When technology and spirituality mix, it makes people uneasy. A relationship with God is an intimate thing, and people worry technology replacing personal touch makes religion “cold,” non-relational and even anti-biblical. Now, we have a new phenomenon where churches have formed in cyberspace, made up of people mostly in different locations around the globe.
They don’t come to the church building and mix with people face to face as they’ve done traditionally. Instead, they opt to stay online—something many will say is “less” pointing to Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing …” (TNIV)
Usually we look at the Book of Acts to see what church should be like. In this setting, Paul started some churches and visited them on a regular basis to help them grow and stay on course. But that plan was thwarted once he was arrested and put in prison. So did Paul stop communicating with his flock because he couldn’t appear in person? No; he used the media of the day and wrote to them from a centralized point—jail. These letters were circulated within the Christian community where they were read aloud to the church groups when they assembled. Paul, who had urgent messages inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote to churches, creating a model for a virtual community being inspired and led from a central point. If Paul had Internet access in jail, he would have likely communicated with the churches that way. If he had Skyped a message to the Corinthians, do you think it would still have been effective? Maybe there is something about a sermon delivered into an environment where the speaker is not standing in front of you. Maybe when you are in a church building, you tend to ride on the live momentum of the speaker rather than the actual truth of the message. And just maybe if the message is delivered to you in the place that you are living rather than at a church building, you start to see it as something that is for outside the church walls.
So what about Hebrews 10:24-25? There is nothing in those verses about meeting face to face. I don’t see anything in the original language that indicates this. We’re simply supposed to gather together. That’s exactly what online churches do. Just because people are not in each other’s physical presence doesn’t mean they’re not an assembly. The truth is, in today’s online church world, some are gathering physically together and watching online church experiences as well as gathering electronically.
The online church makes it possible to do things and reach people the physical church may not be capable of. We can bring isolated Christ-followers into community and offer access to those who would never attend church—including those of other faiths and lifestyles.
Online church also lets us make available restoration ministries, and we can focus on social justice and mobilize people all over the world in humanitarian efforts.
Creating online communities may also help us break barriers between countries. For too long, we have been American-centric and we need to be immersed in the world.
Finally, being online makes pastors more accessible to the people we serve and helps us to share community life. It eliminates the “Sunday-only” contact. Most of our Christian existence is lived outside of church assemblies, and this gives pastors a chance to enter into that with people.
Since I have made the decision to stop being so safe and get involved in the lives of people on the Internet, I feel now more than ever I am in the very heart of what God has for my life. I have consoled my Muslim friend in Tehran as he tries to deal with the violence and oppression he sees, even though I am not there to put my hand on his shoulder. I have celebrated with my Buddhist friends in Thailand as they had their first baby. I have had the honor of being there for a single mother in Singapore and someone who is extremely lonely in the Czech Republic, and yet I have never met either of them in person. I have people “stop in” electronically just to say “hi” from Norway and Belgium, and I am doing premarital counseling for a couple in Germany using Skype. For the first time in my life, I think I understand how to love people the way Jesus did … and it is almost all happening online. I’ve had two people ask me to tell them about God and what it looks like to live a life with God in it.
I would like to believe the web-streams we send out will become “web-streams of living water” to the nations. Jesus said to be a “city on a hill” that shows God’s glory to the world (Matthew 5:14-16). But not only do I get a chance to show God’s glory to people whose voices I have never heard, whose faces I have never looked upon, whose hands I have never shaken, but I get to see God’s glory for myself. We need a Kingdom mindset that transcends our current ideas of Church and takes us beyond the church walls in ways we never could have dreamed.
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.