Drew Goodmanson, a fellow presenter at Christian Web Conference and all around smart-guy, argued today that we should reframe the discussion about online church around this question:

What are we called to be as a Biblical community? And can this be done with technology?

Drew’s reasons are compelling, of course.  He writes:

The question of whether online community is ‘real’ is one that the entire culture is going to ask. It is in the realm of sociology, philosophy, etc. I believe people do have ‘community’ online. I can meet, get-to-know and develop real relationships with people online.

On the one hand, this is exactly right.  Whether online communities are ‘real’ or not is not terribly interesting.  On the other hand, whether a Biblical community can exist online–that is, be real as a Biblical community online–is an interesting question, as our answer here will not only shape our understanding of online church, but of all churches.

Of course, the notion that we are using the terminology of ‘community’ with respect to the Church suggests that we are approaching the question from the standpoint that a Biblical community is simply one among many types of community.  But it is not–it stands alone as a unique sort of community that is founded on the Word of God.  It is, in a sense, not a community at all, at least not in any sense that I live in a neighborhood community or utilize a community recreation center.  Instead, it is the Body of Christ.

Drew is exactly right that questioning the reality of online communities is the wrong strategy.  But it is entirely appropriate to question the reality of online church, for the possibility and existence of the former does not necessarily entail the possibility and existence of the latter.  In this sense, ‘virtual church’ might still merit the adjective, until advocates of online church can demonstrate that it exists, in reality, as a church.

Posted by 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.