6. Harnessing the Potential of Online Church

How can we translate Paul’s concept of the church into an online context? How can we match his understanding of community, mission, and service with the technological tools and resources we have available to us today?

Written by

Randall J. Greene

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Go BackChristianity, Digital, In Series

Paul communicated with the church in Corinth through letters, the technological medium of his day. By examining his usage of the written word, we can find guidance for our use of digital media today—the technological medium we use for distance communication—to foster genuine ecclesial community.

The comparison of these two tools is imperfect—the world is vastly different than it was in the first century and the media themselves are not entirely analogous. To find guidelines for today in Paul’s letters, we cannot directly transpose his writings into our own digital world; we must work to translate his methods, message, and strategies into our own context.

In the previous post, we sought to understand Paul’s concept of church as developed in his correspondence with the Corinthians, and in this chapter we will seek to translate that concept into a digital context.

We will begin by considering the ways in which the potential of the digital world can be harnessed within an online ecclesiology, then we will look at the modes and structures of gathering online, and will conclude by identifying some of the dangers of an online church and attempting to create boundaries to mitigate them.

Unity Requires Diversity

Paul’s primary concern for the church in Corinth was that they be unified, but that unity was one found in submission to the cross of Christ rather than in any kind of economic, social, or political uniformity.

Throughout his communication with the church, Paul did not erase the distinctive beliefs and statuses of different believers, but affirmed the necessity and sacredness of diversity within their congregation, as demonstrated in the metaphor of body in 1 Cor 12:12–31. Natalie K. Watson summarized this idea as she outlined the basics of a feminist ecclesiology:

…in the context of Christian theology and praxis this difference [in human beings] cannot be the basis for exclusion or marginalization but is rather a factor of enrichment for the church…. Theologically such an affirmation of difference and particularity must be grounded in an understanding of Christ which describes Christ not only as the guarantee of the unity of the church, but also prevents such unity from being gained only at the price of diversity.

Natalie K. Watson, Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology

Within our social media platforms today, which drive us to divide our “friends” into an antagonistic binary—those who think like us, and those who do not think like us—a digital church must actively resist the tendency to reduce participants into either/or factions.

Paul’s development of the wisdom of God as an identity marker is helpful here, because it orients the church’s identity around a posture of participation in the lowliness, weakness, and love of Christ’s crucifixion, rather than any kind of particular doctrinal distinction, social status or, as is prevalent on social media today, political association.

The cruciformity we explored in previous posts must be especially emphasized within the day-to-day existence of an online community because it is so at odds with the way social media users are accustomed to interacting online. From the beginning of the group’s formation, the humility and self-giving of cruciformity should be such a norm in the life and discussions of the community that it is readily identifiable as the attitude that binds the community together—that is to say that it ought to be both spoken and modeled by each member of the group, establishing a feedback loop that reinforces the group behavior. 

Creating this kind of culture is, of course, far easier to write about than to achieve; indeed, we might consider this challenge to be the penultimate task of Christian community—after all, that is precisely the challenge to which Paul found himself continually returning in his relationship with the Corinthians.

Limitations to Diversity

The local church has always had natural limitations to the diversity of its body. For example, the church in Corinth was basically limited to those who lived within the urban, Hellenized context of the city so, while it was diverse in its philosophical, religious, and economic representation, it likely did not have many believers who lived in agrarian or rural cultural contexts.

Douglas Estes, in his book SimChurch, writes that, “While geography forces some degree of heterogeneity, the virtual world strongly encourages ideological homogeneity” (emphasis added). In the social media world today, where geography is not a restriction, we naturally become divided into homogeneous in-groups and out-groups based on our political stances and social groupings—divisions which are irreconcilable with Paul’s understanding of diversity in ecclesial formation.

In an online ecclesial community, we must be particularly vigilant regarding the tendency of social media platforms to algorithmically segment users into isolated groups.

During their participation in the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthian church had allowed themselves to be divided into economic strata because this type of stratification at cultic meals was the norm in their society—this division had likely not been something they had deliberately sought to achieve, but had happened naturally based on their cultural assumptions. Paul’s call to be a cruciform community meant that such social distinctions in their worship needed to be actively resisted.

In the same way, our churches today cannot allow cultural or technological norms to go uncontested when they result in social division. We must continually examine our communities to see whether any kind of social homogeneity has taken root, and we must structure our worship in such a way that those with less social power—the poor and marginalized—have had equal opportunity to construct the table.

Anything less is, according to Paul, not Christian worship.

Despite its challenges regarding the posture of cruciformity, the digital world is nonetheless uniquely suited to facilitating this kind of diversity in unity. Approximately ninety percent of the adult population in the United States had access to the internet in 2018 and, as mentioned previously, about two-thirds of adults are already using social media platforms. While there are still portions of the population who are underserved in their access to high speed internet, particularly in rural communities, there is no other community-minded medium in the nation with such ubiquitous access to a common resource.

The challenge, then, is to realize the potential given to us by the digital world: the potential to connect with one another in ways that do not isolate us within factions.

Right-Sizing Groups

An additional consideration in this task is the psychological reality that, as groups grow larger, humans are less able to adequately perceive the humanity of each member of the group. A community that seeks to be cruciform in its relationships with one another must be small enough to actually have relationships with one another, so the size of a particular gathering should be limited, rather than attempting to congregate hundreds or thousands of people into one community.

Describing the church in Corinth, deSilva speculated that it was probably made up of around fifty members when everyone gathered together, but noted that they likely met in smaller “cell groups” that met in the houses of individuals within the community. While the particular size of the Corinthian church did not likely have a self-imposed limit for the purpose of developing authentic relationships in the groups, we may embrace the idea that a larger worship community can be supported by the regular meeting of smaller cells.

Encouraging Diversity

Since the digital world makes it so easy to enter and exit groups, cells where membership is self-selected tend to devolve into homogeneity, so an online ecclesiastical body must have a way to filter persons into groups characterized by unity in diversity, rather than the homogeneity that happens so naturally.

One possibility for this would be to use temporal availability as a limiting factor so that individuals who are able to meet at a given time are grouped together, regardless of their demographic profile. Since a person’s schedule is not directly connected to polemical or hierarchical associations, organizing cells around the availability of participants during certain days and times might, to some extent, foster diversity in group participants. Even this, though, ought to be approached cautiously, because people living in poverty often have more limited and variable schedules, so temporal organization of cell groups, if embraced without care and some flexibility, could lead to the same socio-economic divisions that Paul condemned in the Corinthian church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Connectivity Enhances the Mission

Once a cell has formed, the power of the digital context begins to emerge. Social media itself serves to level many the disparities between different economic and social classes, because individuals share equal access to the platform.

This is evidenced in the rise of social justice movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and many others where the voices of those on the margins have been able to effect real change in our society. Because many of the traditional markers of status (for example, clothes and cars) can be minimized within online communities, social media has become a compelling tool for sharing stories and information across the boundaries of class and status.

In addition, the technological tools of social media allow groups of people to be in dialogue and relationship with one another on a continual, non-stop basis, sharing the powerful moments of life in real time.

Whenever there is a need, a celebration, or a question, it can be raised within the group at any time and group members can respond immediately. Games and leisurely activities can be shared online throughout the day. The development of group video chat platforms—systems for multidirectional video conversations, rather than one-directional broadcasts of video content—as a legitimate opportunity for group conversations has enhanced the capacity for immediate responsiveness even further and has created the potential for digital media to become even more relationally intimate for groups.

Using Video for Connection

One of the key dangers of social media is the tendency for users to dehumanize the people on the other end of the screen, but using video as an online communication tool helps us see the key markers of humanity that discourage such dehumanization. By showing the facial expressions of the other users and their instinctive, unfiltered reactions in conversations, video allows us to see that the person on the other side of the screen is real, as not just a lifeless avatar or screen name.

Although there are still elements of humanness that are not communicated through the digital medium, such as smell and feel, the availability of video as a multidirectional communication tool has profound implications for the ways in which we can build community through small cells of people connecting online, and it ought to be utilized as often as possible.

Serving and Caring Online

This is not to suggest that there are no complexities to meeting needs within a digital context. The Christian call to service within and beyond the body of believers is one of the most difficult calls to achieve online. We should not underestimate the importance of counsel and other methods of dialogical ministry, for which digital media can serve as an enhancement, but there are bodily needs that are more difficult to address.

One of the easiest ways to conceive of meeting physical needs from a distance is for group members to purchase services online from local vendors. For example, if a person is in need of an emergency meal, a fellow group member could order a pizza to be delivered to their house.

This approach, though, lends itself to the formation of an intra-group economic hierarchy. If the only viable way to meet needs is by spending money, that sets up an order in which the wealthier members of the group become the benefactors of the poorer members. One potential remedy to this problem could be to channel all monetary gifts through a common discretionary fund to alleviate some of the perception of financial imbalances between group members, although it would also introduce additional administrative complexities to provide appropriate financial accountability.

In addition, because we live in a capitalistic society where the fundamental status symbol is money, it would likely be difficult to re-shape cultural norms to equalize the perceived value of non-financial contributions with those of the financial ones, so this may not be an adequate solution for many groups.

There are alternative ways to think about serving one another in an online context.

First would be to consider the myriad gifts that different members are able to contribute. In Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ, he demonstrates that each part of the body has a different and necessary contribution to the function of the whole. Similarly, each individual in an online community has a valuable contribution to make. For some, that may mean giving financially, but others may contribute technological assistance, prayer and counsel, or coordination of group activities.

Another method of contribution would be to take advantage of extended social networks beyond the boundaries of the online ecclesial community. If a member of the church needs help that cannot be met online, fellow church members could recruit assistance from their broader social media connections—with the vastness of online networks today, there is a good chance that these extended networks have contacts near the geographic location of the need and would be able to connect the person in need with one or more helpful resources.

Through these methods, as well as the continuing development of new ways of integrating digital technology into the physical world, our society has an incredible potential to create authentic digital communities.

Similar groups are already forming on nearly every social media channel, but most of them are shaped by their commitment to other causes such as neighborhood affiliations, shared traumas or experiences, and professional or recreational activities.

The foundation has already been laid for online communities that are genuine reflections of the cruciformity to which Paul called the church in Corinth, so let us turn now to examine the ways such an ecclesial community might be structured in order to foster groups that embody the wisdom of God in a digital context.

To see the footnotes for this chapter, please download the full ebook.