Is Online Church a Real Church?

Nearly ten years ago my cousin Vinnie (I love typing that) told me I should start an online church for people who were open to Christianity but wouldn’t actually go on Sunday mornings. This was long before live-streaming was accessible and few churches had an “online campus.” Now it is fairly common for churches to offer live-streaming of their services today. Recently, Judah Smith’s The City Church has caused a buzz by announcing the launch of a new church: “the phone in the palm of your hand.” Watch their announcement about ChurchHome below.

There are generally two type of responses to creative initiatives like this. Some will call it heresy and will shout, “That’s not church!” Others will hail it as a creative and relevant effort to reach unbelievers with the gospel. Instead of neatly fitting into either category, I want to walk through a few ways both groups might have a good point. 

Online Friends Are Real Friends
As a GenX’er, I’m inclined to look at online friends as fake friends. And yet, as a youth pastor, I know many students and young adults who truly consider themselves to be “real friends” with people online whom they’ve never met. They talk with these friends daily, share personal information about themselves and both give and receive life-advice about relationships. Through online communities (especially through video gaming), these friends play games together online while wearing headsets that allow them to talk or type in live-time conversations.

Even as a father of a ten year old who has recently begun texting through iMessage on an iPad, there are certain things that are easier to talk about through texting than face-to-face. In a recent survey of today’s teenagers, Common Sense Media found that the most preferred mode of communication is no longer face-to-face, but through texting. This means that if a church truly wants to reach the next generation of unchurched people they will need to figure out how to employ texting and online forums in a redemptive way.

When Christians talk down about online friends as “fake friends,” it not only tells younger people that you don’t take them seriously, it also eliminates a significant mission field for Great Commission ministry. ChurchHome’s initiative reflects a faithful passion to reach the unchurched with the gospel that many (possibly most?) who disparage this as a fake church do not share. Gospel Proclaiming churches are committed not only to their calling to proclaim the gospel, but also to reach those who still need to hear and believe it. Rather than pointing fingers, they would do better by inspecting whether or not there is a log in their own eye before removing the splinter from their brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

Virtual Church

Online Church is a Shadow of the Biblical Church
Those who are opposed to ChurchHome and similar Virtual Churches point to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church is. The Church is the people of God who have been redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ. Mark Dever describes the purpose of the church this way, “The proper ends for a local congregation’s life and actions are the worship of God, the edification of the church, and the evangelization of the world. These three purposes in turn serve the glory of God.” I think he has it right.

Evangelism and faithfulness to the Great Commission is foundational to what the Church is called to do, but it is not the entirety of it all. Ironically, the Great Commission is typically known for it’s emphasis on evangelism while discounting Jesus’ primary calling to make disciples of those new converts. A Virtual Church experience might reach unchurched people, but it hardly seems positioned to help these new believers become mature disciples. In fact, an online experience could lead them to think church is something you “check into” rather than something you become a part of.

The Church is the family of God. When your church is a purely online experience, they cannot visit you in the hospital when you’re sick, or attend your parent’s funeral and give you a hug in the midst of your grief, or throw you a baby shower to celebrate with you. Additionally, a virtual church family cannot check in on you when you’ve stopped attending for a long period of time (how can they check on you when they don’t know how to find you outside of your login name?).

Certainly, there are ways that faithful churches can supplement their ministries through technology and online experiences. This is especially true in evangelism to the unchurched and to those who are housebound for any number of reasons. ChurchHome and similar Virtual Church efforts should be commended for their evangelistic fervor, even as they should consider the implicit message that church is a consumer experience rather than a family.

The Incarnation and Online Church
It is worth considering that the Bible says, “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6). God’s timing was perfect, and yet he could have chosen to be born of a virgin in 2018, when everything Jesus ever said or did was live-streamed around the globe. His miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection all could have gone viral. We could even have him appear around the world as a hologram if he would be filmed with the right cameras in a studio. And yet… Jesus’ “just the right time” relied on slow, personal, in-the-flesh communication.

For all the good talk about “incarnational ministry” being an effort to reach people where they are, it is concerning how virtual and un-incarnational the church can become.

Questions We All Need to Ask

  • Am I more concerned about church looking like my preferences than I am about reaching the lost with the gospel? How might I be over-reacting to Virtual Churches?
  • Am I willing to reach unbelievers with the gospel at the expense of not discipling them into maturity? Am I in danger of embracing a model of church that overlooks core theological truths about what it means to be a church?
  • Why is it increasingly preferable for our friendships to revolve around technology and texting? What are the benefits of this? What are some dangers here?
  • Is the example of the Incarnation helpful regarding the alluring promises of technology?
  • Will I debate this article with more passion than I will pray for my unsaved friends and family members to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ?

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