IN THE ARENA:
In the arena of ideas and opinions, there needs to be a place for Christ-centered and Christ-honoring debate of nonessential issues. We will occasionally feature a debate like this in Christian Standard. Jon Weatherly’s article “How to Debate Debatable Issues” gives great insight on how to disagree in a godly way.
We apply the principles Jon describes in our first debate between Jerry Harris (click here to read his article) and Barry Cameron. These two men are great friends who have differing views and opinions about online church.
By Barry L. Cameron
Why is “online” church not really church? Consider the following:
> The online “experience” waters down Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 14:25-33. In our desire to cater to the conveniences of our converts (or the whims of our watchers), are we producing fully devoted followers of Jesus or semi-engaged, occasional, or whenever-it’s-convenient viewers? Virtual reality isn’t real. So how can virtual church be real? Or virtual discipleship?
> Online relationships are, at best, fabricated, and most likely fraudulent, because we never really know the person we are interacting with via Facebook, Snapchat, and the like. Why? Because people post only their best pictures and give their best responses. You can’t really know someone when you don’t see how that person lives, reacts, and responds; short of that, how can you call it a genuine relationship? We truly know only those people we interrelate with up close and personal.
> Online church ignores the scriptural admonition of Hebrews 10:25: “not giving up meeting together . . . but encouraging one another.” Chat rooms aren’t living rooms. They aren’t rooms at all. They don’t exist. So how can fellowship, mutual ministry, service, and things of that sort exist there?
> How can online church fulfill all the God-given “one another” responsibilities of believers in the New Testament? For example, how do we “admonish one another?” Can we do that by text, email, tweet, or posting something on someone’s wall? Even private messaging via Facebook falls short of what Jesus said in Matthew 18: “If a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (v. 15, English Standard Version). And what about confessing our sins to each other? (James 5:16). That could get messy if it’s done online. And when does online get out of line . . . and who monitors that?
> How do you minister to people online? How do you serve them? Do you click on someone’s website, answer survey questions, watch a video?
> Online church (and online shopping, banking . . . you fill in the blank) encourages isolation and eliminates the need to interact with people. And remember, Jesus came to die for people. And, by the way, he did that in person—he didn’t send an angel or an email.
> Not all adaptations (i.e., chasing fads, doing what culture is doing, trying to fit in) are improvements. For example, over the past two years, print book sales are rising and e-book sales are declining.
> Can we really define worship as “watching a service on a device?” How is that different from watching a movie? When we watch a movie in a theater, we know it’s not real . . . it’s “make believe.” So why would online church be any different? And doesn’t this promote and produce more spectators than servants?
> Counting people who watch an online worship service is a slippery slope. Most log-ons last for less than five minutes. People aren’t engaging. They’re just looking for something that’s entertaining. Consider Michael Todd at Transformation Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma; he is currently the hottest viral preacher on social media. His messages have been viewed an estimated 37 million times on YouTube and Facebook alone. So is the church really that big? No, and those people aren’t necessarily engaged and growing. They’re being entertained, but they’re not faithfully following, serving, and ministering.
> Online church develops Christians who are consumers rather than contributors. They search for the most popular teacher, the most awesome worship band, the coolest experience . . . you fill in the blank, and what does that do to all the preachers and churches all over the world who cannot compete with the Craig Groeschels, Andy Stanleys, Steven Furticks, and the like?
> Online churches and satellite churches have put other churches out of business, and yet we call that “church growth.” Isn’t that just fish changing fishbowls? And what will happen to all the other brick-and-mortar churches when we move to online churches?
> It costs nothing, virtually (pun intended), to watch church online. A viewer doesn’t need to invest time, money, or relationships. The interaction might involve a live chat with a total stranger who says they will pray for you. Or, the host might show excitement virtually (through their keyboard) by posting an emoji that you logged on. There’s a reason Disney won’t do a “virtual reality” attraction. It goes against their mission. Disney wants their attractions to be incredibly immersive . . . but the attraction has to feel real. Disney prefers augmented reality. There’s probably a good lesson for the church in there somewhere.
> How does hospital visitation work with the online community? Do we “like” someone’s post on Facebook that asks for prayer? Do we click the praying hands icon? How can that come close to a real, live person walking into your hospital room, hugging your family, encouraging everyone, and taking your hand to pray for you?
> How do we do online baptisms? Do we ask people to use FaceTime so we can watch them baptize themselves in their own bathtub or pool? Do they post a picture? And how can we affirm and encourage them online? At a physical church building, dozens or hundreds or thousands of people cheer when someone comes up out of the water. Is there a more beautiful sight or sound than a public baptism cheered on by those who have also been immersed?
> Online church can create a bunch of self-serving saints—if you can call them that—who think it is all about them and their convenience. Doesn’t online church cater to the “me first” mentality that has always hindered the effectiveness of the church? Jesus said to “deny yourself” (Luke 9:23), but online church seems to say, “It’s all about you! Whatever you want, whenever you want it!”
> Jesus spent the majority of his three years of ministry in intimate community with 12 men before releasing them to take the gospel into the whole world. Why didn’t he just tell them to go to one of the synagogues and check out the scrolls that talked about him? “It’s all there—just go read it and apply it.” Their lives were radically changed by being in relationship with him. Then, he told them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature. If we make that an online experience, we’re going to miss tons of people, just like people miss emails or texts we send today.
Wayne Smith used to tell the story about a young soldier and his fiancée who said goodbye at the airport before he was shipped overseas to serve his country. The young soldier reaffirmed his love for his bride-to-be and promised to write every day, which he did with unwavering dedication and consistency. But she ended up marrying the mailman. Why? Because there’s just no substitute for being there.
Call the online experience whatever you want to call it. But please don’t call it church.
Barry L. Cameron serves as senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.