Communion Over the Internet?

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Communion Over the Internet?

In the original Jurassic Park film, the skeptical scientist Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, challenges the entire premise of bringing dinosaurs back to life.  He dryly observes that they were all so busy pursuing what they were able to do that they never stopped to wonder if they should.

The pastors at Meck have recently been wrestling with what, exactly, we are able to do online – and more importantly, should we do all that we’re able?

For example, online services have become a significant tool for sharing the message of Christ.  Far more than a tool to serve active attenders who are home with a sick child, traveling for work or on vacation, we’ve found that countless numbers of people are more open to watching us online than they are to actually attend.  But then, after watching us online, they make the transition to physical presence and involvement with the community.

We’ve worked hard on our online experience.  There is an active chat room where a pastor is present and ready to engage.  People can offer prayer requests, download the scriptures and message notes, and, of course, view the service in its entirety.  It is highly interactive, and we’ve worked hard to make it so.  For those who attend, it’s very much like, well, attending.

But we recently ended our monthly “First Wednesday” services, where we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and moved our celebration of communion to select weekends.  Suddenly we were faced with something new:  should we offer communion over the internet? 

When we recently had a baptism service, we had online guests in our area race to the campus to join in and be baptized.  That was no problem.  But do we take the initiative and suggest they baptize themselves in their home, as part of the internet service, in the spirit of the moment?  And when we offer communion, do we suggest they get up from their computers, go to the kitchen, and get some juice and bread and take it with us?

Two gut reactions reared their heads: 

First, we always wanted the internet service to feel and function as much like a service as possible, so excluding people attending in that way from any aspect of the service seemed counter to our goals.  And the thought of it made us sad.  There can be, and often is, real community online – and around our online services.  It’s not just a video to watch.  It would be deeply disappointing if our internet campus attenders were not able to fully participate in any aspect of the service.

The second, more lasting reaction was that communion was in a unique category.  Offering it online seemed to take away from its nature as a sacrament in and for a community of faith.  Biblically, the Supper was meant to be done as a gathered church, with deep communal overtones (for example, taking time to examine yourself in terms of the level of your relational unity with others in the body).

I thought one of our pastors gathered our collective misgivings well in this email sent to me on the matter:

I'm a little torn, and a little surprised that I am, being a proponent of the creative use of technology in the church. 

It is hard to imagine virtual baptism, no matter how well-intentioned. So, too, communion. You have said that the sacraments are symbols, but the symbols do matter. And I believe their context matters as well.

While I think that, while the online experiences (messages, worship, virtual community chat rooms as a part of online worship, etc.) are a valid means of exploration (within the context of how we utilize them at Meck), they are only avatars, standing in place of real experiences and real people.  An inquisitive skeptic could find them useful as she searches through Christian beliefs and practices, but a growing follower of Christ would find online gatherings a less-than-satisfying placeholder as he "works out his salvation".

I believe what we do offers a companion to, but not a substitute for, an authentic spiritual community.

I don't think that our intent to provide an online experience could extend to providing an authentic online representation of communion, or baptism, or a few other things that we have used in our weekend services. Again, I think it goes back to my belief that we offer a companion to, not a substitute for, spiritual community. It's one thing to have affinities (gaming, sports, software, the Bible) for which there are virtual communities to discuss, defend, and explore: I don't require your presence in my life to gain information or convey my thoughts. So, I'm OK with Bible study being a tool for online use. Maybe even small groups to a degree (… what is it for: information, support, other?)

But church is different. Maybe if that is your only option - due to physical, resource, or geographic limitations - but that would be an individual case.

Even so, baptism and communion are not so conveniently exported to virtual participation.

There is much more that could be said about the Supper theologically that is relevant to both sides of this matter.  But for now, we’ve made a decision.

We’re able to offer communion online.

We just stopped long enough to agree we shouldn’t.

James Emery White

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Communion Over the Internet?