The Christian Web Conference, which is happening this September at Biola University, has started a monthly newsletter for "web pioneers." It's designed to feature articles of interest to Christians who are actively engaged in new media, who simply have an interest in the intersection of technology and Christianity. You can sign up for it on the main page of their website.
I am humbled and honored to be featured in their first offering. I am also curious to see how these ideas, which I admit are a work in progress, are received. To the essay, then.
Any critic of online church is in the unfortunate and unenviable position of critiquing a new and apparently effective means by which the Gospel—the hope of salvation—is communicated to the world. It is important to acknowledge this from the outset: unless we have some reason to doubt the conversion of those who have been saved through attending online church, which only a cynic would do, then the presumption must be on the side of the affirmative. Proponents of online church clearly have the upper hand.
A comprehensive case against online church is impossible in such a short space, and is a nearly impossible case to make without teasing out the differences between understandings of ecclesiologies, soteriologies, anthropologies and notions of the reality of the ‘virtual.’ While important, such an extended analysis of online church is best reserved for another format.
Instead, I would like in the short space remaining to point out one potential objection to online church on technological and sociological grounds. To fully participate in online church, one needs a working computer, knowledge of how to operate that computer, and an internet connection fast enough to stream video. These requirements preclude important segments of society from participation in church, namely, those without the material means to purchase and maintain the requisite technology, and those—like the elderly—who lack the technological know-how to join and participate in an online church.
Simply put, the bar for entry into the online church is too high. I suspect, though could not prove, that the barriers result in online congregations composed of upper-middle class millenials, Gen-Xers, and boomers.
The obvious rejoinder is that these elderly and the poor will simply attend elsewhere, and they may. But the absence of the elderly from the congregation deprives the community of an important voice. The older men, after all, are to teach the younger men, as the older women teach the younger women. If parishioners are forced to turn outside of their congregation to find those willing and able to disciple them, then the church community is failing to provide a critical component of Christian discipleship—the task that God bestows upon the Church in the Great commission.
Additionally, while economic homogeneity may not be unbiblical, the technological barriers to ecclesiastical life mean that ministry to the poor can only result in full participation if church ceases to be strictly ‘online’ and instead becomes geographically rooted. We must provide either provide them the technological means to participate in online church, or facilitate a way for them to gather together in some sort of campus or community to participate. But both options require a local presence, either to install and support technology or to facilitate a campus, which should make us question the foundational premise of online church, which is that the church can be fully the church—since the full church is always present in its local manifestations—without regard to geographical ties. If online church precludes the poor from full participation because of their lack of means, as it seems to do, then it is no church at all.
As the argument is still in development, allow me to be the first to point out its shortcomings. This is not an ‘in principle’ objection against online church, since it rests on certain demographic and technological realities. For one, as the elderly among us depart, they will be replaced by a generation that is much more technologically sophisticated. Secondly, as technological development progresses, costs will continue to drop and the lower classes will have improved access to the requisite technology. So fundamentally, the argument is limited in its scope. The thesis is simply that because of its current limitations, Christians should not pursue online church here and now. Only when we turn to examine the theological anthropology beneath online church, and whether a human church can ever be a disembodied church, will the argument move into the arena where we might universally exclude a particular expression of worship.
Yet while limited, the argument has some intuitional appeal. It is important for the church to minister to the poor as the church¸ and to bring the poor into the church community. Some missionary agencies, for example, proclaim the gospel through and after meeting the physical needs of the impoverished, a strategy I think most effective. At best, it seems counterintuitive to include the absence of a computer and reliable internet connection as one of those physical needs. At worst, such a position falls prey to the sort of technologism that characterizes modernity and post-modernity.
Whether Christians should engage in online church is still an open question, but it has been my hope here to raise additional grounds for caution. More work clearly needs to be done if critics wish to overcome the presumption in favor of online church, but that work will have to be reserved for another time and space.
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.