Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cyber Christianity: The Church of the Future?

By Todd Matocha*
Is an exclusively online church a viable option for Christians? This is a question generating much discussion at the moment. The computer is now a part of our everyday life. Many in our congregations socialize more by sending text messages or commenting on Facebook than in person. Whether we like it or not, online socialization has arrived. How will it affect our churches?

Blogging and Cyberchurch

There is a rapidly growing movement within the Christian community promoting the idea of an exclusively online church. This movement is becoming more organized and influential. In March 2009, a group committed to the development of cyber churches met in London. Among those present were representatives from the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Both organizations have already launched their own versions of an online church. However, the push is especially strong within the world of Christian bloggers.

What is a blog? A blog (short for “web log’) is a website that operates like a journal. The host of the site posts short articles, and online visitors can add comments. Blogs encourage conversation and engage participants in dialogue. The heart and soul of the Christian blog is continuous, real time communication, which allows participants freely and actively to discuss various issues relating to the Christian faith.

In his provocatively titled work, “We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church,”[i] Tim Bednar sees the increasing popularity of blogging as “an impending sea change for pastors and the church.” He goes on, “We are not just a new kind of Christian or an ‘emerging church’ fad. We are a new kind of preacher, theologian, pundit, apologist and church-goer. The phenomenon of blogging is transforming our expectations of church.”  Bednar’s desire is to see a new community formed to cultivate spiritual development without the limitations of time, buildings and pastors.

Bednar and bloggers who share his convictions want a church shaped by the technological advancements of our age. The primary means of grace, leading to spiritual maturity, is dialogue through blogging. According to Bednar, it is a “new kind of church created by believers transformed by their use of the Internet. Their so-called virtual life is changing them and in turn, they will change the church.”

What is Driving the Demand for Change?

Bednar argues that the invention of the Internet is the basis for this new philosophy. Technological changes necessitate a rethinking of how we do church. Is this really the case? What developments have the Internet brought to the human race that necessitate a departure from the church life of Christians in the past?

Sure, the Internet connects us to a global community and allows instantaneous, real-time communication. Sure, all these benefits are received by the average person; you don’t need to hold a degree in computer science to use the Internet. As a result, we have greater resources and opportunities to spread the Christian message. This is all very positive.

However, the basic forms of communication known to mankind are the same now as they were in any given age: oral, sign and written. These forms were available to Moses, Paul and Calvin. What has changed is the means of communication. Moses communicated the written word on stone tablets, Paul used scrolls, and Calvin promoted reform using printed books. Now we use electronic means/methods to communicate instantaneously and globally. We communicate better, but not differently. We are still using speech, sign and written word.

Although some claim technological advancement as the basis for change, it is difficult to understand why. What is it about electronic means of communication that demand a change in the way we think about the church? The invention of the printing press did not lead the reformers to rethink the church. Instead, it drove them back to the origins of the church. They were not interested in the emergence of a new church but in repentance and reformation in an unfaithful church.

The great need of our day is a return to apostolic ecclesiology. Ignorance about the biblical doctrine of the church, not advancements in technology, it seems, is driving the demand for change.

Desiring a Subhuman Church

Apart from leaving out people who are not, and perhaps never could be, computer literate, one characteristic of the online church is that it restricts physical communion and fellowship. By its very nature, it is devoid of physical, face-to-face interaction. The world of the Internet accommodates a part of us but not the whole man. This is a great weakness.

God created us as body and soul. In Genesis, God reveals that we consist of material (out of dust) and spiritual (breathed life into us) elements. This is basic to the Christian understanding of human nature. Many of those promoting cyberchurch tend to emphasize the spiritual aspect of man to the neglect of the physical.

According to the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, “Man has a ‘spirit’, but that spirit is psychically organized and must, by virtue of its nature, inhabit a body. It is of the essence of humanity to be corporeal and sentient. Hence, man’s body is first (if not temporally, then logically) formed from the dust of the earth and then the breath of life is breathed into him. He is called ‘Adam’ after the ground from which he is formed.”[ii]  An environment that has no place for the physical is subhuman.

What implications does this doctrine have on the church? Primarily, it dictates how we worship God. Worship involves the whole man, not just the spiritual part. Thus, true worship must be offered to God in body and soul.

This is easily demonstrated in the Old Testament, because worship was connected to a physical location, the temple. However, the New Testament seems to provide for more freedom in worship. Jesus tells us the restrictions of Old Testament worship will be abolished; now we worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). Is Jesus opening the door for spiritual, as opposed to bodily, worship? Is he giving the church liberty to introduce cyberworship?

The reference to worship in spirit is not in opposition to worship in body. It most probably refers to Trinitarian worship. In the New Testament era, we worship God as he is fully revealed as Triune. We worship the Father in the Holy Spirit and in Truth, a term used by John to speak of Jesus.[iii]  Yet, we worship Him as men, whole men, body and soul.

The importance of bodily worship is clear in the New Testament. We continue to worship using the concept of a temple. The temple is no longer in Jerusalem; it is now every believer. To be specific, the temple is the body of every believer. Our body is a “member of Christ” and is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:15, 19). Paul is speaking of the physical body, not something virtual. The context makes this abundantly clear. He is exhorting the Corinthians to refrain from engaging their bodies in immoral sexual acts because the body is united to Christ. It is this bodily temple in which or by which we worship God.

This is also seen in the “coming together” idea spoken of in the New Testament. Paul speaks of the Corinthians coming together “as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). He goes on to define this gathering by the terms “in one place” (1 Cor. 11: 20) and “to eat” (1 Cor. 11:20,33). They meet in a physical location to perform a physical act, namely eating the Lord’s Supper. Paul highlights the corporeal nature of the Corinthian church. The New Testament continues to insist upon assembling in person but no longer calls Christians to go to Jerusalem. Now we worship wherever believers are physically gathered.

Denying the Sensual in the Sacraments

Christian worship involves the whole man, body and soul. It also appeals to all the physical senses. The worshipper hears the word sung, prayed, and preached. In addition, Christ gave His people a visible and tangible word. In the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the senses of touch, smell, and sight are engaged. The whole man fully participates.

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” [book iv, ch. 1. Sect. 9] Does cyberchurch offer this?

It would not be surprising to hear of an online church offering virtual communion, but is that a sacrament administered according to Christ’s institution? Virtual bread and wine benefit us as much as a virtual Christ dying on a virtual cross. The very purpose of the sacraments is that they are physical, tangible and concrete. They are sensual signs that confirm, support and nurture our faith.

This is not to say that the way we understood the church before the invention of the Internet was better. It is not a qualitative distinction. The historic understanding is the only way to view the church. Cyberchurch is not, nor ever can be, a viable option.

Devaluing the Unique Place and Authority of the Local Church and Local Church Elders

Another common feature of the online Christian community is the emphasis on the universal church to the neglect of the local church. Cyberchurches boast of having members from all over the world. One of the distinguishing marks of Bednar’s participatory Church is that Christians belong to multiple congregations. The local church is marginalized; it is all about globalization.

Closely connected to the denial of the local church is an aversion to church authority structures. Bednar wrote, “The dominant theme to emerge from my research is that bloggers value this medium because they can participate without being filtered by church structures, denominational restrictions or even doctrinal impurity. We have grown tired of pastors being the gatekeepers of what is important.” He seems to think that the blogging community values being able to say what they want to whom they want without accountability. This may be the biggest problem facing Christian bloggers, whether they agree with Bednar or not.

New Testament writers speak highly of the local church and local church elders. According to apostolic practice recorded in Acts, churches were set up in cities and towns throughout the Roman world. These local churches were in some way “lacking” until elders were appointed (see Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5). Paul speaks of elders as gifts sent by Jesus to protect the church from error and bring the church to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-16). It sounds somewhat similar to what Bednar derogatorily calls gatekeepers.

Jesus Christ cares for His church through duly appointed and ordained elders. This is the teaching of the New Testament. The Apostle Peter exhorts younger people to submit themselves to their local church elders because he views local church elders as Shepherds of the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2 & 5). Bednar’s view of the church directly contradicts apostolic teaching.

Also, the local church is unique in that it creates an environment for spiritual nurture designed for a specific people living in a specific cultural context. The universal church is unable to provide such an intensely personal environment for discipleship. For example, Paul exhorted Titus to appoint elders in the Cretan church who understood Cretan culture. Such men were ideally suited to address the specific needs of that local church. Similarly, Christ addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3) according to their unique strengths and weaknesses. He spoke to them individually, not generally. He spoke to them as unique local churches.

Things to Consider

Opportunities for the church abound in the online world. We should not minimize this. However, we should not allow technological progress to lead to ecclesiological regress. We must learn how to embrace new means of communication in a God-honouring way. How can this be done?

Many of the problems we face in the online Christian community arise because we are not clear in our own minds about the biblical doctrine of the church. Elders and pastors need to teach their congregations about the church. Individual Christians need to study the church. Read through Acts and the apostolic epistles looking for information about the church. You may be surprised how important this doctrine was to the apostles.

If you have a blog, then make it a priority to communicate the glorious doctrine of the church. Let people who visit your site know where you stand and why you think an exclusively online church is unbiblical. Also, communicate the importance of the local church and the necessity for all Christians to belong to a local body of believers.

One of the greatest dangers facing Christian bloggers is the lack of accountability. Remember, blogging is a public forum, not a private conversation. If you blog, inform your elders and welcome their oversight. This is especially relevant for young, technologically savvy Christians. “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders.” (1 Peter 5:5)

If you are a pastor, you might consider starting a blog in connection with your local church. It could be added to your church website. Why? Many Christians, possibly even some from your church, are being spiritually fed and led by non-ordained men. According to the most popular Christian blogsite is run by a non-ordained man. Fortunately, he has a high view of the church and has placed himself under the authority of his local church elders. However, shouldn’t those who are appointed by the Holy Spirit to teach and preach, those who act as the mouthpiece of Christ, be involved in Christian discipleship wherever it is taking place?

As we grapple with how to make the most of modern technology, let us learn to use electronic means of communication to the benefit and strengthening of Christ’s church.

[i] Tim Bednar, “We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers Are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church”, April 22, 2004, (accessed 4 August 2009)
[ii] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 559.
[iii] For a fuller discussion on this point see Robert Letham on The Holy Trinity, Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, NJ, page 415ff and D. A. Carson The Gospel According to John, in The Pillar New Testament Commentary, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, UK, page 224ff. 

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd Matocha is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff, Wales (a member church of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales).  This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of Evangelicals Now (UK). Reprinted by permission of the author.