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Blest Be the iTies that Bind: Thoughts From CWC on Online Church

September 17th, 2009 | 10 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Last Saturday, I spoke at the Christian Web Conference on the question of church online.  My prepared remarks, which I have slightly modified, are below.  Over the past few weeks, this conversation has burgeoned, and I hope to interact with many of the new voices on these questions.  For now, feel free to read and comment.

I have two regrets about speaking today.  First and foremost, I regret most of all that Andrew was unable to join us.  I have interacted some with him on this topic and was very much looking forward to having a spirited conversation with him.  His voice is an important one in the Christian community, and we are all worse off without it.  Second, I regret that I am in a position of ending this excellent conference by sounding a defensive note.  With all the things technology can do to further the mission of the church, it seems sad to close with a focus on what the Church can’t do. 

My task today, which changed slightly when we discovered Andrew was not going to be here, is to lay out for you the questions and issues of online church, and then to articulate a few worries that I have about its implementation within evangelicalism.   

The shift toward online church seems to be largely motivated by a true missionary impulse, which is the strongest argument for it.  Whatever else critics might think or say about online church, there are no grounds for denying the validity of the religious encounters and life transformation that individuals are experiencing.  The testimonials of conversions and changed lives that have come about through online church should be taken very seriously.  Those like Tony Steward, Nick Charalambous and others have clearly taken to heart Paul’s admonition that he becomes all things to all people that by any means he might save some. 

The reality of such conversions raises a host of definitional questions that make the conversation both interesting and difficult.  First, while church online might prove an effective means for some people experiencing saving faith and transformation, is it a valid expression of what Christians are saved into?  That is, is it sufficient for the primary gathering of the people of God to happen online, and why? Second, the notion of ‘church’ invites an enormous amount of disagreement.  Consider the categories:  “universal/local,” “visible/invisible,” and “virtual/real” (the last of which Andrew has introduced).  Navigating these differences was hard enough prior to the advent of the internet—now it is simply even more confused. Third, any talk of the Church’s use of technology is necessarily impaired by a given technology’s infancy.  The internet, while enormously powerful, is still relatively new.  Worries about church online that are grounded in the contemporary deployment of any specific technology may at some point be rendered irrelevant by technological developments.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there are hermeneutical difficulties, which I think are twofold:  first, what, if anything, does Scripture say explicitly about the formation of Church life?  Second, how should our way of reading Scripture inform our understanding of what Scripture has to say about this question?

Additionally, there is the problem of identifying what we mean by ‘church online.’  There are, I think, four schools of thought:  (1)  some advocates argue that church online is meant strictly to enhance and extend traditional, bodily church experience and mission.  In unique cases, like invalids or those travelling, it may function as a replacement for normal fellowship.  Broadly, the internet is a meeting place where the Church can engage the world and so extend itself ‘online.’  (2)  The second slot on the spectrum belongs to those who think the online experience of corporate worship is and can be normative, and that the goal of such online communities is to encourage and culminate in offline interaction, either on a regular basis or occasionally.  Here “church online” seems to mean the corporate gathering of small communities in diverse geographical regions, and is in some cases a temporary arrangement. Communion in this case often remains a physical and social act that occurs in small group gatherings. (3) Third, some argue that both corporate worship and weekly fellowship exist online—with the hope, but not the requirement, of meeting locally, and with the caveat that baptism and communion will be done bodily, but not necessarily while gathered in the same physical location.  (4)  There are a few extreme advocates of online church who argue that the offline interaction is never going to be necessary, and that communion and baptism can both occur in some disembodied, virtual form.  

What should we say about this mess?  Allow me to take the path of any good critic short on time and ignore it.  Most advocates fall somewhere in the second and third categories, both of which suggest that online corporate worship can function as a normal replacement for the local, bodily gathering of the congregation.  In other words, the bodily presence by members of the congregation is not a necessary requirement for corporate worship. 

We might be tempted to qualify this and argue that the Sacraments—whatever those are—must be taken both physically and in the bodily presence of the (whole) church.  This is, in fact, Mark Driscoll's rationale for rejecting online church.  However, I would argue that on this point, Driscoll is being deeply inconsistent.  If the preacher’s bodily presence is not necessary for the effective preaching of the Gospel, as the use of video sermons indicates, then the parishoner’s bodily presence is not necessary for the Gospel’s effective hearing.  But if the body is not necessary for the effective communication of the Gospel to the church, then why is it necessary for the taking of communion, unless there is some meaning intrinsic to the particular bread that the community shares, or to the combination of that bread with that pastor, or being in a particular place together.  The same Spirit who overcomes spatial distance to communicate the Word through preaching can surely make the taking of communion effective when thousands of individuals simultaneously partake of bread that has been consecrated through the prayer of the online preacher. 

I say this only to point out that the reasons for online church are more embedded in the structure of evangelical ecclesiology than most of us realize.  A sincere and Godly missionary impulse and the emphasis on the Spirit’s ability to overcome limited, physical, geographical arrangements have combined to create a forceful case for church online.

In other words, church online is the logical—and hence inevitable—extension of the multi-site movement’s implementation of video-sermons. 

Allow me, then, in my time remaining to offer two worries about online church and its emphasis on the Spirit’s ability to transcend space through technology.

First, the notion that a dislocated corporate gathering is just as real as traditional church rests on a thin view of the human body.  Andrew Jones has argued that a brick and mortar store isn’t really any more ‘real’ than  But when extended to humans, I would argue the analogy fails.  The local Barnes and Noble and are both built for the sake of selling books.  They are, from that perspective, equal in that they are both determined by their uses.*  Their visibility is a consequence of the end for which they have been created.

However, my human body is not a tool, as my iPhone is.  It is, in a sense, me and so shapes my personal identity in ways I cannot choose to undo.  While we use it for certain ends, it also is a constitutive part of me, and I am not me without it or in a different body.  As an example, the fact that I am tall and skinny—which was not determined by me but by my makers, that is, my parents—makes me distinctly unsuited for the game of football, but particularly suited for basketball. 

Charles Lee has pointed out, of course, that were I to lose one of my legs I would still be “the same person.”  But there the notion of ‘person’ seems, again, too thin.  While the one-legged Matthew would clearly have some continuity with me right now, the change in my body would dramatically alter my interactions with the world and the world’s interactions with me.  It would be problematic as if people continued to interact with me as though I had two legs.  Clearly, what it would mean to be "Matthew Lee Anderson" would be significantly altered.

In this sense, the body is not just that by which I communicate with the world—it is a center of meaning on its own.  It reveals more than I might consciously intend and it is an essential part of me expressing my humanity.  Tony Steward has pointed out that church discipleship is possible online because they have established a “permission environment.”  But in embodied communication, we reveal more than we give permission to.  The particular shape of my smile, or the particular hunch of my shoulders can betray more anxiety or joy than I might be conscious of at any given moment.

There is a temptation to think that video communication overcomes this gap.  But when the people of God gather as the people of God in worship, the bodily communication of those people shapes the corporate response to the Spirit.  It is, for this reason, that Church traditions of worship were shaped in such a way that bodily activity—standing, kneeling, the lifting and laying on of hands, were developed:  if the people of God are to express their full humanity together--and there is no other way--they must do so in embodied fashion.

Second, and related to the first, in appealing to the spiritual universality of the church, advocates of church online utilize a problematic theology of place, which I worry further reinforces the rootlessness of the people they are ministering to.  Here, I part ways with Andrew Jones not on the essential invisibility of the Church, but rather on the way that invisibility is to interact with the visible.  

Andrew has rightly argued that Hebrews and John 4 challenge the geographically bound religious thought that seemed to be present in the Judaism of Jesus’ day.  However, as theologian Oliver O’Donovan points out, the universality of the Church can be instantiated either abstractly or concretely.  Church online, with its distance from the normal structure of human life, rests on an abstract notion of ‘universality’ where my churchly relations are scattered far and wide. 

O’Donovan appeals to, interestingly enough, the parable of the Good Samaritan to make his case, which opens with the line, “As it happened…”  While the parable clearly demonstrates that the Gospel transcends religious and social identities, it does so from within the contingent arrangements of our lives.  He happened to be travelling one day, and the need was thrust upon him.  The universal takes shape in the local.  G.K. Chesterton puts it this way: “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.  He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.  The reason is obvious.  In a large community we can choose our companions.  In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”

It is important to point out that for an increasing number of people, “normal life” and the sort of contingent arrangements that make it up are happening online.  But there is, I think, an important difference that makes churchly relations more difficult:  the lack of geographical boundaries makes it easy and likely to self-select our communities.  Because of the low entry points into ‘communal arrangements’—one need only select the right url to begin engaging a completely new set of people—the social ties that are formed are easier to break.  I have no freedom to choose my natural family, a point that makes it both frustrating and difficult.  The overwhelming testimony of the human behavior online is that the freedom to associate with anyone we so desire leads not to diverse and varied communities, but rather homogenous and self-selected cliques.

However, what of those who meet together offline throughout the week?  I have previously argued that embodiment is intrinsic to our humanity.  Additionally, regardless of whether we are singing or not, the embodied corporate response to the Word of God in worship is the expression of our full humanity.  Such a view inevitably (further) diminishes the role of communion within our corporate gatherings.  Paul’s logic is that the one loaf makes the one people, not the other way around.  The communal life of the Church offline provides the energy, but is not a replacement for the gathering of all the people of God in worship. 

Finally, we should point out that despite the New Testament’s emphasis on the universality of the church, it is Jesus who as the chief cornerstone is the Word made Flesh, the Word who entered a very particular place during the period that Paul describes as “the fullness of time.”  This sense of boundedness is not what the Spirit eradicates, but what the Spirit transforms through his resurrection power.  

These are, then, two worries that can be finally articulated this way:  the power of the Spirit is not such that it overcomes nature, but restores it.  The missionary impulse and the emphasis on the Spirit’s ability to join people in diverse geographical locations must be joined with a robust view of human embodiment as necessary for human—and hence a full churchly—life. 

One more point:  there are, of course, extremes on both sides.  But the nature of theological dialogue is such that what happens at the fringes pushes the center toward a given direction.  The theological assumptions of those at the extremes affect the way the center practices their spiritual life.  Hence, for those traditionalists with anxieties about the application of technology to the church’s existence, the pragmatic argument is not sufficient to justify the deployment of church online. 

Finally, these are only worries, and I must express my regret for closing with them.  As someone with deep conservative impulses, I admire the experimental nature of those who are pushing the boundaries of church’s application of technology.  As has been pointed out to me, those who have anxieties about the church’s hasty application of technology must be matched and countered by those who have anxieties about the church’s indifference toward those unreached people groups online.  It is my sincere hope, and earnest desire, that through the conversation about the prospects and pitfalls of the church’s engagement of technology, we can find common ground in Him who is the Word made flesh, and who dwells in us through his Holy Spirit, and who lives and reigns as Lord over all.

*It should be noted that during the discussion time afterward, Dr. Reynolds raised questions about the analogy itself that are worth consideration.  Specifically, he pointed out that the potential encounter with embodied human presence at Barnes and Noble may, in fact, be reason enough to reject the parallel with

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.