"Online Church" Is an Oxymoron
You wake up and get ready for church. You head that way. You grab a coffee. You chat with some friends. You sit down. You listen to the music—you might even sing if you’re feeling up to it. You listen to the sermon, nodding your head as you follow along. You give to the church during a time of offering. You engage in a small group, either after the service or during the week. You serve the church in whatever capacity they ask of you.
If the paragraph above sounds familiar, that’s because it describes the interactions millions of Christians have with their local churches on a weekly basis. In fact, most churches consider a Christian who checks every one of those boxes to be an ideal church member. The church member described above is engaged, responsive, participatory, generous—the kind of church member you would build in “Create Your Member” mode on Megachurch Tycoon™. And best of all, the scenario painted above can apply equally to church members who attend in person and those who engage exclusively through a church’s “online campus.”
Read the first paragraph again. You can accomplish each of those tasks halfway around the world from whatever church you want to join. That’s the beautiful logic of the “online campus” (a phenomenon that has grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic); churches can leverage technology to expand their reach and include members from all over the world. They can create the same experience in Kansas, Kentucky, and Kuwait. They can have members in Boston, Baltimore, and Bogotá. They can bring together a collection of believers into a collaborative environment. They can recreate church online. But while a lot of good things can happen as a result of these “online campuses”—people can encounter the gospel and their lives can be changed by God’s grace—they’re not the same as physical gatherings of God’s people. They don’t quite reach the fullness of the biblical concept of a church.
The Church Is a Gathering
The Greek word generally used to describe the church in the New Testament is ecclesia. The word literally translates to “those who are called out,” which is an excellent description of Christians. However, the word was used to describe an assembly of people. Thus, the local church is not a collection of scattered, isolated Christians sharing a similar goal; it’s a gathering of God’s people.
What constitutes a gathering? Do we have to be face-to-face? Can a Zoom call count as a gathering? Can a phone call? An active group message?
Churches that operate “online campuses” recognize the potential for gatherings to transcend spatial barriers using technology. We can talk with one another in real time across continents. If a gathering is the immediate dissemination of information and ideas among individuals, then Zoom calls and message groups count.
But a gathering is not just a group of people exchanging information; it’s the collision of worldviews and emotions and embodied beliefs and experiences shaping each other through interactions. To experience the fullness of a gathering, we have to engage each other genuinely and authentically, free from masks—the sociological kind, not the medical kind.
This doesn’t have to happen in person, but all other forms of communication cheapen, dampen, and trivialize this exchange. A camera and screen place an invisible wall between two people attempting to communicate. They no longer share a setting in which their communication is taking place, and imperfect audio quality and internet delays convey a sense that the interaction isn’t fully real. After a year on Zoom, I think we can all relate to the vague notion that our digital conversations are missing something—like they’re one step removed from reality. We compound that problem when we move to communication that’s less immediate, such as group messages. As we do on social media, we tend to present our best selves in group messages—or at least the version of ourselves we think the group wants to see. When a group chat constitutes our gathering, we can’t say that we have really come to know anybody, since we have really only interacted with ideal versions of everybody. The same can be said of in-person interactions, but the façade is easier to maintain online.
We have years of data from social media that shows that our online interactions with “friends” tend to devolve into curated projections of our perfect lives and one-sided proclamations of our infallible opinions. We have a year of Zoom meetings to show us that digital communication is not the same as an in-person gathering. Maybe “online campuses” can crack the code and create genuine, authentic, meaningful connections among their members. But if our track record of digital communication is any guide, then it is far more likely that interactions among “online campus” members will generally remain shallow and distant, always one step removed from reality. And that’s not ecclesia.
The Church Is Not Individual
Individualism and the church don’t mix well. In Acts 2 and Acts 4, we see the early church display care and affection for one another, identifying with each other. They weren’t individuals trying to advance in their own relationship with the Lord; they were a body of believers seeking to follow Jesus as a group. If one struggled financially, if one failed morally, the church took responsibility to meet their needs and to restore their brothers and sisters.
In many American churches, however, Christianity is packaged and sold as an individual activity—a collection of personal tasks to accomplish and goals to achieve. The Christianity we promote is a personal relationship between an individual and the Lord, minimizing the communal aspect of our faith. And the churches we organize promote a consumeristic mentality in Christians. “Join us because of what you can experience here.” “Come see all that we have to offer you.” They break the Christian life into the steps outlined in the first paragraph, and they assume a faithful Christian life is the sum of these parts.
That’s what makes “online campuses” possible. All we have to do is transfer the activities an individual would engage in at church into a digital space. What’s the difference if they accomplish the tasks in our church building or in their home? Theoretically, the experience of a Christian at a church campus should be identical to the experience of a Christian on the “online campus.”
But that approach perpetuates and individualistic and consumeristic Christianity. We set up systems and programs online to see individuals grow closer to Jesus. We reinforce the idea that the music is a performance put on by a select few, rather than a celebration of biblical truths that we communicate as praises to God and reminders to each other. We highlight the teaching gifts of a specific pastor rather than trusting God’s Word to move in churches across the country and around the world. In a church culture that already idolizes music styles and engaging preachers, do we really need to reinforce those ideas?
“Online campuses” do little to help Christians view themselves as part of a collective body of believers all seeking to glorify God together in the world. They do little to correct the idea that Christianity is all about “my relationship with God” (the way we organize many of our churches in person likewise fails on that front, but that’s a post for another day). What we need are churches who are willing to confront consumeristic Christianity—not cater to it.
“Online campuses” can do a lot of good things for the kingdom of God, and I want to celebrate all that has been done through them already. While some churches may start “online campuses” out of a personal desire to build their brand and expand their empire, I will also give pastors of churches with “online campuses” the benefit of the doubt; I believe most pastors of such churches want to utilize technology to see people come to know Jesus. Praise God for that. But by utilizing technology in this way and calling it “church,” my fear is that we are cheapening the biblical concept of community and reinforcing unbiblical ideas of church life. Let’s train pastors to plant and revitalize churches across the country. Let’s pray for movements of God in churches around the globe. Let’s trust that wherever the Word of God is preached, God can move in people’s hearts and lives. Let’s use technology to equip and train and resource, but let’s leave “church” to local congregations.