The Invisible Church

Let us not give up netmeeting together,
but all the more as we see the Day approaching...

When I was much younger I imagined a school that was a vast asphalt parking lot. Scattered across it were hundreds of brown compartments, large enough to sit in comfortably with a blue screen and keyboard in front, and with refreshments that popped out of the walls. The teacher would broadcast her instructions to each student in each self-contained compartment. We would carry them out and 'show' her (electronically, at least) when we'd finished. Of course, the teacher could check on what we were doing at any time because she had the master computer; she could see our screens.

You can imagine how that kind of sci-fi movie would end. Everyone would emerge from their cubicles and kick them over, dance around and roast a wild boar over a real fire. But what we've done is much more sophisticated - those cubicles are our homes and our offices and we travel between the two.

We're not completely ignoring the physical world but we need it less and less. For now, the internet coexists with the physical communities and, in many ways, is a mirror of them.1 Every school, church, business, government building or religious group has its website—in many cases you have a choice of going to the physical building or doing what you need to do online. Internet shopping is like shopping at a supermarket except that you don't have to push a heavy trolley that won't go straight and there's no chance of bumping into Neighbour Fred, your ex, or indeed of meeting anyone besides the net groceries delivery man.

But should church be in that list? Is church like a bank where actually going there in person is optional and, sooner or later, will be totally unnecessary? The writer to the Hebrews said, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Are we obeying or disobeying this command if church for us is an internet chat room that we log into every Sunday?


The Nut

“The earliest Christians were not so much like a man who mistakes the shell for a kernel as like a man carrying a nut which he hasn't cracked. The moment it is cracked, he knows which part to throw away. Till then he holds on to the nut: not because he is a fool but because he isn't.” C.S Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?2

In the New Testament, the Greek word ekklesia is translated church when it refers to a Christian meeting but is translated as assembly when it refers to other groups. This can be seen in Acts 19:32 where the word ekklesia is used to describe an angry mob who are rioting because the gospel of Jesus Christ was putting the local silversmiths out of business. In verse 39 of the same chapter it refers to a legal assembly. So, the word church means assembly. Gathering.

When I'm online it can seem like a gathering but we mustn't give “cyberspace” any grander meaning that it deserves: when I'm on the internet I am simply sending and receiving messages; my friend and I are no more gathered together than if we were sending messages by carrier pigeon.

But could this be the kind of nut that C.S. Lewis was talking about? We used to think church was about a gathering of people but, now that we can communicate in real time, have we realised that physical presence is not the important thing? After all, are we not all part of a virtual church?

But you have come to Mount Zion
 and to the city of the living God,
 the heavenly Jerusalem,
 and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,
 and to God, the judge of all,
 and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,
 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
 and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:22-24 (ESV)


Gathering with a purpose

But church is not only about gathering. The church gathers to build itself up in love.

When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.
1 Cor. 14:26 (NIV)

What does it mean to build up the church?

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)

The flow of logic is complicated here but let's look at some of the goals.

  1. attain(ing) to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—we are to be unified in two things: our same faith in God and our same knowledge of His Son

  2. attain(ing) ... to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ—our goal is to resemble Christ in every way

  3. (so) that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes—we need to be mature in our knowledge of the truth, the doctrines of God that are contained in the Scriptures.

We speak the truth to each other because of our love of each other; we remind each other of the love of God that has been displayed in Jesus death for us; we sing together about who God is and what he has done. We are taught from the Scriptures so that we can discern what is true so that we know how to act. We pray to him together about our common concerns and common joys.


An Invisible Church
An Invisible Church


Church On-and-Offline

Teaching

The internet is predominantly about information and for those of us with internet access it is most likely the first point of reference for just about everything we need to know. God's revelation to us is information in written form that is not copyrighted3: perfect material for the web. But it is information that, if believed, will drastically change the way we live. While it would certainly be possible to read the Bible and know how to live without ever seeing a Christian, it is much more helpful for us to see how our leaders act towards us and towards outsiders, to see each other struggle with sin, to watch how a more mature Christian deals with a difficult situation.

Paul instructed Timothy this way:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
1 Tim. 4:11-13 (ESV)

Unity

We may not feel very unified with someone when they are text on a screen but it is the unity of faith that matters, and this unity can be enjoyed by all who are seeking to understand and apply the things that God has taught us in the Scriptures. But for online community members who are separated geographically the unity will not go much further than that. There will be no cooked meals delivered for families having a hard time, no help in laying turf, no dinners together, no joint projects, no kids playing together, no singing together, none of the practical love and hospitality that we are urged to carry out.

Sin

More serious still are the consequences for our sin. On the internet I am my own editor—whether I'm chatting, e-mailing, or putting up a webpage. You will see nothing that I don't want you to see. Not only this, virtual church can be completely anonymous so that I can have “spiritual experiences” without ever having to deal with my sin. Confessing our sins online is not real confession if we are talking to someone who barely knows us and who we will never meet—it is simply an attempt to deal with guilt without having to face the consequences.

Our sin naturally makes us want to hide, we want to cover up our shame—and communicating on the net makes this so easy that we hardly have to try. Of course, I can hide things even when talking to someone in person but I can't hide my life when you live in the next suburb, when I see you every week, when we meet at the shop, when you see the way I talk to my wife.

The World

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:35 (ESV)

We need to remember that Jesus' intention is that his followers are identifiable. People should be able to see the way Christians love one another and realise who their master is. The love that his disciples had was very practical and very visible.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Acts 2:44-45 (ESV)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:27 (ESV)

Conclusion

Will our church buildings soon be empty as each Christian logs in for Sunday online? I don't believe that virtual church is impossible but, because of sin, because of the necessity of our witness to the world and because of the joy that comes from working, singing and praying alongside our brothers and sisters, it is never to replace the gathering of the people of God.

Footnotes

1 Fjeldstad, Rev. Arne H., An Areopagus in Today's World, http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/art3.html

2 Lewis, C.S. "Is Theology Poetry?" in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Harper Collins, London, 1965, p. 53.

3 Your favourite translation might be, however.

Ben - undermining everything he just said

We wouldn't want to see bodily gatherings replaced by chat rooms but we can certainly encourage from a distance. Perhaps the most famous long-distance ministry is of Paul to his churches. In the next article Karen looks through 1 Thessalonians at the The Virtual Apostle.

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