The morning comes too quickly. Barely awake, you drag out of bed to get ready to go to school or church or work. You don't remember much about the ride, it is almost as if you warped to your destination. Just when you walk into the business meeting or get up to give your book report, you realize you aren't wearing any clothes! Your body jolts as you snap back to reality (thanks for the line, Eminem) and realize that you were having a nightmare. Everyone has had that dream or one like it, but modern technology is making it a less-terrifying reality.
Online courses really hit the scene in the late 1990's. Soon these popular, user-friendly programs made schools like Strayer University and University of Phoenix multi-million dollar educational operations. Now, people go to school without their clothes on everyday. Advances in occupational networking and increased commute times leads many employers to offer telecommuting to employees. Telecommuters can simply roll out of bed and attend virtual meetings in pre-shower pajamas.
The one place that has not gone fully e-friendly was the Church - until now. With the emergence of online communities like Church on the Net and i-Church, one can join and be active in a "church" without ever meeting the pastor or stepping foot in a building. These bonified, non-profit church communities come with many of the benefits of traditional churches: a pastor, opportunities to give, electronic places to interact with others and resources for growth in Christ. They are even affiliated with reputable denominations, and both have healthy budgets respective to conventional church plants.
The appearance of these churches raise at least a couple of questions for Christian leaders. First, there is the question of competition. These churches will appeal to time-constrained individuals looking for a church they can custom fit to their schedule. There is also the question of competance. Can these churches fulfill the obligations of a New Testament church?
I don't really find the first question all that enticing. After all, if church leaders sit around all day and worry about every new kid on the block, they will likely lose their focus and their minds. The second question is quite important, and that is where I would like to get some insight. Let me give you my thoughts and you can give me yours.
I can think of at least two crucial church obligations that a fully online community would not be able to fulfill: discipleship and fellowship. Perhaps you'd make the case that these churches could do both to some degree. For example, through reading articles and assigning virtual accountability partners the church could disciple others, and through chat rooms and online communities it could assist in online fellowship.
Yet even a full utilization of available technologies would only achieve a shadow of these things. For example, it is hard to imagine Peter, James and John developing into the spiritual giants they became had they only known Jesus electronically.
While we find no direct Biblical mandate for church membership, we do find some guidelines. The author of Hebrews, for example, tells us not to neglect gathering together, and he certainly is referring to a physical fellowship. However, there were no first century computers, so to draw the conclusion that electronic fellowship is prohibited seems to use the text to answer a question the author was not asking.
All things considered, I think an online church would be acceptable in a few cases. For example, a missionary with no access to a local body or perhaps as an accessory to a local body. But this is not a viable substitute for the local church.
What do you think is required to be considered "a church?"
Would you be open to attending a church like this?
Additional reading? Try "Revolution" by George Barna
(I am doing some research for a RELEVANT article. Comments may appear in print.)