Can a virtual church be a “real” church?

537461411_3882f3a3afjpgEarlier this month, Out of Ur hosted an interesting conversation about the advantages and drawbacks of “internet campuses” for churches. (When you read the post, be sure to check out the excellent discussion in the comments as well.) But what really caught my attention this week was Bob Hyatt’s post arguing that there is no such thing as a virtual church.

Hyatt’s point is a compelling one, and puts words to the vague unease that many Christians (even the most tech-savvy ones!) have about the role of online churches and worship communities. Hyatt’s argument is that while an online church community can reproduce many of the things that define a true church, they simply cannot replicate the low-key but critical face-to-face interaction from which real, everyday Christian ministry springs.

At an online church, Hyatt argues, you’ll never hear Bob Churchgoer gripe about his difficult work week, or Jane Choirmember recount her ongoing struggle with migraines. And without those little interactions, we’d miss out on countless small opportunities to serve others and meet their needs (maybe inviting Bob out for coffee to relax, or volunteering to watch Jane’s kid next time a migraine knocks her out of commission.)

I almost agree with Hyatt… almost.

At this point in my life, online church isn’t for me, for many of the reasons Hyatt describes. I think Hyatt would be correct if he were arguing that few or no online churches active right now can replicate the intimate fellowship that happens in a face-to-face church, with all the Christian encouragement and ministry that spring out of such things.

But I’m not comfortable saying that online church can never meet those needs. I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered plenty of online forums—not even Christian or church-related ones–where people share the same everyday gripes, praises, and pleas that they would in a face-to-face environment. This might be an indictment of my poor socialization at church, but I actually learn as much about prayer needs and praise reports through Facebook as I do from the post-service cookies-and-coffee break where most congregational chatting takes place.

There are many things an online community would have to do to (some of them quite difficult) to create an environment of authentic fellowship, but I don’t see any reason why it’s impossible. I can think of several reasons why it could actually be a good idea—for one thing, you can’t have been on the internet at any point in the last ten years and failed to notice that people tend to open up online about their ideas, opinions, and problems in ways that they might rarely do face-to-face.

So while I sympathize with much of Hyatt’s concerns, I’m a little unsure whence comes his insistence that virtual church is a complete spiritual dead-end. A follow-up post is promised, so I’ll be watching Out of Ur to see where he leads the conversation. What do you think? Have you experienced genuine church worship and fellowship online?

[image from flickr user shadysidelantern]

15 Responses to “Can a virtual church be a “real” church?”

  • […] Can a virtual church be a “real” church? Found 5 hours, 2 minutes ago Earlier this month, Out of Ur hosted an interesting conversation about the advantages and drawbacks of “internet campuses” for churches. (When you read the post, be sure to check out the excellent discussion in the comments as well.) But what really caught my attention this week was Bob Hyatt’s post arguing that there is no […] From: / […]

    • Israel says:

      It is very interesting that this question was even thought of or even posted. I am glad it was. An virtual church is a good thing. Most of the time the church we call “the real church” is full of distractions most of witch are worldly. Just because you cant go into a visable building does not mean one cant be in church. People must first understand what church really is. We as the church have gotten so far away from the true church that we fail to recognize it when we see it. When Jesus came He did not say “oh, lets get a building first so that we may worship in.” True worship started right there wherever He was and so does church. Church is the communion between God and the believer, no matter where they may be. Saul on the road to demacus where he met up with God was a church experience because God was there. To say that a virtual church can not be real is to say that all the people in sick beds at home or in prisons or hopsitals can not be really saved because they have not been to the building yet. The church building is a place where the people of the curch have decides to gather in order to worship and fellowship in but as far as having a true relationship with God it must start with YOU and God. Not with the pastor,decons,sisters or brothers of the church,grandparents, mothers nor fathers but with God who is able to give you the true church you seek. The virtual church is just another extention of the loving arms of God reaching out to those who will not be reached by the church people in the building we call church. God will leave no one out, he will leave no stone unturned in order to find one who has not the Good News of Jesus the Christ our Lord. Remember this my beloved, when God returns He will not look for you in the building but He will look for you in HIS heart and hopefully there is where He will find you. Seek Him by all means possible while He may be found and He will reveal Himself to you.

      loving all of Gods children with knowledge and understanding:


  • Good stuff Andy.

    Comparing Internet Campuses to Drive-In church is like saying that eating bison at Ted’s Montana Grill is just like getting burger at a fast food joint. They are both alternatives to eating beef at home, but they have nothing in common.

    At my old church, I was trying to get the leadership to come around supporting an online campus, but I was shut down and told that was just another excuse for people not to come to church. That perspective can only come from a person that doesn’t know what it’s like to not be a churchgoer. I grew up in a religion that believed that if you walked in the doors of a church, the devil would jump on your back and convince you that the truth was a lie and the lies were the truth. So, for me, walking into a church for the first time was quite a scary thing. And, although my background isn’t common, I think that a lot of unchurched people feel similarly uncomfortable. So, making an online environment where people can learn about Christ and his Gospel without having to physically enter a building is something that God has definitely put on my heart.

    Also, I have seen so many people open up and take big risks and leaps of faith online that they wouldn’t felt safe enough to do in a “real world” church that I almost feel like church is more real online than it often is on location.

    Don’t get me wrong, it still feels weird on SecondLife when you make your avatar raise its hand to God during worship, but it doesn’t feel weird when you are praying with someone across a live chat because they were contemplating suicide and you were there to share Christ with them just when they needed Him.

    • Chris Salzman says:

      “Don’t get me wrong, it still feels weird on SecondLife when you make your avatar raise its hand to God during worship, but it doesn’t feel weird when you are praying with someone across a live chat because they were contemplating suicide and you were there to share Christ with them just when they needed Him.”


      It’s much much harder to say that twitter, facebook, and other online social media is worthless when you’ve experienced something like that.

    • Andy says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Ray. Your last paragraph in particular is right on target; there’s simply no denying that real ministry and worship can take place online if God chooses to empower it.

      I really think that we are still in the very early, primitive stages of online fellowship, exemplified by your example of the awkward Second Life worship. The online fellowship tools we have thus far are useful but sometimes clunky, and can distract from the act of fellowship you’re trying to participate in. But I have absolutely no doubt that as online social tools develop, we will reach a point where the tools become good enough that they just fade into the background.

    • Mireille says:

      I feel so grateful to have found this discussion! My husband and have found (and are building) Christian community online that is caring and uplifting – and that leads us to face some difficult questions about what church really is and how we can express our faith in new ways with new people. These are old questions and ones that must be faced by all churches today as the landscape of life changes in the postmodern world.

      The online environment highlights the interpersonal difficulties that many of us experience in real-life fellowship and worship but at the same time it removes many barriers and makes possible the kind of openness and sharing for which we long. Our experience to date is a very positive one and we know several individuals who have been served by the gospel online – and some of them might never have “darkened the door” of a traditional church. The timing differential alone makes attendance at worship and fellowship opportunities possible for those whose daily work and lives are hectic or chaotic; and besides, we’re online anyway working – why not take a spiritual break and find peace and nourishment in the same manner? Moreover, online church and pastoral services may be available around the clock – and at least somewhat more readily accessible, no matter where one lives, no matter what language one speaks, no matter what one’s present beliefs or needs.

      Like most societal change, there is a sense of threat to the former way of doing things. However, when it comes to church, the virtual campus and experience does not wholly supplant the real-time, real-life church. On the contrary, it supplements it and brings it into a new realm of outreach that is NEEDED in this digital age. Many of those who attend online church with us also regularly attend a brick-and-mortar church too, and most of them report that their spiritual growth and development has advanced by this dual exposure to God’s word and Christian fellowship.

      I look forward to the future with hope in my heart…and a computer in my lap!

      Blessings to all…

  • Rich - NJ says:

    I personally have experience quite a bit of “Christian fellowship” through online means – chat, texts, forums, email. They were times of one-on-one and times of group discussions. Some of both type I found very edifying, as we discussed the Word in great depth and opened up to each other about struggles we were all going through, how the Lord has been blessing us, answering prayer, and godly counsel was offered when needed and possessed.

    However, that is one pitfall of the internet. It in part de-socializes society. There is something that you can’t get from online conversations that you can only get from the face-to-face: subtle expressions of the face and body language to confirm the way someone is feeling; a hug or handshake that just might pick someone up from a pit of despair that day; the sound of a voice which can solidify encouragments and exhortations. Yes it is easier to communicate online and find the answers to just about any questions you may have. But the more “tangible” physical relationships between people can never be replaced.

  • bob hyatt says:

    The issue isn’t simply “fellowship”- It’s also about equipping, about worship and a whole host of other things I mentioned.
    Again- how does the online church create leadership? How are elders equipped and raised up? How do people explore what their spiritual gift is and receive feedback both positive and negative?
    Yes- you can pray with someone in second life- that’s good. But what you can’t do is disciple them. And you certainly can’t discipline them :) And, as I argue- without those components, you don’t actually have the Church.

    • Israel says:

      Leadership is taught by Christ leadership abilities he shared as He walked this earth. Discipline comes from the Holy spirit who convicts us on a regular. “how are Elders raised up?” They are raised by the very hand of God. that is the problem now, many are called but few are actually choosen by God. Most of the time men are calling men. have faith is God sis. God is not restricted to a building because if he were we would all be lost because not many of us would have gotten there to save our own lives. The bible itself teaches you that “when two or more are gathered in His name He will be in the mist of them.” If God Himself is there by what other means is church classified by?

  • moxie says:

    I couldn’t agree with Bob Hyatt more! And what about the sacraments? How does one get baptized online? How does one receive Holy Communion online? There are already enough social networks where individuals can communicate openly, be responded to, pray for one another, but it is a limited tool. Using the internet as a tool is fine, but to use it as Church, in my opinion, cheapens His grace. I keep thinking about shut-ins, but, being semi-home-bound myself, I wouldn’t dream of going online for Church! And when it’s suggested that it’s easier to be honest about one’s self, open up more, take more risks (what ever that means), how do you not know it’s just easier for that person to paint a picture of who he wants to be? After all, you don’t know. What does it mean to take online risks? I don’t understand how that is measured or how one is held to accountability. It saddens my heart to think that there are some who would consider reducing Church to online fetters.

  • moxie says:

    Some more…How does Acts 1 & 2 get replicated online? How does an online “church” recover authentic Christianity, such as in the first 3 or so centuries after Christ? Be careful of the images you put before your eyes!

  • It sounds like from this blog, some people are confusing the worship service with church. Of course there is very little interaction in a “worship service.” That is a problem in real world church too. But the internet is full of ways for the church to interact. Bulliten boards, facebook, twitter, skype, email, chat, private messages, online gaming, etc. Heck, I get a lot low-key but critical interaction on the internet.

    I admit I am not involved in an online church and don’t know what it would look like, but I am involved in online networks and keep up with family and friends all over the world this way. Why wouldn’t that work in the church?

  • There is an excellent blog dedicated to these very questions, bob and moxie. It’s called Reaching the Online Generation. I am not sure if I can put urls on the comments, so just google that and maybe the name Paul Watson.

  • Frank says:

    As a minister that has used the Internet to reach people I agree with those that there are real ministry experiences that take place online. There is much more that we have to do to be able to fully replicate the experience of attending a physical church, however, having said that let me also say that there are many people that can be and are being reached via the Internet. Personally, as a minister for more than 20 years I know all too well of people that are not saved, not seeking, home bound, not able to attend a church or will not because they have been hurt and abused by pastoral leaders and false prophets, leaders that use scripture to rein and control church members, fanaticism, and power/money hungry preachers. These people need someone to reach out to them and make ministry available, to let them know Christ loves them, desires a relationship with them and that they can be healed. God wants them to know HIM regardless of the means. The numbers regarding church attendance shows that the church (physical) is losing members year upon year. Last remember the word church used in the Bible is Ekklesia it does not refer to a building with a steeple it refers to those called out, assembled, and includes any gathering of people in a common place to discuss, conduct meetings and/or worship. Also remember we are the body 1Cor. 12 – each member has it place and function.

  • Да все понятно, большое спасибо за сообщение.