Why I Cringe When People Say "Internet Church Isn’t Really Church"

All I can think about is the fallacy of equivocation when someone says an online church isn’t church. My college logic teacher would be surprised to hear me referencing a logical fallacy since it's the only class I ever dropped. Yes, I dropped a logic class because it was too hard. Insert any logic or common sense joke about me here _______. The fallacy of equivocation is when a word is used ambiguously within an argument. People who say an online church isn't really church ambiguously use the word “church” over and over again. The idea is "church" for many is aligned with a personal experience around a physical building. A great example of this argument is in a recent NY Times opinion piece where the headline was "Internet Church Isn’t Really Church.” The article describes physical attendance as a true church, points to our isolated society as to why it's unhealthy for people to attend online, and ends with a strong statement that she wouldn’t be a true believer without a "real, in-person, Sunday morning church” gathering. I want to be clear this writer intended to share her experience and not be the end all to what church is and how online fits into the bigger picture, but I find her argument recurring in many circles.

The false equivocation occurring, I believe meeting the fallacy standards, is calling church this thing you only attend in person, and anything that isn’t in-person can’t be labeled as a church. The writer in the article points to the church being this in-person thing, and it is crucial it’s in-person therefore online church isn’t really a church. On a side note, I hate saying in-person and physical when comparing online and local church, but I haven’t found better verbiage. The dilemma here is the word church in the Bible is rarely focused on what or how people are gathering, but on the who is gathering. It’s evident throughout the early church and the letters of Paul the use of the church is identified by those gathering together, and the thing they had in common was how Jesus Christ changed their life. The Westminster Confession of Faith says the church is the “whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof.” The sticky point of the definition is the use of “gather” or in other definitions the word “community” is used instead. Does the gathering or community need to be nearby to be “really church”?

I do think more is happening with this argument by persuasively piggybacking off a feeling in society when it comes to the use of the word "community." Now, the dilemma for many in culture is, are online communities true communities? I believe the fallacy equivocation is often used by many people as well who casually belittled online expressions of communities. Here are a few examples I wrote up to show how someone born before 1980 would respond to the use of true community within the context of online:

  • A community is having people over to my house to watch a football game. A community isn’t tweeting with others about a football game.

  • A community is visiting a friend for lunch. A community isn’t texting with a friend during lunch.

  • A community is playing in my backyard with my friends. A community isn’t playing Fortnite with my friends on a group Discord chat.

A person who was alive for the Iran US hostage crisis would say online isn't true community and anything done right before was in-person. I don’t think you can limit the use of "community” to solely nearby touch points and as well with the use of the word “church.” Now, you can say which one is more valuable while still giving credit that doing things online is an expression of community or is an expression of church. We don’t have to make a false equivocation and say one thing isn’t the church or isn’t a community. Personally, I think an in-person church is the best expression of church, but I also think an online church is an expression of church as well. Am I making sense? I may have gotten lost in my own maze. Let’s get back to the point. I believe an online church is an expression of what church is while not being the fullest expression of church. The only time online ministry starts to look like the purest form of biblical church is when people watching online are encouraged to launch in-person home gatherings and lean into a local community experience. I know many online ministries that are embracing a strategy of online to offline and look more like a church planting network than an internet church.

I think the thief on the cross in Luke 23 is a perfect example to "nail in my point." I know… that was a terrible joke. I’m embracing my full dad joke vibe now. The story of the thief on the cross paints the picture of the minimal requirements to get into heaven. The thief doesn’t live a good life, never takes communion or gets baptized, never attends a church service or even an online church service, and never completes any doctrinal classes. The thief only knew he was terrible and deserved to be on the cross, Jesus didn’t deserve to be on the cross alongside him, and somehow Jesus could help get him into heaven and asked him to remember him after he died. Jesus famously confirms that the thief would be in heaven by saying back “Truly, I say to you, today will be with me in paradise."

The thief of the cross is a fantastic story of how grace and salvation aren’t dependent on our actions, but only faith in Jesus does the work of saving our soul. Should you and I strive to live like the thief on the cross? Should we aim to get the minimal requirements to that heavenly access card? No! Nobody should strive to be the thief on the cross. Nobody should spend their whole life trying to hit the minimum marks to get into heaven. We should strive to be like Paul or better yet become like Jesus himself, but that doesn’t mean we misrepresent what happened to the thief on the cross.

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We can’t discredit the thief's salvation story because it was too simple. I feel the same thing is true when people say an online church isn’t church. We are throwing out what church is for a fuller definition. Many people misrepresent what church is for the sole sake of not allowing people to say an online church is actually a church. I think the argument is not sound, falls short, and often evokes the fallacy of equivocation. Yes, the best expression of church is a gathering in-person, but that doesn’t mean church online isn’t an expression of church and can't be biblical. I would love for articles like the one in the NY Times and others that regurgitate its ideas to merely say an online church is an expression of church and not throw out the entire thing as not being actually church.

I do believe many online ministries, and I’m including myself in this generalization, need to be better at leading people to local expressions of church and help those attending solely online to start their own house church gatherings. The future of online church isn’t about keeping people online but leading them offline to in-person experiences. I wanted to say something clearly around those who participate online. People engage in online ministry for many different reasons, and often those reasons are skewed by a few loud voices labeling them as lazy. Some join because of a season of life, others because of sickness, and a few because of security concerns. Those who are genuinely engaged are not just watching a screen. Think of labeling a person who just sits in the back row of your church, arrives late and leaves early as representing your entire church body. It wouldn’t be a fair representation of who your church is, and I believe online churches are misrepresented by that one lazy friend. That friend doesn’t represent what online church is to me, and I believe is happening in many online churches around the world. I don’t think it’s fair for those being reintroduced to the church or being inaugurated into the church as not active in true church.

My experience with people engaging with online church is real people participating in small groups, giving, serving locally, baptizing each other, taking communion together, going on mission trips, and much more than just watching a service online. Throw out that image of an AOL chat room and start envisioning a home church gathering that is fueled by an online medium. My prayer is online church is more known for the many home gatherings it launches in the coming decades than the distribution channel. Too many people get wrapped up with the use of online, and the next ten years this will be a non-argument for many within church circles. Time will smooth out the fogginess. So, the next time someone says “Church online isn’t real church” just say back “That’s a fallacy of equivocation” to sound smart, but please don’t say this to your senior pastor.