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Online Church Part 4: How Can Online Churches Serve One Another?

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One of the biggest obstacles online churches face is figuring out how participants can serve one another.  This is important for at least 2 reasons.

First, we all experience hardships and burdens that are too big for us to carry on our own.  Part of God’s design for the church is for our loads to be lightened through the care of others in our church.

Second, God has given us all spiritual gifts and talents.  One of the primary ways we find fulfillment and a sense of purpose in this life is by using our God-given gifts to serve others.

Some burdens can be eased through the online care of others, and some spiritual gifts can be utilized in online church to some degree. However, there are some needs and some spiritual gifts that appear difficult to facilitate through online churches.

For example…

  • When a person’s spouse dies, how does an online church care for them?  Somehow a virtual funeral seems inadequate.
  • When someone has a baby, how do the people in an online church provide meals for them or watch their older kids to give the parents a break?
  • When someone needs a ride to the doctor, how does an online church help with that?

Another important aspect of church life is how it exhibits the love of Christ within the local community.  Many churches have ministries that provide food for those in need, help the homeless, visit people in nursing homes, fix cars, repair houses, mentor fatherless children, and so on.

Is physically serving one another essential to being a “real church?”

Can online churches do these things?  If so, how?

On the other hand, there may be some ways, such as with encouragement and prayer, that online churches could actually be better than offline churches.  Thoughts?

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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.


    • So…this past week, I had a final exam project due in one of my seminary classes. I had asked the professor if I could do my project on the intersection of our biblical texts and virtual reality, centering on the theme of identity. He agreed, and we set it up so that I could broadcast Second Life onto a large screen in our classroom.

      The night before the project was due, I was at my weekly prayer service with my online community. I brought up as a prayer request that I was far from finished with my project — a big part of which entailed "building" several displays of the bibilcal texts in the virtual reality space I was using for my project. I was very stressed out, at the least, and my wife was worried for me, since I had been missing sleep to finish the project in time, and would likely do so again the night before I had to present it.

      My online church community all spontaneously decided to "come over" to the place where I was building my project, and several of them stayed up with me until two o'clock in the morning helping me work on it. I had a fellow classmate who was also part of my project group, and since he was "new" to second life, one of our church members took him (his avatar) shopping for some better clothes (free ones, actually) and gave him an introduction to second life — so I could focus on the project.

      The next day, which was a workday, a Monday, several of my community members took time out of their work schedules to show up *during* my class presentation to form an online audience, and to answer questions that students in my offline class had. The presentation was an astonishing success — one that I could not have hoped to have had on my own, without the help of my community.

      So…would my physical world church have stayed up with me until 2am helping me with a school project?

      Even if they would have been willing, would I have wanted them to, considering the nature of my need, and the particular giftedness required to minister to it?

      Online churches and offline churches are different, and they will minister to different needs. There is a valid case to be made that some needs cannot be met (yet) by an online church. But there is an equal case to be made that there are some needs we are just now discovering that cannot be met by offline churches. If it were not so, people would not attend online churches, and even prefer them to traditional ones.

      That said, I'm not 100% ready to "give up" on the notion that an online church couldn't minister to the physical needs of its participants. It would require creativity and care, and probably some sort of occasional "excursions" into the physical world when absolutely necessary, without making this the "default" method. Consider most traditional churches who use online tools (like email) occasionally (or even frequently) for pastoral care on a limited basis without making it their "default" option. I would imagine the reverse could be true in an online church.

    • On the subject of funerals — If I were hit by a bus today, and died, there would be a need to "do something" with my body (burial or cremation) even though no one likely believes that my body, once dead, will contain anything important of me in it.

      Likewise, when I am dead, something will need to be done with my Avatar, my facebook and twitter profiles, even though no one believes that the accounts still contain anything of my ongoing essence in them at that point.

      So the purpose of the funeral then, is not primarily for disposal of the body. Its purpose is to allow family and friends to grieve, to celebrate the life of the deceased, and to witness to the Gospel message.

      A physical world funeral could and would meet these needs…for my family and friends in physical space. But I would submit that it could NOT meet those needs for my friends (and even family members) who are part of my online church community. There would NEED to be an online funeral service of some sort in order to actually accomplish the purposes above.

      I'm also thinking of the benefit this holds out to those who, inevitably, cannot travel at short notice to participate in funerals of loved ones. I had to miss my grandfather's funeral because it was impossible for me to make it in time. That hurt. Some sort of online funeral service offers something at least, for those who are geographically separated from family and community. In fact, funerals probably originated from a time when people were born, raised, and died in the same local community. As this is clearly no longer the case in our culture, perhaps online churches can serve a growing need that physical world churches are actually *incapable* of meeting–they can transcend geographical barriers.

      You say that a virtual funeral somehow seems inadequate–I suppose that's most likely true for you, and because it seems new and foreign. If I were to die tomorrow, however, I'm pretty sure that my family and friends (both offline and online) would view a purely physical funeral as equally inadequate, considering how (and where) I have lived my life.

    • By the way…what's your site's policy on copyright for content submitted via comments? Do I own my own words here…because thanks to your post series (and my rambling responses) I'm starting to think I might ultimately have enough to start a book on the subject. I would *definitely* have to give you and your blog credit, though 🙂

    • I believe that each person can serve with his spiritual gifts near his home or place of work.
      I believe this is a great challenge and we should pray that God can give us the best strategies.