Why We Should Think About Online Churches

October 25, 2020
Since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, many churches have begun streaming their worship services online. But what would it look like for us to actually engage our communities in online community? Is this even something we should be talking about?

The Online Church

The church has a long history of adapting to cultural and technological contexts. As the first Christian communities sprang up in the first century, the apostle Paul helped form them by using letters as a technology of sorts to communicate with Christians across regions, social class, and time. His use of media to shape early churches can help us understand the potential of online connection to cultivate an authentic, digital Christian community.

Music used to be an intimate, communal experience. Before Spotify, before CDs, before cassette tapes, before eight tracks, and before phonographs, music was played in bars, in concert halls, and in family gatherings around a piano or guitar. The first electrical audio recordings, a technology developed in the 1930s, were reproductions of the live music experience—they enabled people to sit in their libraries, close their eyes, and, although they might be alone, imagine themselves in a concert hall filled with people listening to a brilliant cellist.

The advent of audio recordings began an evolution of the nature of music itself. Most recorded music today no longer simulates a concert experience; instead, the record has typically become the standard musical experience and concerts have sought to simulate that recorded performance.

Most of our music today is created digitally on computers in a studio without any instruments at all, and, from its very beginning, is divorced from the interactivity of a live performance.

When we think about music today, we often do so in terms of the personal experience of streaming our individualized Spotify playlists into our earbuds, rather than thinking about the communal experience of participating in the creation and consumption of music with other people.

Oral Cultures, Writing, and the Internet

As much as music was transformed by the invention of recordings, it pales in comparison to the degree to which the world is being transformed by the proliferation of the internet.

When the internet was invented in the mid-1980s, our world entered a seismic paradigm shift that is now fundamentally re-shaping the way we view the world, understand ourselves, and interact with others.

The impact of digital interconnectivity may best be understood by comparing it to the way primary oral cultures were revolutionized by the invention of writing. Walter Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy, argues that our minds have been so formed by the written word that the act of writing has actually changed the way we process, store, and reference information—even when we speak. In 1982, he wrote that,

Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.

Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

He also describes how difficult it is for us to conceive of a culture that has no written words:

The purely oral tradition or primary orality is not easy to conceive of accurately and meaningfully. Writing makes “words” appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed “words” in texts and books. Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit.

Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

Our entrance into a world of digital communication promises a similar kind of revolution that is already changing some of the basic frameworks of our consciousness, such as how we understand ourselves, how we experience ourselves in community, and how we as a culture make sense of all the information that now flows between us.

We are still in the infancy of this paradigmatic shift, and its outcome is not yet determined—we cannot yet see the ways in which this shift is impacting us. Discussing the changing nature of digital media and communities, A. K. M. Adam wrote in an email to Lutheran pastor Clint Schnekloth, “We don’t have a perspective on the changes in which we’re participating.”

Shaping the Future of Online Community

Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, argues that we, as participants in this world of converging new media, are responsible for shaping the future of digital existence. As Christians, if we believe in the timelessness of the gospel of Christ, and if we want to see the world become the new creation described in Scripture, we cannot be content to passively watch the future be shaped; we must be actively engaged in drawing this new paradigm as a place for the embodiment of the kingdom of God.

To do that, we also must be both optimistic and pragmatic about the potential of online connectivity. If we mire ourselves in fear of the internet’s dangers, we can only be late-adopters of its opportunities and will be unable to contribute in a positive way to its formation; if we see only the possibilities of the internet, we are likely to fall prey to its dangers.

Where We're Going

In the blog series you are reading right now, which was originally the thesis for my Master's degree from Central Seminary, I am attempting to lay a balanced foundation for the church to embrace the digital world as a positive extension of ourselves.

I begin with the assumption that the church can, will, and should exist within the digital sphere in one way or another, and I try to center that conversation on the earliest Christian understandings of what it means to be the church.

The apostle Paul used letters—the most advanced communication medium of his day—as one of his critical tools for shaping the life and future of the churches he founded. His letters allowed him to extend the influence of his teachings far beyond what he could accomplish in person; they allowed him to communicate with Christians across regions, across social strata, and (whether he intended it or not) across time as his words were shared with neighboring communities and passed down to subsequent generations. He used media to connect with groups all over the known world.

The analogy between Paul’s letters and the digital media of our own era is imperfect—as we ought to expect in comparing media and cultures separated by two millennia—but Paul's work of the church is nonetheless a rich resource for guiding our adoption of social media to enrich both our localized and our global faith community.

Rather than applying his methods and messages directly to our new context, though, we must translate them in ways that remain faithful to his vision of the church and make sense of them within our own emerging paradigm.

Paul's Letters Provide a Model

A full consideration of Paul’s mediated communication with his churches would be greater than the scope of this work allows, so our study will concentrate on his correspondence with the church in Corinth. The two surviving letters are well-suited for our purposes for a number of reasons:

  • Scholars are confident that Paul was the actual author of them,
  • There was a long-lasting, complex relationship between Paul and his readers, and
  • Paul addressed a wide range of relevant situations and messages in these two letters.

In addition to the biblical text, we will consider the modern trajectory of media as an agent of social change, a study which blends rhetorical criticism, communication theory, and technological innovation.

Online + Church

The challenge, then, is to outline an ecclesiology that can exist within the context of our emerging digital world—to sketch what an online church might look like today and tomorrow. As we begin this conversation, we ought to give some definition to two key words: “online” and “church.”

Online

When we discuss online church, we do not do so purely from a perspective of a technological achievement, but from that of the paradigm shift mentioned previously.

There are already a variety of books about how the local congregations could be enhanced by using emerging technologies as tools for growth, such as live-streaming worship services and using other kinds of connectional resources that augment or simulate a traditional, in-person community. These types of augmented experiences are based on the assumption that online worship should replicate the form of gathering experienced each Sunday in our pews.

Yet this approach fails on two counts.

First, because it presents technological adaptations as solutions—in a world where technology is evolving at a blindingly rapid rate—it is often obsolete as soon as it is published. The recommended tools no longer exist or, at the very least, no longer function they way they did a month ago.

Second, it fails to recognize the scale to which our culture is changing in response to technological advancement. New technology cannot be reduced to a new toolset, but must be recognized as the inauguration of an entirely new understanding of (and engagement in) the world.

We are not creating a simulated church, as if it were a replication of a material church within a virtual environment, but are asking how we might build a genuine manifestation of a Pauline ecclesiological community in the context of our digitally-connected future.

This distinction is subtle, perhaps, but important. It is similar to the difference between creating humanoid robots (replicating the embodiment of a human within a mechanized form) and creating smart home gadgetry (using artificial intelligence and digital interconnectivity to extend the daily functions of human existence). For the church to be the missional body it is called to be, we must grasp the future of the world in which we live and trace the trajectory of that reality to anticipate the strengths and needs it will introduce for coming generations.

We must cultivate a vision that sees the weaknesses of the shifting paradigm and empowers us to counteract it.

Church

The scope of an online church cannot be restricted to the context of a worship environment but, particularly when viewed through a Pauline lens, must encompass a full life of cruciform existence. When Paul discussed what it meant to follow Christ, he did not describe a weekly gathering, but a continual posture of participation in the cross of Christ, an active embodiment of giving oneself to the pursuit of reconciliation and the Spirit-empowered life that only comes through death.

Others have previously explored the potential of online worlds for ecclesial community, but that work has mostly focused on creating virtual modes of church that exist parallel to the traditional, material reality of the church. These “virtual” communities are often distinct worlds into which people enter for a time and then leave as they return to their “real” material lives.

While scientists recognize that there are not necessarily any neurological differences between the way our brain experiences an online community and a physical one, there are psychological differences in the ways we think about ourselves and others in the physical world and in the digital. Much like the misconception that the church is a building in which Christians worship on Sundays, these virtual world churches fail to integrate their community into the minute-by-minute existence of the body.

Digital: Extending Our World

In the emerging paradigm of online connectedness, we cannot view digital experiences as distinct from material existence—the online world permeates our daily life, and a useful digital ecclesiology must assume that there is no difference between our online and our material reality. The digital is an extension of our embodied existence, not a disembodiment of it.

This series, then, does not explore the potential of an online church as if the online were isolated from the material, but with the understanding that being online is one characteristic of what it means for us to be the church and that we ought to be an embodiment of Christ within that space just as we are in our physical lives. 

To that end, we will begin by considering the nature of online connectivity—specifically, the potential, limitations, and dangers of social media—before moving into an overview of the Pauline ecclesiology developed in 1 and 2 Corinthians, and then synthesizing the two into a sketch of what it might mean to be a digital church.


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

 

Randall J. Greene


My heart beats for my faith, my God, my wife, and our puppy. I am a web strategist by day, but I identify as a writer. Occasionally I also lead classes and conversation groups at my church. I completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

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