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'Virtual Church' — Really?

Bob Burney

'Virtual Church' — Really?

Technology and its use or non-use has always been a hot topic in church circles. Every time something new comes along, church leaders debate whether it is appropriate to use the “latest and greatest.” Electric organs were either wonderful or demonic, and then it was microphones and sound systems. After all, if God wanted us to use microphones why did He create preachers with big mouths?

The debate over technology is not new — but the stakes are. There has always been the cry that “we will change the method, but we cannot change the message,” but whatever the change in method, the basic paradigm of local churches has remained the same: You went to church.

The buildings where you went to church varied dramatically from church to church and what you discovered inside was as different as the physical structure, but still, you went to a location where you met your brothers and sisters in Christ face to face, raised your voices together in worship and heard a message from God’s Word. There might be big screens on the wall — or not. The music might be contemporary, traditional or a blend. There might be drums — or not. Now there are “mother churches” and satellite churches. There are campuses and worship/activity buildings. The pastor might wear a suit and tie or jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. But whatever the worship style, whatever the dress of the pastor and congregation — you gathered together at a central location as Christians have been doing since the birth of the church. That’s all about to change. Potentially.

Enter social media. The argument is now more than just methods, style and technology. It is no longer a question of how we “do church.” It is now “What is the church?” Introducing the “Internet church.” It is now possible to create an entirely virtual church by using the Internet and any number of social media outlets. We have long had “radio churches” and “TV churches” but those have never really been serious competitors with “real” churches — and for the most part they have been simply broadcasts of local churches primarily aimed at those who cannot make it to the Sunday services — or an evangelistic outreach to the unchurched in the hopes of reaching them and bringing them into the services of the church.

Cropping up all over the Web now are “churches” that “meet” only on the Internet. Is this a wonderful new use of technology, a direct attack on local churches or something in between? Is it just new or nefarious? It’s definitely new. It could be close to nefarious. Allow me to explain.

According to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 12 and other places, the church of Jesus Christ is today the Body of Christ. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, physically. Although He is omnipresent as part of the Godhead, He is not on earth physically today — but the church is. The Church has become the hands of Christ, the ears of Christ, the mouth of Christ, etc. All who are a part of the church are “members” appointed as the Holy Spirit desires. A local church working together is a beautiful thing. All the “parts” work together to make up the entire body doing the work and bidding of Christ. In order for this to work, Jesus constructed an awesome “organism” with a specific organization. Within that structure there is enormous room for variety and uniqueness but there are several non-negotiables that a virtual church simply cannot meet.

A church must have leadership. There are many models that have been used by churches through the centuries, but they have more in common than disagreement. Pastors, elders, deacons who are charged with the oversight of the congregation — in fact, that’s one of the meanings for elders: "overseers."

Leadership leads to accountability. That accountability varies from congregation to congregation but accountability is a biblical necessity. A virtual/Internet church can very well be the outworking of the idea of one individual regardless of their character, training, doctrine or experience. On the Internet you can be or become anyone you want to be. Who knows who this “pastor” is?  To whom is he or she accountable to? Who “rebukes” them should it become necessary as scripture requires?

A biblical church is a place of fellowship. It’s a place where you can share your joys and burdens with other believers. Can’t you do that on the Internet? If you’ve ever spent much time on Facebook or other social media sites you know how easily it is for hard, cold, typed words to be misunderstood. You can’t hear the inflection in the voice, you can’t see the facial expression, and you can’t gauge the intent of the heart. It’s somewhat artificial, it’s anonymous and as with the “leaders,” you can be anything or anyone that you want to be. While there are phonies in churches and often people wear masks, the potential for artificiality on the Internet is a hundred-fold the potential of face to face fellowship.

A church needs discipline. There are numerous references in the New Testament to individuals who needed to be disciplined by a local body of believers. A large majority of the book of 1 Corinthians deals with discipline of individuals — and discipline of an entire church! How do you discipline in a virtual church? How do you maintain any kind of purity in a congregation that exists only in the ether of electronic media? Hmm — maybe that’s why virtual churches are becoming so popular!

The church needs to about the Great Commission.  The Great Commission is a vital part of the purpose of every church on the planet. We are commanded to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to disciple and baptize converts. Now, how do you suggest that this is accomplished virtually? With virtual water? It’s clear from Acts 13 that every local church is to be involved in sending out members of their church to evangelize their world. The leaders in Antioch, after prayer and fasting, thrust out Barnabas and Paul who began the modern mission’s movement that continues today. A church that does not take the Great Commission seriously is no church.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe we should use every bit of new technology possible to for Kingdom work. I would not have been on the side of those who called electronic organs demonic. Bring on the giant screens, the power point — and yes, use the social media! Use Facebook, Twitter or whatever else to engage your congregation, to communicate with them, to reach the lost. Tweet all you want!  Let small groups use Facebook to share blessings and prayer requests. But we cannot abandon the basics of the New Testament church for the sake of convenience or just to be with-it. By definition, virtual means “simulated” or “existing only online.” God wants a church that’s real, flesh-and-blood, genuine, Biblical and authentic.  Can “virtual” do that? Not so much.

Bob Burney is Salem Communications’ award-winning host of “Bob Burney Live,” heard weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio. Contact Bob at [email protected].

Publication date: November 18, 2011