This summer I’m taking Wycliffe’s Ministry and Technology course online. Every two weeks we’re to write a 1000-word response to a given prompt that we have first worked through in discussion forums, and submit that response for grading. There is no requirement to share these papers online, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyways. (“Course notes” refers to Dr. Power’s online required reading.)
Paper #3: Digital Church?
Prompt: “The online church fulfills the functional definition of church as the intersection of community, worship and mission.” (Robert Warren). Agree or disagree?
In my comments below, I will have in mind online-only churches such as St. Pixels and Redeem the Commute (both of which were creative attempts that were unable to maintain their sustainability), and the ad hoc virtual ministry we are now engaged in due to physical distancing. As the course notes conclude, “real and virtual churches cannot be presented as an either/or choice, but rather as a both/and.” (5.4) My response to Warren is that virtual churches suffice for community, mission and Ministry of the Word, but are incomplete due to the physical embodiment necessary for Sacramental ministry and more authentic human community.
My way into agreeing with Warren’s statement are the similarities between virtual and real-world church. Campbell notes how people have sought for and found the relational dimension of community online, through text and video conversations with pastors and other congregants. (Heidi A Campbell, “What Religious Groups Need to Consider when Trying to do Church Online,” The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online, 50) They have heard the Word and engaged in personal and responsorial prayer, so these aspects of worship are present. (Course notes, 5.2) And digital church spaces have opened a whole mission field of those who find it difficult or foreign to attend a physical church. (Ibid., 5.4, “Mission”) Finally, a similar mix of genuine communication and “spiritual masking” exists both in physical church and digital church: similar opportunities exist for authentic relationship and the brokenness of sin. (Ibid., 5.1, “Concerns”)
All of these, especially the possibility and challenges of community, are because the lives of many in our culture do not neatly admit of a separation between “physical” and “virtual” existence. As we have grown up with the “internet as an ‘indwelt created space and social interaction’” (Howe, quoted in Course notes, 5.1), our digital identities are integrated into our lives. Our sense of self and relationships involve an unprecedented degree of online presence and communication, such that we conceive of apps, websites, livestreams, video and text chats as “places” where we “go.” Physical distancing has intensely highlighted this spatial extrapolation, as the pandemic has reduced our ability to go and share physical spaces with others. Again, this is both an opportunity for authenticity and raises the continued spectre of deception.
On the other hand, the reliance on a functional rather than normative definition of church moves us away from rather than toward the ecclesial ideal to which we are called. To take some examples: there are indeed similar opportunities for authenticity and deception in both physical and virtual church. But rather than an argument in favour of virtual church as completely authentic church, this point highlights the pastoral need in a primarily physical church to foster greater authenticity and address the underlying causes of masking. It is also true that online church is easier for those with physical limitations to access, but this highlights the urgent need to remove physical barriers, by installing wheelchair ramps, elevators, moveable chairs and other renovations. Similarly, the mission field of digital contacts and the integration of physical and virtual identities highlights the need for physical churches to have an online presence, but as with online dating it is insufficient for the primary celebration of church to be a digital presence. The goal is to encourage greater integrity in a community’s embodied, physical human existence before God. This embodied, physical integrity is the norm of human existence, and is taken up in the worship of God most fully in the physically gathered community. (Course notes, 5.1, “concerns”)
My “real but incomplete” answer presses the “donatist problem,” which often raises its head when we are pressed with either-or questions. Is an online church efficaciously church? God is not limited by our lack of gathering in a church building any more than He needs a corporal on the altar to “aim at” when turning bread and water into Body and Blood. But our current discernment of efficacious church is best served by addressing the “from below” question of human ideal rather than a “donatist” posture of “from above”: what do we need right now, as human creatures? Because whatever it is that God does among us, we trust that it is for our benefit, for our sanctification towards the ideal way of being human.
Regarding the Sacramental heart of the Church, Mikowski put it best: “In the digital age, it may be the case that the classical debates about the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist have been inverted. The question with which we may now have to wrestle is not ‘In what way is the Lord present in the Supper?’ Instead, the question is ‘In what ways are we present in the Supper?'” (Gordon S. Mikoski, “Bringing the Body to the Table,” Theology Today 67:3, 258-259) The corporal is an important example: God does not need it, but we do, because it demonstrates a progressive consecration of physical space, an intentionally progressive drawing-in of our human attention and focus. This drawing-in begins at the church door and the narthex, passes among us through the nave, into the chancel, predella, altar, mensa, corporal, chalice and paten, and culminates in bread and wine turned into Body and Blood.
In our age of competition and distraction, of digital and physical identities, we need God to reintegrate us through the focus of our weekly physical gathering. In our current circumstances, God can and does use online church to provide us His Word and the relational connections we need while we are unable to gather in-person, and some measure of those connections when we can again. Ultimately however, this is incomplete: to use Macluhan’s formulation, the disembodied medium of virtual church presses a message of disembodied human identity. When we regain the choice between virtual-only church or primarily physical church, to prefer a virtual church is to remove oneself further from the ideal, when something closer to the ideal is at hand. God consistently draws us toward the human ideal of physical, embodied gathering, an ideal set out at Creation, perfected in the Incarnate Christ’s own work of gathering while on earth (Ibid., 258), and taken up in our own gathering before Him as the Church.