When I was a student at bible college, I managed to arrange a placement with the father of a friend, who was a pastor. Nothing unusual in that, except that it was in the States, and the church had a membership of 2,500 or so. I had never seen anything like it. The staff, the facilities, the programmes, took me into a bewildering new world of how a larger church behaved.
Out of the box of ideas I brought back, many of which set me up in new directions, two stick in my mind at the moment.
The first was that this was a church which broadcast its services. Our countries were very different at that stage: we had four, tightly controlled channels, where they had thousands, it seemed, and it was relatively easy for a local church to get airtime on a Sunday. And not that unusual. I watched as the pastor led worship and prepared to preach, all for the people in the auditorium, and then – while the organ played quietly and the offering was taken – he spoke quietly and directly to an unobtrusive camera lens. If you were there and didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t have been noticeable.
The second difference was how they run their membership list. I had worked for churches in the UK by then, and seen typed membership lists, and card index systems. This church had a computer, and one member of staff employed to keep it up to date. To be fair, the principal reason was a requirement to ensure everyone who gave, was given a receipt, for tax purposes. But, still.
Back at college, all the students shared their placement experiences. Mine – and I did try to tone it down a bit, and hide the fact that I’d had my own office, and a secretary – were met initially by curious silence, and then by a snigger from a good friend. “Why on earth would a church have a computer?’
For quite understandable reasons, initial Christian reaction to developments in computer technology were reactive: first generation computers were unwieldy, unnecessary and expensive, and even when they began to be used in churches, it was to do the kind of basic admin that a human could do, but maybe faster, and without getting bored. So even when they arrived and we could afford them, computers were basically there to run a church office more efficiently. They were sharper pencils. In any case, there were much more pressing questions to be addressed, like nuclear weapons, global poverty or ecological destruction.
There were analyses and critiques of what was happening, but they were largely outside the Christian thought-world. One exception was the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who had published The Technological Society in the mid-sixties, but that was more concerned with a Christian critique of efficiency and technique, than computers per se. In any case, his book was part of a much wider sociological analysis, with a particular political edge that not all would have enjoyed.
Two later authors outlined the initial Christian response, one leaning towards the positive, the other towards the negative.
Patrick Dixon is a Christian business author and futurist, who published Cyberchurch in the mid 1990s.He gave a fair review of what computers could currently do, outlined options for what might be doable in the future, and outlined some dangers. It’s not really fair to describe his predictions, because in this fast-paced industry nothing dates faster than prophecy. Even at that point he was right to warn about the dangers of online pornography, cyber addiction, and so on. And he even peered at we might think of as a church existing in Virtual Reality, which he called ‘A kind of pseudo-Christian existence which denies the very basis of local Christian community’ We shall come back to that question, obviously, but it’s worth noting, and celebrating, that he got there a quarter of a century ago, way ahead of the rest of us.
The overall balance of Dixon’s work, though, leans towards positive. He sees huge opportunities ahead for being able to make Christian teaching, worship, discipling and evangelism online, and being able to reach countries otherwise closed. His basic approach is summed up as ‘Seizing the Potential’.
I’m going to adopt a traffic light system: Dixon sees red, amber, and green elements here, and he advises us to be careful and discerning. Red for church, amber for fellowship, green for proclaiming. The issue we need to tackle, though, is not just the filtering system (where there are many more issues to decide over), but other we are on the right road at all. It is no criticism of Dixon to say that he has been overtaken by events: in the light of everything we use our tech for, to say ‘the Internet is just a massive electronic printing press, popularising everything connected with it’ is today a foolishly naive approach. It is no longer just anything.
Douglas Groothuis is a Christian philosopher currently based at Denver Seminary, whose main popular publishing work has been a series of books on truth and postmodernity. He is an apologist, and an able one. In The Soul in Cyberspace he outlined his major concerns about the effect of the internet on the Christian. The internet is a carrier for New Age postmodernity, in that it doesn’t allow for any final truth claims; everything is presented equally and democratically. This, he argues, is corrosive for the gospel.
He goes further. The claims that are made for ‘cyberspace’ are close to idolatrous in his mind: ‘technophiles dazzle us with their breathless prophecies of social regeneration through breakthrough technologies: the blind will see, the lame will walk, the poor shall thrive, and the dead shall be raised – eventually, given enough time and talent.’
So Groothuis was much more negative than Dixon. Where Dixon saw good and bad, and some other stuff, Groothuis saw a toxic carrier which would pollute even the good. Red lights.
Once again, it’s unfair to judge Groothuis by what has happened. Neither man could have predicted the stunning pace of development; and we should congratulate them for having predicted as much as they did, correctly. Groothuis is surely right that the sheer volume of contradictory information has made the establishment of truth much harder, although he saw nothing as deadly as the era of misinformation on an industrial and international scale. But I don’t think it’s moved us uniformly towards an era of nondescript New Age spirituality. It’s out there, of course, but it cannot be the dominating flavour, because nothing is the dominating flavour.
What’s more difficult and dangerous today, especially for apologists like Groothuis, is our inability to talk to one another. A fellow apologist, Jonathan Morrow, in a preface to a major Barna Group study on Gen Z, writes,’… We are getting to the point where no one will listen to someone else’s point of view unless they stay completely agree with them.’ 
Bicycles for the church?
Let’s look for a brighter side. If Steve Jobs said that personal computers are bicycles for the mind, could they also be bicycles for the soul?
Second Life was one of the first programmes to provide a continuous, multiplayer, virtual reality. Join up, and you choose your avatar (how you choose to appear to other players), and then you… live your second life. You can be anything, from a fire-breathing blue dragon, to a suburban dentist. You talk, relate, earn local currency.
Games like this had to wait until powerful enough machines were widely and cheaply available, which is why there was a lag between the idea and the delivery. Disney produced their first Tron movie with this underlying concept in 1982; Second Life launched in 2003. But it proved popular, although the initial exponential growth has dipped. There are now just under a million regular users, and I guess that’s in part because of heavy competition from the likes of World of Warcraft.
It wasn’t long before some strong arguments emerged for a Christian presence on Second Life. What an astonishing mission field! Among the earliest was Douglas Estes, a professor and pastor, who in 2009 was anticipating a rise in Second Life users to many millions. It doesn’t matter that he was wrong on that – the question is not whether he was right on the platform, so much as the concept.
And his concept is that ‘synthetic’ (his term) experiences like Second Life are as valid as any other. So to build a church – building and congregation – in this space is as valid as any other. His reason for the word ‘synthetic’ is that when two believers pray together in a Second Life church, their prayer and fellowship is as real as if they were sitting in adjacent chairs. As he puts it most sharply, there is a ‘big elephant in the room: Is a virtual church a real, authentic, and valid expression of the Church of Jesus Christ?’.
Let’s pause a second before we answer. Remember that you could choose your avatar? That means, and I’m not pushing Estes beyond where he would happily go, one could conceive of a church with a toaster praying with a mermaid. You’re probably screaming at this moment, ‘But that’s just pretend! It’s a fake persona!’ And Estes replies, ‘I’ll bet you anything that scores of people in the real world church hide their true spiritual identities in their day-to-day lives; go to work, go to the mall, go to dinner, go walking in the park, and most if not all of the people they meet have no idea that they were followers of Christ (or Loki, for that matter).’ Masks, he says, are a sinful normality. But surely, there’s nothing neutral or normal if I, a middle aged, balding, white guy, relate to you only as a twenty-year old black woman. If that’s all you know me as. Let me add, I’m being much more modest than Estes’ own examples.
If you find this weird, join the club. But there’s a reason for being here. Let’s go further. One of the questions dealing with a Second Life church raises, is, to what extent our physical life is essential to church. And the pinch point is always the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Estes looks at both – so shall we, toward the end of this book. But Estes is arguing for, ideally, a fully virtual online experience. So on the Lord’s Supper, he presents four options which he says are unsatisfactory, and then hints at a fifth way, ‘virtual communion.’ He doesn’t go into details, although I shall argue for one of his rejected ones. But on baptism he does flesh it out, and to my mind, this is where the model explodes. Again he lays out four unsatisfactory ways, and hints at ‘virtual baptism’. But then he goes into an interesting question: infant baptism. Now that may not be a question for you, but stay with this, became the way he handles it is fascinating: on the understanding that an avatar of a person is a member of that Second Life church, then the infant should be baptised in that Second Life church.
But hang on. We’ve allowed that the parent avatar might be a mermaid, or a toaster. What if the baby is presented as a puppy? I’m not trying to mock, I’m trying to push: what if there isn’t even a baby at all in the physical world? What if it’s a puppy, given an avatar of a baby? What if it’s a complete fantasy, and no baby exists at all?
Estes says he finds questions like these, about both communion and baptism, ‘an unnecessary sticking point’. Whether you agree or disagree, if you’re considering how you’re going to handle bread, wine and water, you’re going to have to explain why.
Much more modest are the British based online churches, ‘St Pixels’ (you could tell it was British from its name, couldn’t you?) and ‘i-church’. When you visit their websites, it’s almost as though you are visiting the website of a regular church, but experienced online, and doubtless that’s the intention. In fact, if you’ve moved much more online during lockdown, your presentation and theirs will probably be very similar. Except that they are 100% online.
I promised you a reason for looking at churches like these, and here it is. Back before March 2020, if I’d asked you whether online churches were real churches, you’d probably have scoffed and said ‘Of course not.’ You’d heard of a few mega churches running relays of their services to second sites, but that was so costly and beyond you, that you wouldn’t have considered the option.
Now, though, you’re doing it, every week. And with every likelihood that it’s going to be your reality for quite some time to come. And once-irrelevant questions are now rather pressing.
- Is Groothuis right? Is this an inappropriate and compromised space for a church to occupy?
- Is Dixon right? Can we just pick the bones out?
- Is Estes right? Should we just go all-in with online?
- Is Howe right, that there’s something about baptism and the Lord’s Supper which doesn’t work virtually?
Is an online presence of a physically represented church, the same as a fully online church? When your church couldn’t actually meet, were you fully online, and did that count? If people watch a recording of your service on YouTube, and pray with you – in what sense are they praying with you? Are an online church, and a virtual or synthetic church, different kinds of things, or places on a continuum?
Deep waters, Watson.
This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?
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 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964. London: Jonathan Cape, 1965.
 Dixon, 20.
 Dixon, 61.
 Dixon, 161.
 Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997)
 Groothuis ,11
 Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation; A Barna Report
(Ventura: Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute, 2018), 5.
 Over a hundred million users, according to Adam Alter, Irresistible: Why you are addicted technology and how to set yourself free (London: Penguin/Vintage, 2017), 16-17.
 Douglas Estes, SIMCHURCH: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
 Estes, 22.
 Estes, 33.
 Estes, 33.
 Estes, 168.
 Estes, 157.
 Estes, 157.
 Estes, 128.
 Estes, 115.