Internet Community and the New Testament Church


We have all heard Jesus’ words quoted and misquoted a thousand times: “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). But can two or three gather together if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away? Can multiple believers fully and truly commune with each other electronically with the help of technology? And, more importantly, can a group of Christ-followers gather via the internet in a way that would build the type of community Jesus intended for a New Testament church?

Some would give a qualified “yes” to all of these questions and now regularly gather via the internet through fully-online churches.  Some of these churches are established, most have sizable congregations, many have healthy budgets and a few are backed by major denominations.

I-church (www.i-church.org) for example, has existed since 1994—a sign of viability for an internet community—and has around 300 faithful members. It is part of the historic Diocese of Oxford in the Church of England and was started as part of an initiative called “Cutting Edge.” Last year, the church collected thousands of dollars from their membership in addition to the grants they receive from the Diocese and others. I-church.org is not alone. There are dozens of others with even more support and larger membership. Alpha Church www.alphachurch.org) has about 6,000 regular online participants. That type of membership is a feat for any brick-and-mortar church, but is amazing for a low visibility internet community. Church on the Net or “CotN” (www.church-on-the-net.com), though not boasting as many members as Alpha Church, is a joint initiative between the Methodist Church and the Church of England.

It is hard not to be intrigued by these internet phenomena—these “e-kklesia”—and all the implications they bring, but before one considers their viability, we must first discuss their methodology. How exactly do these churches attempt to provide a sense of community to their congregations?

Convenient Community. It has been said that communities can grow anywhere that communication occurs, and as electronic communication has bloomed, electronic communities have sprouted. From MySpace, Facebook and Xanga to Second Life and Active Worlds, new community-oriented sites emerge almost daily, attracting millions upon millions. Devotees can log on at their convenience from anywhere with a connection and go do something else the minute they get bored.

Online churches operate on a similar platform. Once you join, you are given a login name and password that provides you access to the site’s ecclesiological products at any moment, day or night. Though each site offers its own operating system and unique services, they share in common the convenient access to a Christian community. The most basic offering from an online church is a worship service. I-church, for example, offers an electronic Chapel with worship and prayer three set times each day and additional services on special occasions. On Tuesday nights, they hold an “open house” with text-based teaching from a guest speaker.

I-church services are like most online churches in that they do not offer an evangelistic invitation of any kind. “We are not seeking to recreate a traditional form of church online but finding ways of being church which are appropriate to the medium and the people we attract,” says Pam Smith, a member of the I-church Council. “When people seek out church on the Internet they are looking for fellowship, pastoral care and/or an opportunity to explore faith with others.”

St. Pixels (www.stpixels.com), a Methodist work, is not vibrantly evangelistic either. However, they are seeking out a more creative forum for internet worship that will hopefully attract tech-savvy non-believers. In the near future, St. Pixels will offer a 3-D worship center where members will interact via avatars custom-made in each user’s likeness.

The only major online church with any evangelistic presence is the internet campus of Craig Groeschel’s LifeChurch.tv. Their internet campus (www.lifechurch.tv/) or “IC” is run by Brian Donaldson, the Campus Pastor, and offers live teaching and worship feeds from both the Oklahoma City and the Edmond campuses in three experiences each weekend. Roughly 800 people will attend IC on a given weekend.Members of IC are encouraged to utilize one of the many outreach tools available to members. By adding IC applications to social networking communities like Facebook and Second Life, members are able to share their faith and invite others without ever deviating from their routines. “There have been some incredible stories of life change through this unique outreach opportunity,” says Donaldson. Recently, IC hosted a “MySpace MicroMission” in which members met at the Internet Campus and then went out to various MySpace pages to post and invite others. After a specified period of time, the team met back to share stories and pray together.

Without a doubt, online church communities provide an unprecedented opportunity for creative ministry like MicroMissions. I-church offers a virtual Café for discussion and socializing where you are free to sip a “virtual” cup of coffee or beer and chat with others about struggles, theology or just life in general. CotN’s diverse following regularly has theological discussions about typically off-beat topics like the viability of rap music, redeeming values in advertising campaign slogans and understanding singleness. And when you attend a service at LifeChurch.tv’s Internet Campus, make sure to come early because in the lobby area someone may invite you to “sit in their row.” When this happens, chat tools allow you to converse during the service much like you would if you were physically sitting next to each other.

It is not surprising that the internet has become a creativity factory for Christian communities. But the hard question to answer is “Can these creative Christian communities really be churches like those described in the New Testament.

A Difficult Decision. It is very difficult to determine the validity of a body of believers accomplishing a wonderful work like those mentioned above. We must applaud any Christian work that is building community, discipling believers and encouraging theological discussion. Yet, it is imperative that we speak of these communities in a way that is appropriately congruent with God’s word.

The Greek word for church, ekklesia, helps illuminate the issue and is where any proper discussion of the nature of church will begin. Though it is translated “church” in English, it is an amalgamation of Greek words meaning, “assembly.” Though the New Testament allows for some elasticity with this word, ekklesia overwhelmingly refers to a group of people who actually, physically assemble together. So is it in keeping with the biblical meaning of “church” to apply it to a group of people, even a group of Christians, who never actually assemble?

Nicola David, spokesperson for CotN, says she believes her online church fits the definition of that word. “This is the one thing that people either get very excited about or very hot under the collar about when it comes to any online expression of church,” she says. “You can do worship online—but if someone is only judging from the comfortable standpoint of being an existing Christian in the embrace of a traditional church fellowship, they’ll never get that!”

First, Ms. David seems to falsely equate the ability to worship with the existence of a New Testament church. But she also appears to overlook the usage of the word. Ekklesia is found 114 times in the New Testament. Though it has become quite popular to emphasize the invisible, universal Church at the expense of the local body, it seems scripture paints a different portrait. Only 13 times does this word refer to the universal Church while at least 90 times it is used to describe a local church or churches. Though the church is not defined by any geographical lines, it is clear that the New Testament emphasizes the existence of a local, regularly-assembling body.

There are other problems with calling an online community a “church” apart from dusty, ancient language. Protestants historically have affirmed several distinctives or essential marks of a church. Timothy George, in Theology of the Reformers, notes that the years leading up to the Reformation saw “an explosion in ecclesiology” as it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine what a true church looked like. In general, the Reformers agreed on that the two essential marks of a true church were preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments. The word “sacrament” doesn’t seem to be all that common in contemporary Christianity. It is too looming and intimidating. Many churches don’t even find the word “ordinance” all that useful anymore. But regardless of whether or not you ascribe a fancy title to them, the New Testament indicates that a church must be able to rightly perform both baptism and Holy Communion.

Most online churches neither attempt to perform these tasks electronically nor, defend their inability to do so. They simply deemphasize their importance or they suggest that members take them physically at a brick-and-mortar church if they so desire. Strangely, Alpha Church attempts to offer them online. To take communion, for example, the participant is asked to attain something to eat (“like a cracker, a small piece of bread, a little piece of a tortilla or a few grains of cooked rice”) and something to drink (“like juice, water, soup, broth, tea or milk”) and read a list of responses aloud.

Most denominations see baptism as the rite of invitation into a community and the Supper as reflecting the community’s unity. In the most extensive teaching on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (I Corinthians 11), Paul uses the term “come together” five times. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are intrinsically community, corporate acts. It is difficult to see how a virtual church can meaningfully celebrate them. After all, it is difficult to properly perform a corporate act when you never corporately assemble.

Shockingly, both I-church and CotN are still recognized and classified as a “fresh expression” of church by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He says, “If ‘church’ is what happens when people encounter the risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening the encounter with one another, there is plenty of theological room for diversity and style.”

While most 21st century evangelicals would celebrate diversity and style in the church, you would be hard pressed to find very many who would agree that a fully internet based church is a complete and proper ekklesia. “I don’t think a church can be a church without meeting,” says Dr. Ed Stetzer, author of 11 Innovations of the Local Church and Breakout Churches. “I think there is a lot more that Christians can do to engage in community on the internet. But, I don’t think we need to call that a church.”

Another theologian and editor of A Theology for the Church, Dr. Danny Akin states it even more bluntly. “Bottom line—they do not meet necessary biblical characteristics of a church,” he says. Also agreeing is Dr. Mark Dever, author of What is a Healthy Church? “Completely online churches are not churches,” he says. “It is great for a real church to use them and it is great that they are telling people about Jesus, but people need to be encouraged to join a local church in a local community.”

And the opinion that online churches are wonderful but non-ecclesial communities is not restricted to the missiologist or the academic. Sarah Cunningham, a twentysomething critic of the 21st century church and author of Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation, even agrees. She comments, “While online churches might technically fit the bill–especially for younger generations who are used to meeting and talking to people online–I think it is FAR more ideal… let me say that again, FAR MORE IDEAL… to be part of a face-to-face church.”

Moreover, certain aspects of church life and ministry seem to require face-to-face meetings. Accountability and church discipline, providing help to the sick and poor, offering hospitality to one another and many other commands seem to require a physical assembly. Ultimately, we must understand that the speed of communication does not change the nature of communication. Internet churches have communication, perhaps even communion, but not the optimal community necessary for a New Testament church. However, there are huge kingdom opportunities for these communities and we can all learn from what they do.

Casting “the Net”.Let us be sure not to discourage any Gospel-minded community. We should seek to both learn from this movement and affirm its positive qualities. There has always been an interesting interface between technology and church life. During the Reformation, the printing press—a technological wonder in the 15th Century—played an important role in the widespread dissemination knowledge. It is hard to imagine how the impact of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses would have been different without the ability to propagate them.

The importance of the internet in our society and for churches is incalculable. Ask yourself how many established churches you know of that don’t at least have an informational website? Not many. It is becoming a prerequisite for a flourishing, spiritual community to maintain a presence on the internet. In fact, every major religious tradition, including the Amish, now has an online presence.

Churches all over are creatively developing internet components for their local bodies, and they could learn from other virtual communities along the way. Northwood Church in Keller, TX uses the social networking application Groopik to keep small groups connected through the week, CrossPointe Church in Duluth, GA has launched MySpace sites for their young adult and student ministries and The River Church in San Jose, CA has co-founded MyChurch.org an online tool for churches to build an online community and “unite with a purpose.”

Still, there are very few churches who are fully utilizing the potential of the internet for evangelism, discipleship and communication. Internet communities like I-church, LifeChurch.tv’s Internet Campus and CotN are ahead of the curve in many positive ways.

Internet communities are a phenomenal resource for those who are not physically able to attend church. I-church, for example, is sponsored by The Mission to Seafarers, a missionary society and network of chaplains in 230 ports worldwide which “cares for the spiritual and practical welfare of all seafarers.” For the bed-ridden, for missionaries in closed countries with no access to a local body or for individuals who are frequently traveling away from home, these websites can provide priceless resources.

It is resources like these that illustrate the great contributions that virtual communities can make to the Kingdom. Prior to Jesus words about gathering together in the same chapter of Matthew, the disciples were discussing who would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus responded, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4, NASB). May we humbly but shrewdly rejoice in any work—physical or virtual—which seeks to lay brickwork for God’s glorious Kingdom.

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Authors:

John Hammett is the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology and a respected voice on emerging trends within the church. He serves as Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and holds degrees from Duke University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer for outlets including USA Today, Christianity Today and CNN.com. He was named one of “30 Emerging Voices” reshaping Christian leadership by Outreach Magazine. His latest book, “A Faith of Our Own,” illustrates how a new generation of believers are engaging the world with Christ-centered faith. Jonathan currently lives in New York City. www.jonthanmerritt.com