Is Online Church Real Church?
It's real, but it's not enough. A full church experience requires flesh-and-blood people to share physical space together.

The church needs to be more digital. For small churches especially, the digital world can level the playing field, giving us a broader reach and wider ministry impact.

As I wrote in The Gatekeepers are Gone: What’s Holding Your Ministry Back?, we need more churches taking advantage of online services, podcasts, livestreaming, social media, blogging, you name it.

Online church is not just necessary, it’s important, even essential. The speed, convenience and world-wide reach of the internet is a wonderful tool. The digital world is a great place to network about faith.

Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face. Digital reality cannot replace actual reality.

But church will never be entirely digital. Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face. Digital reality cannot replace actual reality.

(UPDATE: This article was written and published in 2017. I've been culling some old blog posts for a new project, and I keep running across articles that could have been written for our current situation during the COVID19 lockdown of 2020. This is one of them.)

Real Church, But Not Enough Church

I’ve heard people complain that online church isn’t real church. I disagree. Online church is real church for a lot of people. Especially for those who are restricted from attending church IRL (In Real Life) because of handicaps, geography, work schedules, and more.

Online church is real church, but it’s not enough church.

There are some aspects of church that we can get online, like teaching, worship, even conversation. Some churches have online pastors who are available to answer questions, receive prayer requests and lead people to Christ. That’s real church!

But there are a lot of aspects of a full church experience that require flesh-and-blood people to actually hang out in the same physical space together.

From receiving communion, to laying on hands for prayer, to working out our conflicts, a full church experience requires our physical, human presence.

What If The Church Was Invented Today?

A couple years ago, I saw a commercial for an electric car. The ad was built around the question “What if the car was invented today?” The answer, not surprisingly, was that there’s no way we would be running our cars on fossil fuels. It would be as unimaginable as computers having a gas tank. It ended with the tag line, “The question isn’t why electric?, it’s why gas?”

We need to ask those kinds of questions about how we do church. Questions like, “Why are we doing it this way?” don’t undermine the church, they’re essential for our future.

But, just like you can change some things in cars (gas to electric), there are some things you can’t change (having only two wheels) if you still want to call it a car instead of a motorcycle.

If the church was starting today, would most of our church experiences be in buildings dedicated to that purpose? In houses? Or online? I think we’d be doing it predominantly digitally, secondly in houses.

Certainly, we’d also have some dedicated buildings for that purpose, since humans have always built structures for things that matter to us, but that mode of worship would probably be as rare as digital church is today. And it would feel just as strange to most of us.

The Church Must Be Analog

The church needs to use technological tools far better than we currently do. After all, you can’t “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) without using all the tools at our disposal.

But, while you can do a lot of the aspects of real church digitally, you also need to go analog.

While you can do a lot of the aspects of real church digitally, you also need to go analog.

Tom Peters is a huge supporter of technological communication, but he believes the digital world makes flesh-and-blood meetings more important, not less. In his book, The Pursuit of Wow!, Peters quotes Mark McCormack, who advises business executives to “fly 3,000 miles for a five-minute meeting.”

I think the same advice applies to church.

Church Shouldn’t Be Too Easy

It matters that worship and fellowship intrudes on our schedule.

Church should cost us something. Things that cost nothing, mean nothing.

It may be convenient to not have to leave the house, learn people’s names, or negotiate through personality conflicts for IRL church, but that inconvenience is a bare minimum sacrifice that we should be making if we are physically able to do so.

Jesus Put Skin On – So Should We

Recent studies have shown that people who talk about doing things are less likely to actually do them because when we talk about it, we trick our minds into thinking we’ve actually done something about it.

The same goes for the internet. When we surf through a few church websites, watch a worship song on YouTube and comment on a Christian blog, we feel like we’ve done more church than we actually have.

Even God found it necessary to become incarnate so he could live physically among us.

Jesus didn’t come to earth because he needed to download more information about the human condition. Despite having infinitely more knowledge about us than the internet will ever pretend to have, God became human and “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) because that’s how God became real to us. With a name, a face and a physical presence.

If God needed to do that with us, we need to do that with each other.

Being in the same room matters. It’s where church becomes even more real.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

September 12, 2017 at 9:20 AM

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