Digital Ecclesiology Round Table Hosted by Aqueduct Project

I had the honor to be on an academic video meeting centered around the topic of Digital Ecclesiology. The conversation included pastors from around the world, church planters, online pastors, theologians, and digital experts. Not everyone agreed on what was and wasn't possible for the church online, which lead to a healthy conversation. I geeked out a bit because a few of the participants were authors I have read. I enjoyed the meeting and I believe you will too. Thank you to the Aqueduct Project for transcribing the meeting!

List of active participants:

  • Justin Murff - Executive Director of the MENA Collective and President of NexGenerosity and Chairmen of Millennials for Marriage

  • Darrell Bock - Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

  • Dan Churchwell - Associate Director of Program Outreach at Acton Institute

  • Tim Clancy - Associate Professor of Philosophy and Honors Director at Gonzaga University

  • Douglas Estes - Associate Professor of New Testament and Practical Theology at South University-Columbia

  • David HanVice President of Academics at Pentecostal Theological Seminary

  • Daniel Herron - Pastor and Founder of the Robloxian Christians Online Church

  • Ali Khalil - Global Program Manager for the GProCommission

  • Jay Kranda - Saddleback Church Online Campus Pastor

  • Andrew Sears - President of City Vision University

  • DJ Soto - Lead Pastor of the Virtual Reality Church and owner of Sonata 7 Studios

  • Michael Svigel - Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

  • Tim Williams - Eagle Brook Church Online Pastor

  • Jonathan Armstrong - President of Aqueduct Project and Director of Moody Bible Institute’s Center for Global Theological Education

My favorite quotes:

God is present in the midst of these connections that we have virtually online because he’s bigger than anyone space than any one of us occupies. And so the idea that someone administering or overseeing something from one location connected digitally to someone else in another location, that somehow there’s a disconnect there, seems to me to be a problem. Spiritually, in light of God’s presence being in both of those locations simultaneously, and with an audience around it because it is for the body and not just an individual exchange, is something.
— Darrell Bock
We have an about 85 year old man who wanted to be baptized. And he called me and said that he was a part of our underground church, and he was begging for Baptism because he said, “I’m going to die very soon and I want to at least be baptized.” And I can’t go to Iran because I was arrested, I was persecuted, and after I was released, I had to flee the country. But, as you know, by Anglican sacrament, the priest for Baptism must be present. And the only solution I could find was that I sent one of my assistants to Iran and over telephone I said the prayer of a Baptism, blessed the water, and she baptized him. We have a lot of challenges to deal with regarding underground church, especially in areas with Muslim background. Our context is little bit different. For example, in Lebanon or in Jordan, Christianity is not illegal. The greater persecuting force is ordinary people, rather than government. But, in Iran, it is the other way around. The government is more radical. And because of that we try to find a solution to involve people who want to participate in church life.
— The Iranian
I think because you’re asking a question of possibility, then the answer is yes, unequivocally yes. I also think that when we talk about this we want to be careful of using the word door to other churches or other modes because I think that delegitimizes what we’re all trying to do or be a part of in this conversation. It seems like to me, in the example I used in my book, SimChurch (Zondervan, 2009), there are at least 96 different metaphors for the church in the Bible. There’s not a definition for church, really, but metaphors abound. And of those 96 metaphors, not one preclude or even suggest that you can’t have a virtual church, at least in an optimum sense of the word. Now, again, when we talk about what a virtual church is, and as you mentioned there’s different iterations, there’s going to be stronger iterations and there’s going be weaker iterations. But as just a general statement, a general possibility statement, yes absolutely. It is a church.
— Douglas Estes:
When we first started, this was more of an experiment. And then when we realized the immersive nature of VR, the sense of community, discipleship, and all these elements, we were just blown away by it. And we’ve come to the conclusion very quickly that, yes, you can have ecclesia inside a virtual reality environment. There can be discipleship, we do the sacraments, and all the elements that you would see in the physical church for the life of the church, we experience in virtual reality.
— DJ Soto
When we were talking about if online churches should or can exist, I always refer back to Matthew 18:20, when it says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” Because I think that when we talk about avatars, and this it’s really important to remember, that it doesn’t matter necessarily what we look like when we go in-person, or when we’re online. It doesn’t matter what the representation is as long as it’s the intention and the integrity of the people that are there.
— Daniel Herron:
It’s important to remember again that what is giving a little bit of confusion to this conversation is that we have these buildings, specifically in America, that we really, unfortunately, get caught up on. And we call church this thing that we go to. For the first three-hundred years, the church didn’t have buildings as we understand it and it was growing. This is why I’m glad we have legitimate theologians talking about this, what is the actual church. And I think a lot of times, at least in the American church, what leads to this confusion is that most people call online church just their Facebook stream, and we know church is much more than just streaming things. It’s the community. And so right now with online groups, we’re still primarily funneling them ultimately to home gatherings, home ecclesia, where Communion can happen and where Baptism can happen.
— Jay Kranda