The trend toward online church “campuses” as a legitimate option to live church must come to an end. If a church has started an online or “virtual” church campus as an alternative to an “in the flesh” gathering of a church community, it must desist. If an eager, entrepreneurial church planter is thinking about launching a virtual church, he needs to stop. If an impressionable saint things that he or she can satisfy the mandate to assemble together (Heb 10:25) by logging into an online worship service, he or she needs to turn think again.
Because, simply put, virtual church is anti-church.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about authentic local churches that provide their messages online in order to provide an inspirational or educational resource to those in the congregation or around the world. I don’t even mean those churches that broadcast or stream their services live for shut-ins or others who aren’t able to make it occasionally to the worship service. I’m talking specifically about churches that “meet” exclusively online or those that have a part of their “membership” participating in the church exclusively online. I’m talking about online-only “campuses” promoted by churches as viable, authentic church experiences among other options in their church campus repertoire.
I know that for some church leaders reading this, it’s too late. They rushed in without thinking this thing through biblically and theologically. They were so used to using the newest ever-changing technology to deliver the never-changing message that they simply took the next logical step. Or they got swept up in the “keeping up with the St. Jones’s” rat race and had to provide the same services that competing big-box churches were providing. Whatever the case may be, some churches have swallowed the virtual church model and see nothing wrong with it. In fact, this article already has them fuming.
To a certain degree, those who have fallen into the pit of the online church aren’t entirely at fault. Before any evangelical could end up careening over the cliff into legitimizing an exclusively online church campus, his or her evangelical tradition had to have taken four wrong turns in its ecclesiology. Without these four turns—of which most modern evangelicals are at least partially guilty—no right-minded Christian would ever imagine granting validity to a “virtual church” ministry. These are the turns toward “sermo-centrism,” “anti-sacramentalism,” “fan-ification,” and “neo-docetism.”
To help think biblically, theologically, and historically about the disastrous rise of the online anti-church, we need to examine these four false turns more closely.
Sermo-centrism: Reducing Church to the Message
However, a well-rounded biblical worship service could never be reduced to the sermon. In the apostolic church, weekly worship also included confession of sins to one another, corporate prayers, singing of hymns with and to one another, the public reading of Scripture, a message exhorting believers toward love and good works, an offering of food or money for the poor, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper as a rite of personal and corporate spiritual renewal. In fact, neither the New Testament nor the early church ever regarded the sermon as the exclusive center, climax, or purpose of the Sunday morning gathering of the church.
When the purposes of “gathering together” as a church are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, they include the following: to exhibit unity of the community by properly observing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–21, 33–34); to exercise spiritual gifts for the edification of the whole body (1 Cor 14:23–26); to pray for urgent matters (Acts 4:34); to report ministry endeavors (Acts 14:27); to discuss controversial doctrinal and practical matters (Acts 15:6); to read apostolic writings (Acts 15:30); to break bread and provide instruction in the faith (Acts 20:7); to exercise church discipline for the purification of the local congregation (1 Cor 5:4); to encourage one another toward love and good works (Heb 10:25); to confess our sins to each other (Jas 5:16). With this brief sampling, we see that the purposes of the physically gathered community and its leaders went far beyond the Sunday morning worship hour, and even that time could not be characterized as centering on a sermon.
From a historical perspective, the turn toward sermo-centrism occurred sometime after the Protestant Reformation during the age of revivalism, between about 1700 and 1900. During this time, itinerant preachers—often acquiring celebrity status—traveled from place to place, sometimes country to country, drawing crowds with dynamic evangelistic messages. They preached their fiery sermons from stages to filled fields or packed auditoriums. Everything centered on this proclamation. This revivalistic emphasis on the sermon soon made its way into our churches, which began to model their morning messages on the revivalist pattern—a lot of music to stir up the crowd followed by a long message designed to elicit responses from the hearers’ minds, hearts, and wills.
When many churches took the sermo-centric turn, however, all the other vital biblical elements of the gathered church were first diminished, then neglected, and eventually ignored or rejected—corporate prayer, church discipline, corporate confession of sin and forgiveness, and especially the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Today, the sermo-centric model of Sunday morning worship is virtually an unquestioned conviction of many evangelical churches. Our leaders and congregants simply lack the biblical and historical perspective to realize how far removed the sermo-centric model is from the worship experience established by the apostles and practiced by most Christians for centuries. (For an alternative to the Sermo-centric model, which I call the pulpit/altar-centered model, see chapter 10 of my RetroChristianity:Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith.)
By reducing the purpose of the gathered community to the delivery of the message, evangelicalism opened the door to delivering this core element of the church in ways that do not require the community to be physically gathered. Without the sermo-centric turn, the viability of online virtual church could not be entertained.
Anti-sacramentalism: Forsaking the Rites of Initiation and Renewal
The Lord’s Supper has suffered even more. There’s no question at all that the apostles and the early church observed the Lord’s Supper (or “communion” or “eucharist”) every week as an essential part of their corporate worship experience. It was a holy time of offering oneself as well as the gathered body as living sacrifices to God in humble consecration (Rom 12). The one bread not only represented, but tangibly manifested, the unity of the one body gathered to partake together (1 Cor 10:17). Members of the church were not merely gathered to hear the Word read and preached. They were called upon to come forward, having confessed the wrongs toward one another and toward God, bearing an offering of love for others, and consecrating themselves to live a life of righteousness in response to the Word read and preached. So when evangelicals neglected the biblical emphasis on personal and corporate renewal through weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, they lost a real, tangible, sanctifying experience of the faith designed to strengthen both individuals and the church.
Both of these biblical sacraments of the local church functioned not only as necessary means of covenant participation (baptism as initiation, communion as renewal) but also as means of exercising discipline and maintaining holiness in the community. At the time of their baptism, members of the church both confessed their saving faith in the Triune God and pledged their covenant commitment to live the Christian life in the accountability of the church community. Having made this pledge, believers in good standing continued to renew their pledge of living a Spirit-led life of repentance from wickedness and growth in righteousness by participating in the Lord’s Supper. Those who strayed from the path of righteousness were physically excluded from sharing in this holy meal, of which Christ Himself was the divine Host through the power of the Holy Spirit.
By forsaking the physical corporate rites of covenant initiation (baptism) and covenant renewal (the Lord’s Supper), or by replacing these biblical ordinances with less formal and less physical processes for church membership and re-dedication, evangelicalism opened the door a little farther for a virtual church model. Virtual churches cannot really baptize. They can’t really partake of the Lord’s Supper from one bread to represent the spiritual and physical unity of the one body. They can’t really exclude those under discipline from the Lord’s table or hold individual members of the body to their baptismal pledge of discipleship. So, without the anti-sacramental turn, the viability of online church could not have been entertained.
Fan-ification: Converting the Congregation into an Audience
We have seen that the gathered church engaged in corporate prayer, confession of sins to one another, mutual edification through hymns, teaching, reading Scripture, providing for needs, exercising spiritual gifts, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. If one were to express this kind of worship service in a diagram, it would take the form of a circle. As the members of the covenanted community focus together on the center of Jesus Christ’s person and work, they themselves manifested by their physical presence the gathered “body of Christ”—His physical corporate presence on earth.
However, especially in the twentieth century, the most influential, paradigm-setting, model churches could not be described as a circle, but as a pyramid. Atop this grand monument stands the celebrity preacher, the center and source of the entire operation. Oh, he points us to the Bible and to Jesus, but he does so in ways that necessarily keep our attention on the preacher himself. If he were to downplay his presence and shorten his message in order to re-instate the proper place of corporate prayer, observance of the sacraments, mutual encouragement and exhortation, reading of Scripture, and other less glamorous and less personality-driven activities of the church, the celebrity would necessarily lose his place in the limelight.
Let’s face it. The celebrity pastor has mostly displaced the table of the Lord’s Supper, which once focused the congregation on the incarnation of God the Son, His atoning death, His resurrection, and His abiding presence in the gathered community. Then the semi-biblical motivational messages, cleverly conceived and professionally performed, have turned the pulpit itself into a stage. The “service” is now a “production.” This production has become a brand. The church itself then becomes a franchise that can be packaged and distributed—marketed even. Branch campuses with piped-in productions eventually give way to streaming delivery of fast food spirituality that tastes sweet in the mouth as it sours the soul.
In the extreme form of this fake Christianity, the congregation is no longer defined as those covenanted members who gather frequently to commune with the Lord by communing with His corporate body on earth. Rather, the congregation has become a crowd of “fans” drawn to a brilliant preacher like dumb insects drawn to a shining light. And with the advent of live A/V feeds and online delivery methods, the growth of the fan base is almost limitless. With the fan-ification of the church, the congregation has become an audience focused on the latest evangelical luminary . . . or tuning in to hear from their gifted gospel-guru.
By converting the congregation into an audience, evangelicalism opened the door even farther to legitimizing the online church. Virtual church members are pure audiences, as their “participation” through online media is only observation. Even if the online watcher is prompted to pray, to sing, to eat a cracker and drink some juice, or to shout “Amen,” he or she is doing nothing more than what we all did when we answered Mr. Rogers’ questions or responded to kids’ shows like Blues Clues or Dora the Explorer. The difference is, the grown Christian should know better. So, without the fan-ification of the congregation, the idea of online church could never have gotten off the ground.
When the church is understood biblically and theologically as the body of Christ, this language necessarily assumes an orthodox incarnational Christology—that Jesus is fully human, fully divine (not one or the other), embodied (not a ghost), physical (not a phantom), real (not apparent), among us (not remote). For the church to reflect this incarnational reality of Christ as a mysterious extension of His corporate body on earth, the church must be embodied, physical, real, locally gathered, in the flesh.
An authentic gathering of the body of Christ on earth must be able to describe its corporate life in incarnational terms like those of 1 John 1:1—“What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” If I can merely hear and see the gathered body, but cannot touch and embrace its members, or feel, smell, and taste its sacraments, then it’s notan incarnational church but a docetic church. The word “docetism” means “appears to be” or “seems to be.” In fact, it’s the functional equivalent of the modern term “virtual,” which means “simulated,” or “opposite of real or physical.” The docetic heresy taught that Jesus Christ was only a “virtual” human. His humanity wasn’t real, wasn’t physical. He was “simulated” humanity. In the same vein, a docetic body of Christ would be a “virtual” church. Its corporate gathering wouldn’t be real, wouldn’t be physical. It would be “simulated” church. And just as virtual reality is 100% not real, virtual church is 100% not church.
In short, the docetic church is no more an acceptable alternative to an incarnational church than a docetic Christ is an acceptable alternative to the incarnate Christ. Just as the docetic Christ is an anti-Christ, the virtual church is an anti-church.
“Can” does not imply “ought.” The ability to do something does not mean it should be done. After evangelicalism as a whole took four distinct bad turns in the last few centuries, a growing number of over-zealous individuals and churches have taken the wheel and have driven their ministries headlong over a cliff. This has resulted in the docetic belief that an online church is a legitimate substitute for a real gathered congregation.
Evangelicals who are dedicated to biblical, theological, and historical renewal of the church must resist this madness. Let me suggest three ways we can do this.
First, stop promoting, supporting, and tolerating virtual churches or online-only campusus and those who are propagating them. Those who believe online churches can pass as real churches have by this very belief demonstrated that they are unqualified to shepherd a true incarnational church of Christ. They apparently do not have the biblical understanding, theological training, and historical perspective needed to lead the church out of its current crisis. They can only lead it faster toward its disintegration. Resist the temptation to start a virtual church or promote an online campus as a viable alternative to the gathering of the body. And run (don’t walk) from those who start them.
Second, retrace your steps and work at reversing the four bad turns that led to virtual church being regarded as even a plausible ministry move. Reverse the promotion of the non-incarnational church (neo-docetism), the conversion of the congregation into an audience (fan-ification), forsaking the rites of covenant initiation and renewal (anti-sacramentalism), and reducing church to the message (sermo-centrism). Each of these alone and all of them together have led to a number of ministry models that are serving to weaken, not strengthen, the already declining evangelical tradition.
Third, promote a full-bodied church ministry, aligned with biblical priorities, informed by historical realities, and strengthened by theological convictions. Don’t let pragmatism, peer-pressure, commercialism, popularity, numbers, and the bottom-line dictate your ministry models and methods. The modern technological gimmicks and games may appear to be bringing about success in your ministry, but this is only “virtual” success. In the end, anything short of an incarnational ecclesiology will lead your ministry to destruction.
For a biblically, theologically, historically, and practically viable antidote to these trends, consider working through my RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith.
[Originally published April 12, 2012 at www.retrochristianity.com]