is no replacement for physically assembling together.
2. Internet churches are exclusionary.
The gospel does not exclude anyone based on socioeconomic status, race,gender, or education. The church should not either. But, by its very nature, internet churches exclude and ostracize those who are not online. How do they do this?
According to the PEW Research Center, there is a clear “digital divide” in the demographics of those who use broadband internet (which is required to participate in an internet church). Of those in the US who have high-speed internet, the majority 1) have incomes of more than $75,000, 2) are college graduates, and 3) are employed full-time. Those, in America, who are least likely to use broadband access include 1) senior citizens (65+), 2) high school or GED graduates, 3) those who live in rural America, and 4) minorities.
What does all of this mean?
This is a modern version of the kind of favoritism forbidden in James 2:1-7.
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes,and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
James told the church it was wrong to elevate anyone or exclude anyone from the church based on their wealth or lack thereof. Internet churches are, in effect, saying, “If you are digitally connected, then you are welcome to sit in our midst. But those of you who are not on the web are simply out of luck.”
There was a day and time in which some churches shamefully and sinfully discriminated against men and women who were not like them racially. By their very nature, internet churches are doing the same thing against men and women who are not like them digitally. Churches should be organized in such a way that anyone from any walk of life is able to participate in the ministries and fellowship of the church without bias, exclusion, or feeling inferior.
3. Internet churches (at best) facilitate and (at worst) encourage anonymity and passivity within the body of Christ.
There’s a huge number of church goers today who seem to believe that being a part of a church is little more than showing up to consume a worship service. Their relationship to their church is the same as their relationship to a movie theatre. They might show up occasionally. Give a few dollars. Passively watch an enjoyable show. And randomly decide when to return. Internet churches only encourage this kind of passive involvement. But church is not meant to be a passive activity. It is to be an active, self-denying, self-sacrificing fellowship to which people personally contribute.
Additionally, while some spiritual gifts could be operated through the internet (e.g. teaching, giving, etc.) it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to use others gifts (e.g. leading, mercy showing, serving, etc.) In the end, an internet church is not a place that people can serve and fellowship as the Bible describes.
3. Internet churches cannot perform baptisms, Lord’s Suppers, or church discipline.
In order to be a church, a group of believers must organize themselves around several biblical activities including spiritual accountability (church discipline) and the celebration of the ordinances. How can an internet pastor who lives in Nevada baptize a new member who lives in Florida? He can’t. If it’s physically impossible to perform baptism and the Lord’s Supper communally, it is theologically irresponsible to call yourself a church.
Should the church be creative in reaching people with the gospel? Absolutely. But whenever our creativity redefines our theology, it is more destructive than helpful.
In the end it seems clear to me that, Biblically speaking, a virtual church is virtually no church at all.