Updated: The Western Church – Not EVEN Virtual

kinnon —  September 15, 2009 — 14 Comments

UPDATE: Bob responds to this post in the comments below and at his blog. My response to him is in the comments there.

Back in August, one of my favourite bloggers, Bob Hyatt had a good two part series @ Out of Ur with the strongly stated title, There is NO Virtual Church – addressing the internet church phenomena.

It was good.


It was wrong.

Most western churches don't even make it to virtual.


In Part Two, Bob appeals to Calvin,

Calvin’s definition of “church” is where the Word is preached, the sacraments are received, and church discipline practiced. That’s a good summary of the defining characteristics of the New Testament ecclesia and a good summary of the main problems with internet church.

Really? That's a good summary? Of ecclesia? Sticking with the Reformed for a moment, according to Donald McKim in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (via),

In the New Testament, the term ἐκκλησία (church or assembly) is used for local communities and in a universal sense to mean all believers.

Communities that at their best – according to the New Testament, hold all things in common, love each other unconditionally, confess their sins one to another, practise servant leading, take care of the widows, orphans, those in prison, the sick & the dying, gather to hear the Word, correct and are corrected, grow in wisdom and understanding, study the Scriptures – and that's just scratching the surface – all of this done with a passionate love for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When you next gather with your fellow believers, ask yourself, is this what's happening?


This isn't an attack on Bob. From what I know of the community that he leads, they do their best to live like this – and are just as fallen and broken as the rest of us – but they are at least working at living what they believe to be true.

Internet Church, however, is the logical outgrowth of the Western Church. It is the consumer church on steroids – about meeting my needs in a way that "works for me." To the point of being ridiculous.

I was aghast – filled with shock and horror – when I read Drew Goodmanson's 5 Online Trends for the Future of Faith. The first point being doing the Sacraments Online. ARE YOU SERIOUS!? (And I'm not suggesting that Drew supports all of these things – he's simply reporting them. At least, that's what I hope.)


Online Baptisms?! In the comfort of your own bathtub?

Heck, why not just mimic some denominations, and stand over the sink and pour water over your head, three times for good measure. Do-it-yourself baptizing. (Why not go all the way and just be your own saviour?)

And receiving "Holy Communion" via the Interwebs?

If I have any Christian home, it would be amongst the Anglicans. Even there I struggle with their "delivery" of the Eucharist. I read Jesus telling us to break the bread and drink the wine at every meal in remembrance of Him – especially at the communal meals we will, of course, be having regularly together. (See jonny baker, here.)

Drew's point two is the The Rapid Growth of the Internet Church.

As people blur their sense of presence (with things like mobile apps that constantly tether you to distant places) the idea of having to be somewhere in person for it to be ‘real’ will be lost in a digital generation. Already there are fully packed online services for churches to launch their own Internet campus.

I am no Luddite when it comes to technology and the net. And I have significant community with friends scattered across the globe – connected via email, our blogs, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and more.


Like the nightmared little girl whose mother said, 'just talk to Jesus if you're scared' responded with "but I need someone with arms on," we both need and are the hands and feet of Jesus. Digital tethering can enhance the ecclesia, but it cannot begin to replace the warmth, touch, smell (occasionally ripe) of the body gathered. And Internet Church is at best, silly and at worst, simply wrong.

Would that the church were truly virtual!



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

14 responses to Updated: The Western Church – Not EVEN Virtual

  1. Bill, I agree with what you wrote, except the last sentence. Well, the second to the last sentence.

    “And Internet Church is at best, silly and at worst, simply wrong.”

    This is how it should be. Unfortunately, there are times when Internet Church is a lifesaver at best, and a necessary replacement at worst. Internet Church should never be a choice when it is a choice. However, for so many there just doesn’t appear to be options for engaging in a serious way with other Christians locally. Not that there aren’t options, to be sure, but there are so many wolves among the sheep that those who are weak or bitten or whatever may not have any ability to do the usual search to hear words of Christ.

    I know people who have been saved from suicide, convinced to call 911 after they had overdosed. They went online in their dazed stupor, and heard words of hope and life. I know people who have been able to find, for the first time, a place to voice their questions and thoughts, interaction that takes them serious as Spirit-endowed people. At their old or present church they were only people in a pew, valuable only as they put money in the passed basket.

    I know people who began strong friendships that blossomed in powerful, real ways–trust, hope, love. Even as they felt ignored, alienated, and supremely lonely in the midst of a physical church.

    It’s not an ideal, but it is something. And when so many churches have only a Sunday morning service mentality, devoid of any investment or authentic community, finding a place where one is valued, where there is edification by sharing of the gifts (which I argue is Paul’s purpose for a church–1 Cor 14), leading a person towards God, that’s something to be thankful for. Even as we all know this is precisely what a local community can and should do best. Mac and Cheese is not a ideal diet, but it is something, and more than something if a person is starving.

    Plus, for those who have various issues or ailments, stuck in a home, without resources to interact as common community seems to demand, the ability to reach out and be real with others, even in a virtual way, is more than something. It might even be a tool of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Bill – Just reporting the trends, not supporting. Thanks for the vote of confidence! 😉

  3. It’s interesting because I recall reading a few years ago how the age of telecommuting never really came upon the business world as was expected once internet connection speeds got to where it was a technically feasible option. Apparently in the working world having personal contact is just too important for everyone to work out of their home.

    How much more so for a body of believers.

  4. Weird me out.
    As you may or may not know the GodBlogCon rebranded itself The Christian Web Conference.

    They moved back to Biola, dropped the overt politics. One of the constant speakers through the years has been Dr. Mark Roberts.

    I don’t recall him ever expressing reservations, the guy oozes grace and encouragement.

    This was one of his points about this years conference:

    Third, that’s not to say that some people aren’t dangerously ensnared in the Web and its allurements. I was impressed (and, frankly, distressed) to have several conversations with people who are truly convinced that its is possible to have church that is 100% an online experience. That’s right, no human contact that is not mediated by the Internet. “What about the sacraments?” you ask. Some of the folks at the CWC were seriously arguing that one could even have communion and practice baptism virtually, by using web cams, texting, etc. No joke! Let me add that many of the leaders of the CWC, while seeing potential for the Internet to help the church, are strongly opposed to the idea that one could have a full church experience via the Internet alone. Neverthless, the idea is out there and thriving in some circles. It is closely related to the growing popularity of multi-site churches, where, for example, a preacher preaches in one location, and is beamed to several others.

    link to markdroberts.com

    We used to have grand spats and online conversations about the GodBlogCon’s pros and cons.
    Now it’s all so too cool to fool, some of the same sponsors, but a lot more commercial. Less attendees than in the earlier years of blogs; one attendee posted. The twitter feed was blah and the Facebook wall was updates from the Biola students.
    A lot has changed, this isn’t community anymore, it’s about web people telling others how to be the church online. The odds of me reading two similar posts on the ‘virtual’ church are remarkable.

  5. Bill, good post. Seems like most critics (and supporters..) of “virtual ecclesia” tend to skew their arguments to one extreme or the other. Reminds me of Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.” There’s a lot of complaining about things we cannot change.

    Pervasive glocal change is being accelerated by new generations of electronically-connected kids. The rate of virtual acceptance will only increase as it informs and shapes the planet’s social fabric, including (especially!) its religions.

    We benefit from it ALL. We need local-physical community. We need global-virtual community. One is not “better” than another, but neither can one replace the other. All forms of well-intentioned contact build ecclesia.

  6. Patrick,
    Fair enough – and as one who was more than half eaten by such a wolf, the interwebs served to keep me connected to the wider body at a time when I couldn’t stomach the thought of the local body. I appreciate your response.

  7. Bene,
    I point out this comment and link to Mark’s post in an Update on the post, above. Thanks for this.

  8. John,
    I met you through these interwebs for which I am very thankful! And I’m all for the building of relationships in the flesh and via the web – but I’m not for the web’s use to help extend the reach of the consumer church. Your last line is the truth in my not humble opinion –

    “All forms of well intentioned contact build ecclesia.

  9. The funny thing for me is how much I prefer to work out of my home and on my own. But I am an over the top I in the Myers Briggs topology. (Though I do look forward to grabbing a cuppa joe with you when I’m next resident in Toronto for more than an evening.)

  10. At least with all this interweb church I can get ordain online a la Homer Simpson (print a cut out of my future interweb clergy collar and away I go).

  11. Bill- I appreciate your pushback, but you are WRONG
    (and now I’m not going to point out just what you said that was wrong, while agreeing with the entire thrust of your piece!)


    I kid, I kid…

    Seriously, though- we are saying the same thing.

    And please don’t misunderstand my appeal to Calvin- his markers weren’t meant to be an inclusive list of characteristics of the NT church. But rather, a number of things that if ABSENT, indicate that “Church” is not what you are doing.

    My point was just to say if you want to have an internet ministry that’s there for people (as in Patrick’s comment), fine- but DON’T go calling it “church” and give people (whether implied or inferred) the idea that somehow sitting in front of your computer screen watching a sermon is somehow equivalent to participating in a real community- it’s not.

    And here’s where I’ll go ahead and tick off the other side of the spectrum.

    Me and my buddies sitting around the firepit in my backyard is not church either- absent things like praying together, teaching the Word to one another, the sacraments, some sense of accountability and discipline, biblical eldership…

    What I’m saying is that it’s easy to look at the internet church and call it lacking and silly. Shooting fish in a barrel. But I think the “de-churched” movement makes the same exact mistakes (albeit in a less technophile way) and just doesn’t see it.

  12. I respond to Bob on his blog post which is similar to his comment above.

  13. Bill, my mother always said that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say it. So I deleted my rant about how the virtual church (that I’ve experienced) is no different than the electronic church: shallow one way communication……sorry there I go again. At least the electronic church comes with a power switch and the ability to take pot shots at the proprietors.

  14. Speaking of potshots, Bob’s first in line: Bob said that “Me and my buddies sitting around the firepit in my backyard is not church either- absent things like praying together, teaching the Word to one another, the sacraments, some sense of accountability and discipline, biblical eldership…”

    Yeah, its not exactly church, but it has greater potential to be the biblical church than what tradition has handed down to us. I don’t for one moment imagine that Jesus had in mind the formal teaching, prayer, communion, etc that we have in place. For example, the teachings we most revere from Jesus are merely conversations, he taught us to pray secretly, communion was a meal, discipline could be decided by 2 or 3, and eldership has no set pattern in the NT. These simple facts would shatter everything we know about the traditional church. A gathering around a campfire has far more connections to the biblical church than the modern church.

    I’m not suggesting that all teaching should be conversations or every prayer be in secret but defining church by one’s denominational constitution is like committing intellectual/spiritual suicide. The reformers died (or interestingly enough, killed)for the chance to live out their faith biblically. We can’t shackle others to some sort of ecclesiastical format that no theologians agree on and about which, most NT scholars agree there is little evidence or pattern. Honestly now, is there really a NT pattern for church teaching, worship, and leadership?

    Here’s a harder question that I’m dying to ask. The early church, the one in Jerusalem, is often held up as the example of what the church of Christ should be like. Now we know that a lot of the Pauline churches were a little screwed up because of both pagan and jewish religious influence as well as sin issues revolving around power, ambition, and money. How pervasive were these influences in the Jerusalem church and by who’s authority do we model our churches on the Jerusalem church? How did James rise to such prominence in Jerusalem? Was it family connections? Why does it seem that James and Paul are at odds with each other, though Paul is certainly trying hard to build bridges? Did Jerusalem really cause some problems for the Galatian churches? Is the book of Acts a record of what happened or a prescription to be followed? Can we expect an honest answer to these questions from people who’s livelihood depends upon institutions built on their interpretation of Acts?


What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.