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This blog capturing my thoughts during NewSpring’s experiment in online church has run its course. Below are my favorite and most provocative posts for your reading pleasure.
Watch out for my new blog charting my new role as storyteller for NewSpring Church.
Part 1, of this blog series bidding goodbye to web pastoring focused on the Biblical warrant for only physical church planting. And Part 2 questioned whether web churches might be helpful in discipling believers into local churches.
In this final post, I reach the end of my thoughts on web church – and the end of my time as NewSpring web pastor – praising God for the opportunity to learn so much in such a short time about pastoring in an environment that will define our world over the next 50 years.
I also want to honor the many serious and astute pastors and church leaders dedicated to the cause of Christ who are seeking to “pioneer” the new mission field of the Internet. I was one of them, and I saw instantly the tremendous need to connect with the “lost sheep” in our communities who would never find their way to a local church, or who might not be willing to give faith a chance were it not for the easy on ramps and off ramps that the web offers.
My contention is simply this: The web church doesn’t solve any problems that Jesus hasn’t prepared and equipped the church to handle in the past, the present, or the future by physical means. In fact, the Web church may, in time, cause problems for the larger church that are harder to fix than the original problem of the declining evangelistic power of our physical church communities.
For perspective on a similar effort to analyze “online church,” I would refer to Paul Steinbrueck’s series of posts, although I was not aware of it until after writing.
So far, the argument for online church has tended to revolve around whether we can constitute churches in the online space with a kind of “functional equivalency” to the real thing to the do the work others can’t or won’t.
I would question why we wouldn’t work to invest in and improve the original disciplemaking “machine” — physical church as defined by Romans 12 and Corinthians 12 — rather than settle for a simulation?
I see a disturbing trend of online church attenders, if they are not also connected to local churches, behaving like “super-consumers” chasing the best teaching or the best worship or the convenience of the web church every week. Few of these people are “churchless” in any true sense of the word. They’ve decided their local churches simply aren’t good enough.
The danger is as obvious as it is serious: web church “gatherings” could create an even more deceptive path than “lone-ranger Christianity” for the unchurched and the dechurched to sidestep the sometimes ugly but always sanctifying realities of true church membership. And all the while, they may believe that this partial experience is, in fact, reflective of true Christian community.
There’s a chilling bonus danger, too: Physical churchgoers who attend online churches only for extra teaching, might also, almost imperceptibly, begin to question their commitment, participation and submission to their local church.
One of the intriguing aspects of the web church was the potential for the Internet’s powerful network effects to bring people together, expose them to values and beliefs, and provide a supportive environment for faith. I saw the possibility of the web overcoming the isolation and disruption of physical community in especially modern, western, urban societies, which has aggravated the decline of institutional churches over the last 150 years.
But it occurs to me that these network effects, while real, may be too open and fluid for them to produce adequate spiritual formation over the long haul. And they may be too distributed to create the epidemic-style effects of true community revival.
Only physical relationships anchored in time and space — and now perhaps leveraged through the web — can provide the relational density and relational layering over time to maximally expand the reach of our faith and, most importantly, deepen the lived-understanding of our faith needed for orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
I know I haven’t thought this through nearly enough, but it seems to me that there’s just a spiritual power to proximity and “locality” that we must continue to pursue — and that Jesus meant for us to pursue.
Again, the bottom line is not whether the Web Church can do anything spiritually fruitful.
My question is whether all the effort in the Web Church reflects a Biblical missiology that is likely to produce the kind of rapidly growing, robust, orthodox Christian communities of faith long term that will leave the church healthier than it is now.
What do you think?
My reflections on my year as NewSpring’s Web Pastor have focused on what I see as the Web Church’s three potentially strongest contributions to the greater church: proclaiming the gospel and enhanced pastoral care and empowering personal ministry.
The deepest challenge for the web church is to clearly define what kind of space it’s trying to be, and warn people about what it it isn’t.
- Religious identity – “online community” committed to each other through their shared faith and common religious expression.
- Spiritual network – “online community” purposefully designed and initiated by God for a specific purpose.
- Support network – “online community” providing a spiritually and emotionally supportive atmosphere.
- Worship space – “transmission tool” for transmitting spiritual activities.”
It’s obvious that religious identity, support and worship space could be healthy and potentially legitimate ways to look at online church. What I’m wary of is the “creep” from those three modes that could surround and take hold as a “spiritual network” — which is a direct counterpart to the body of Christ and neatly explains what’s at stake.
It’s hard to tell how many online churches are claiming the status of “spiritual network.” But if they are — explicitly or implicitly — I think the burden is on them to justify why groups of people who only ever gather online for “church” should exist at all if the Bible is our ground for church practice?
The early church faced far more formidable obstacles to the spread of the Gospel than any of us can imagine, and yet it was in precisely these circumstances at the fullness of time, that God came to die in human so that we could live to build his church, his chosen “tool” to fill all the earth with “God glorifiers.”
Believers faced persecution and potential death to gather physically, even though their faith taught them that they belonged to one God in the spirit “over all, through all and in all.” The message of the Gospel itself traveled on the feet of believers, not mere emissaries, across unexplored, harsh and dangerous terrain for the sake of establishing not mere “propositional truth believers” but actual communities of a lived-out faith.
If the early church believed so powerfully in the primacy of physically planting the gospel, what circumstances are so pressing that they give us the right to seek an alternative method for building the church today?
It feels a lot like the online church “movement” as much if not more driven by technology and opportunity than proper missiology.
Location awareness is already maturing as a way to organize physical information and relationships on online space. I’m anticipating that, if properly led, the online spaces for religious identity, support network and worship could be very fruitful way for the church to connect scattered believers and bring them together as local bodies of believers where they can proclaim the Gospel, apply the sacraments and live out grace-giving community.
Perhaps the Internet was given as a gift to us by God for the very purpose of church planting? Where are the scriptures that indicate we will be held to account because we didn’t use another method?
A common objection will be that if “one person” receives Christ as a result of online-only church, it’s worth it. I am not downplaying the eternal difference that has been made to individuals all over the world from online-only church communities, but we need to remember that in God’s sovereign will and purpose, the health of his church overall is necessarily connected to the proper fulfillment of God’s promises.
I am sure there are some believers who live in circumstances where there are no churches and the web church presents a lifeline, but why wouldn’t we lead that believer in gospel planting, rather than giving them the sense that web church is enough?
Difficult, dangerous and painful are never sufficient grounds in our Gospel for us to shrink back from God’s plan for his creation. How does Jesus respond to Peter, the foreman of the biggest glory-organization project in human history?