Last week, I began a discussion about LifeChurch.tv and their implementation of an online “campus” for their church. That post grew out of ongoing discussions we are having in my Internet Ministry class at Biola, where my students are working to develop a philosophy of Internet ministry. In that post I discussed how skeptical I was about trying to do ALL facets of a church service online. Many churches will post audio and video of their services, but they do not even begin to claim that experiencing church through the website is the ideal experience. To be fair, LifeChurch is not the only church doing this, there are others. But they seem to be the most innovative and prominent of the bunch.
Now, before I go on, let me just stop and say that I think that LifeChurch is doing an absolutely amazing job of utilizing the latest technologies and working to understand their implications. From blogs to video to Twitter to Second Life, they have all of their bases covered. And I have no doubt that they are changing lives and impacting the world in a positive way for Christ. They are an absolutely amazing ministry. They now have thirteen physical campuses serving several different communities across the United States. Each location is unique, but yet united together through the transmission of the main message via satellite. As their “About” page says: “Through satellite broadcasts that enable all of our twelve locations to be connected as one, LifeChurch.tv is a multi-site church that transcends metropolitan regions.” Their innovation is not just with technology: they also make all of their media resources available to other churches to use, at no charge. This is truly an amazing ministry with amazing people that God is using for His glory.
I ended my post last time by asking the questions:
…isn’t an ‘incomplete’ Christian experience better than no Christian experience at all? There are many who would never go to “church” (or are unable to for some reason) but would be willing to attend a service online. Doesn’t that make it worth it?
These are probably some of the most compelling reasons to put church online. I know of several people who would never want to go into a church building with me, but would be willing to check out a service online. And I would feel very comfortable telling them about LifeChurch’s online campus. But I would also be sure to follow up with them and encourage them to become a part of a local church body (whether mine or another). This discussion was brought up in our class during a conversation with Matt Anderson, the author of a chapter in one of the books we are using in the course. When asked about this specific question (“what about those who would never go to church otherwise?”), he responded that he understood this line of thinking, but also cautioned: “what we save them with is what we save them to.” In other words, if someone gets saved via an online church they will also see that church as “normal” and will possibly never move beyond that church experience. Matt went on to state that Christianity is a physical religion: Jesus became man and interacted with us in the flesh. We are commanded to fellowship with each other. A Christian who “forsakes the assembly” is shortchanging themselves and disobeying God.
It comes down to this question: is a physical presence necessary in order for fellowship to happen? Shane Hipps, pastor and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, thinks so. In an interview I had with him for my class, he stated that for authentic community to happen, four components must exist: a shared history, permance, proximity, and a shared imagination of the future. He said that the Internet, primarily, can provide the last of the four, but is really limited in its ability to create the first three. He went on to say that “there is something energetically, spiritually that happens to a relationship when you are in the same room. And it’s fundamentally different than a disembodied relationship [via the Internet].”
Let me conclude by saying that I applaud what LifeChurch is doing overall. Their innovative work on the Internet is paving the way for other ministries to get online. Their willingness to share resources is inspiring. Where I differ with them (and other churches with Internet campuses) is their decision to try to implement the full church experience through their Internet campus. Online church services provide a valuable service to those unable to attend a physical church and to those who would never enter a church on their own accord. But these folks must be directed to find a local body of believers, real flesh and blood, and it must be made clear that the online church service is never to replace attending physically.
I know that there are those who disagree with me. This is the place for a healthy debate. My students are wrestling with this issue as well and all comments are welcome.