ChristianityToday Weights in on Online Churches

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Christianity Today has published an interesting article by Chad Hall discussing online churches.  Much of the article covers issues we discussed last month in our 9 part series on the challenges and opportunities of online churches.

But there were a couple of things that stood out to me.  First…

Brandon Buckner, internet campus director of McLean Bible Church near Washington, D.C., recognizes the limits of online churches while still advocating for them.

“The internet campus is not an end, but a means to the physical campus,” say Buckner. “There is real value that comes from being a part of virtual community, but it’s not a replacement for the church. We think it’s great for people who cannot be in attendance for whatever reason, but we would not be pleased if someone only worshiped in the virtual world. We want them finding community online and also coming to church and connecting in the real world.”

Brandon Buckner is one is one of the few Internet campus directors I’ve seen openly state that they are not content to have people worshipping solely at their Internet campus.  Their goal is to encourage people in their online church to become a part of an offline church.

Second, there’s this quote.

No husband would want a virtual bride; no mother would want a virtual child. Yet our union with fellow church members—other interdependent parts of Christ’s body in Paul’s language—is of greater importance than union with family.

Bam!  It’s hard to argue with that.  Would you setting for a virtual spouse?  If not, how could you settle for a virtual church?

You can read the full article here: Church… Virtually

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    About the author

    Paul Steinbrueck

    Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.


    • As the web pastor for NewSpring Church, I believe our position is very close to Brandon's: We do not advocate our "web service" as a replacement for church, but a pathway of discipleship toward full, physical communion. I think it's the wisest stance from a practical and a theological one given the current state of technology and ecclesiology that has only just begun to wrestle with living in a hyper-connected world where the line between the virtual and the real is increasingly blurred.

      • Nick, thanks for adding your perspective. With so many churches experimenting with online campuses these days it's good to hear about each church's philosophy and approach to what they're doing.

    • First, to yourfuneralguy — yes, you can "do this in remembrance of me" take communion on the internet. Plenty of people do it. There's been plenty of debate about it on both sides, go check it out before making flat, absolute statements about things you've likely never experienced first hand.

      Second, to Paul — I'm not so sure this argument (virtual child, virtual bride) is a slam dunk against virtual churches. It's actually comparing apples to oranges. Here's why:

      If my bride/child were virtual in the sense of "artificial" or "not real" then yes, I'd agree. But so-called "virtual churches" involve relationships between real people behind real computer screens — kind of like my growing relationship with you, for example. It may be different than an entirely physical one, but I hope you don't think our relationship is "not real." True, there might be advantages to grabbing a coffee with you in an offline coffee-shop, but there are also advantages to communicating with you this way–first among those is the actual fact that we CAN relate to one another this way. If we had to wait for the coffee shop opportunity, you and I wouldn't know each other at all.

      Second, one might argue that even if my bride and/or child were real people that I only interacted with through the medium of a computer screen, that would be bad. I'd agree. There are things about marriage and child-rearing that, for now, are impossible to do virtually. This, however, will change as technology does. For a sci-fi example of what I mean…just go watch Avatar. We're not *that* far off.

      But even in our own time, my relationship with the church is different. I don't need to have sex with everyone in my church (hopefully). I don't need to spank my church when it's out of line, or (if I were a woman) breastfeed it, either. Literally speaking, of course. Metaphorically and scripturally, those are exactly the things that Christ does for/to the church, but I digress…

      The point is, that while I have some limited physical interaction with people in my church, mostly hugs and handshakes, these things are not absolutely essential to my participation in the church. If you don't believe me, then I challenge you to tell the guy in your church who never shakes anyone's hand that he doesn't belong there.

      These sorts of things may be good, and some people may even see them as essential to their church experiences, and online churches will certainly have to accept these as challenges and inherent weaknesses to be addressed. But all churches have weaknesses inherent to their contexts, and virtual churches certainly have some strengths that might allow us to say to physical churches: "you can't do what we can do, therefore you can't possibly call yourself a church." But that would be silly, wouldn't it? I hope we're beyond that…

      • Neal, to your first point. Of course our relationships is "real," but I think our relationship would be a lot deeper if we were able to get coffee every once in a while, throw darts over a pint, or do a men's retreat.

        To your second point, I think you can make the case that it would be possible to never touch your spouse or child. You can have a "real" marriage without sex. And you can be a "real' parent without breastfeeding or spanking your child. But given the choice who would want to? Who would want to pass up walking on the beach at sunset hand in hand with his wife? Who would want to pass up playing catch with his kid? Or wrestling in a pile of leaves? Or having a snowball fight?

        I think it's the same with church. You can have "real" church online. But given the choice who would want to? Who would want to pass up singing praises to God together with a group of brothers and sisters in Christ? Who would give up praying earnestly hand in hand with someone desperately in need of God's intervention? Or giving a huge hug to the person you just led to Christ?

    • Paul, I think the answer to your question "given the choice, who would want to?" is self-evident. Obviously, all the people who are now choosing to attend online churches over offline ones want to, and I suspect they have just as much "choice" as anyone else. Most of those I've had conversations with would even flip the question around: given all the advantages they see to online churches, and the atmosphere and community they experience there, given the choice, who would want to attend an offline church?

      • Not necessarily. If someone becomes a Christian through an online church and that church tells them there's no need to connect with an offline church, they may never know richness of being a part of a physical community of Christ.

        it's not that different from a church that might tell it's members it's not important for them to read the Bible on their own, or be a part of a small group, or serve the poor. I believe their members would also miss out on the fullness of what is possible in their relationship with God and fellow believers.

        • I'd accept that argument if you'd accept the converse of it: If someone became a Christian through an offline church, and that church tells them "there's no need to connect with an online church" they may never know the richness of being part of an online community of Christ.

          Otherwise, what you're inherently saying is that offline churches are in every way superior to online ones. It's ok if you believe that, but obviously my own experiences with online churches tell me otherwise.

          Further, what you're saying also rests on the assumption that every offline church allows all of its members the opportunity to experience "the fullness of what's possible in their relationship with God and fellow believers."

          My experiences with offline churches tell me otherwise with this as well–and I would point out that in our culture, while increasing numbers of people do not consider themselves believers, the percentage of those who have had *no* experience with a church of any sort is actually relatively small (read Barna on that one). Most people I've talked to in online churches who do not participate in a physical church do so precisely *because* they could not find the same "fullness of what is possible in their relationship with God and fellow believers"–and yet they will argue that's exactly what they've found online.

          Paul, I really think that at the end of the day, it's a matter of perspective. You seem very much enamoured with your experiences at your offline church, and because of this, it seems to you that these things are indispensable. But I hope it's ok with you that some people feel just as convicted in the opposite direction.

          As for myself, I'm a hybrid. I like my physical church, and it provides experiences and opportunities that my online church can't — but I also like my online church, and it provides experiences and opportunities that my physical church can't. To me, both are indispensable. And I certainly can't imagine how people in physical churches can manage and grow in their relationship with God and one another *without* an online community.

          Maybe we should approach physical churches with the caveat that they are *only* legitimate if they are actively trying to connect their members to some sort of online community… 🙂

          • Neil, I agree that there are offline churches within which a person can't experience "the fullness of what's possible in their relationship with God and fellow believers." And in those cases a person may be better off exclusively within an online church. (Though trying to create a healthy, biblical church may still be a better option).

            I don't think I could accept the converse argument. After all, the church managed for 2,000 years before the Internet. I think it'd be hard to make the case that the early church, especially as recorded in Acts 2, lacked "the fullness of what's possible in their relationship with God and fellow believers."

            But I agree that a offline-online hybrid solution is best in the spread-out, busy culture we live in that makes it extremely difficult for people to gather together physically on a daily basis.

    • […] ChristianityToday Weights In On Online ChurchesBrandon Buckner, internet campus director of McLean Bible Church near Washington, DC, recognizes the limits of online churches while still advocating for them. “The internet camp… […]

    • I completely love this debate between you two and the idea of a virtual church. I have sat in on some online sermons and discussions and found it quite interesting. Have I made it a habit to visit often? No. But I do find its' merit and validity.

      So many people have a hard time connecting with people in the real world these days why not engage them spiritually online? Is that giving into the fact that we are a virtual world much like in the movie "Wall-E"? perhaps.. but it's worth engaging people and helping them in their relationships with Christ or helping them begin one..

      I've been challenged by my pastor of our new church to head up social media and the idea of a virtual church sounds very intriguing and right up our alley.. good thoughts here guys..


      • Glad you've found it helpful. I saw your tweet about getting started with social media. I'll blog about it and look forward to hearing what you decide to do and how it goes.