For the church in Corinth, the Christian life was built around small cell groups that met regularly in homes. A church that exists online must begin with small cell communities that meet regularly for fellowship and spiritual growth.
The culture we have described as the ideal for these cells is dramatically different than what we see happening online right now, and members entering an online church for the first time will bring that old paradigm of social media with them into this new context.
How might a digital church work to develop this posture of cruciformity and reconciliation within its new members, when that posture is so foreign to today’s online experience?
Establishing Expectations for Participants
Because the dangers of social media are such a ubiquitous part of our digital world, an online church needs a process to teach new members about the church’s standards of behavior.
In the web industry, this is referred to as an “onboarding process”—an introduction to the key features and capabilities of a new web interface. For the church, this onboarding process is not simply an overview of the technical components of the platform, but also a system for developing the posture of a disciple of Christ within this online context.
The goal of this onboarding is to help the person to see themselves as a part of this digital community and to foster their growth into Christian maturity, not to indoctrinate them into any particular dogmatic positions, but to lead them into a Spirit-powered place of self-giving love.
Growing as Disciples into Leaders
This may be accomplished by creating an introductory group led by a seasoned member of the church; the class should meet for a fixed amount of time and, as it models the format of a standard group, should cover a variety of topics, including:
- How to use the technology
- The basic tenets of the Christian faith
- The ways in which this digital community is different from typical social media platforms
- The expectations the church has for its members
In addition, this introductory group should explore the particular gifts of each individual to better understand how the people might fit together. Upon completing the introductory group, the group members may be placed into existing cell groups or may form a new group of their own.
Once a new group has formed, care should be taken to avoid creating a hierarchy within the group. Although individuals will necessarily have different roles in the group—one of which should be a group facilitator or moderator to serve as a point of contact for communication with the greater church body—leadership should be understood, as in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, as a position of humility and service to the body.
The purpose of the group, after all, is the same as the mission of the church: the cruciformity of the community as a mission of reconciliation within the body and to the whole world.
To that end, Letty M. Russell details an ecclesiastical structure that she calls “church in the round” wherein each person has equal voice and the church is continually attuned to the voices on the margins of society. In her model, “there are never too many leaders, for... power and leadership gifts multiply as they are shared and more and more persons become partners in communities of faith and struggle.” Russell’s model of developing the gifts of the entire body fits well with Paul’s description of gifts in 1 Cor 12 and ought to be embraced within our construction of a cell group.
A digital ecclesiology cannot begin and end with cell groups, though. It must also include a form of corporate worship.
Worship in Digital Relationships
Paul’s consideration of the Lord’s Supper can serve as a groundwork for our exploration of the structure of worship within a digital context.
Many churches already broadcast their weekly worship through a live video stream to allow people around the world to tune into their worship service. This broadcast methodology is a significant first step toward cultivating a digital body of believers, but it does nothing to foster a sense of community among online worshipers. Since online worshipers are not able to meaningfully contribute to the life and function of this worship broadcast, it cannot be considered a church body in and of itself. For Paul, each member had a purpose and was intrinsically valuable to the working of the whole (1 Cor 12:14–20).
An online worship service may be the foundation for a digital church community, but for it to function as a body, it must allow church members to be active participants in the experience. Estes argues that online worship is not truly participatory unless the online participants have the capacity to disrupt the service in some capacity, just as worshipers in a physical context could shout at the pastor to disrupt the service. Such potential for disruption changes the participant’s perception of having real presence in the space.
Some elements of worship, like the music and the sermon, may be best distributed as broadcast video (either live or pre-recorded) because of the current technological limitations. Even today, video chats do not allow for true synchronization between the people joining the online service. For example, trying to sing a song in unison over a video call results in chaos because of the transmission lag between participants. It would also be impractical for a single presenter to be present in multiple cell groups worshiping at the same time.
Other elements, though, are well-suited for true online participation, such as times of group socialization, prayers, announcements, and perhaps even some sacramental practices. Video chat software is one way online worshipers can be called upon to lead these components of worship, but even without video chats, the immediacy of social media can be used to facilitate text-based conversations that work as online liturgy.
The Lord's Supper
The acceptability of practicing sacraments online will vary depending on the sacramental perspectives of different Christian faith traditions. The Lord’s Supper provides an example of such varied perspectives, although many of these practices are changing as a result of our societal shifts we've made in response to COVID-19.
Some churches, like Saddleback Church, have been practicing communion online for years; other groups, like the United Methodist Church, have tested the idea of online communion and have been resistant to embracing it; still others, like the Roman Catholic Church, have denounced the practice altogether because “the physical presence of the faithful and the manifestation of his faults to the priest in person in indispensable.”
Yet when Paul chastised the Corinthians for their practice of the Lord’s Supper, his rebuke was not to correct a procedural problem in their observance, but to correct their embodiment of the community of God. Paul was more concerned that their relationships with one another were not worthy of the table of the Lord than he was that they adhered to a particular standard.
Eucharistic embodiment, for Paul, was found in the cruciform unity of their community. If that cruciform communion of believers can be embodied within a digital context—a context in which the members of the body are really present, but not physically present, with one another—then the sacramentality of the Eucharist need not be compromised by the physical distance between them.
Nonetheless, we must not neglect to address the intersections of the physical and the digital. Paul could not have conceived of a world where people who had never met could know each other as intimately as we can today; for him, relationships could only be embodied in physical form. Similarly, most people in our society today could not conceive of a world in which there were no digital existence.
Yet the trajectory of our society is not toward a disambiguation of the digital world from the physical, but toward a synthesis of the two, and it is toward that synthesis that our attention will now turn.
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