Extremes of Online Church Define Debate. No More!
We love the extremes, but reality happens in the middle, and this is why I hate the dialogue around online church. I dislike, both thumbs down, how we have to go to extremes and not have a real conversation about using an online paradigm for evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and worship. I do understand how the extremes of online church make headlines and stir up middle Americans, but often nothing fruitful is produced. In a recent USA Today article called "Online church: Ministries use VR, apps to deliver digital services and virtual baptisms" I got a few mentions talking about online ministry. It was an honor to be in the piece along with a few of my friends. Now, virtual baptisms are fun to talk about as the post discusses, but most churches aren't going to be doing them anytime soon. Many read the post and get stuck on a Sims character being dunked into the water while not pondering more important implications of using the internet for their local church. Unfortunately, many difficult conversations requiring context, nuance, and wisdom get headlines only when the fundamentalist or liberal get into the news. Again, most live in the middle.
Talking about the future is impossible. I think I make this statement every other month. I even opened up my ebook with a similar point, but it’s important to repeat. We can speculate, but it's only hot air. Imagine pitching to IBM's board in 1953 that in the near future everyone will carry around computers in their pockets with the ability to call anyone in the world and stream live television. You would say no way because the iPhone didn't exist and the whole concept is limited to the reality of computers being the size of houses, and you can't fit a house in your pocket - end of the conversation. I don't think digital baptisms in the near future will be something familiar to the current expression. It will be different. IBM in 1953 different.
I was recently on a Zoom meeting with forty other online church experts. Pause for a second. Forty people around the world were on a video meeting discussing the church. It felt like Vatican III. 2019 is a cool time to be alive. Unpause. I say experts lightly because I was on the call and the field is still developing. The meeting included pastors from the Middle East, megachurch pastors, online pastors, theologians (one that got me pumped since I own a few of his books), and one VR pastor (that should be a give away). We talked for an hour, and all sorts of things were said. People pitched online church being possible while others were holding steadfast to it not being feasible. The problem was the fatalistic approach. The church is a physical thing and is best expressed as an in-person community — end of conversation (do you hear the echo?). I do understand the argument. I happen to agree with the argument if that is the structure of the argument. Again, the future is going to be different, and I don't believe you, a theologian or I understand this distant reality.
I wish the conversation on the meeting and in churches everywhere would shift to what is possible now. Here are three examples to get your mind-expanding:
Online church offers an incredible opportunity to decentralize church and plant smaller expressions in homes worldwide. Example? Churchome.
Online church offers up a fantastic pathway to reach people locally and plug them to your church or network churches. Example? My church.
I know drawing lines are helpful, and this is especially true talking about doctrine, but I have one appeal to you the reader. Please don't let the extremes define what is possible with online church. Talking about the negatives is easy. Let’s cultivate a deeper and more meaningful conversation on how God is using online church to grow his kingdom. Live in the middle and not the edges. Let’s move this conversation forward!