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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cyber Christianity: The Church


of the Future?
By Todd Matocha*
Is an exclusively online church a viable option for Christians? This is a
question generating much discussion at the moment. The computer is
now a part of our everyday life. Many in our congregations socialize more
by sending text messages or commenting on Facebook than in person.
Whether we like it or not, online socialization has arrived. How will it
affect our churches?
Blogging and Cyberchurch
There is a rapidly growing movement within the Christian community
promoting the idea of an exclusively online church. This movement is
becoming more organized and influential. In March 2009, a group
committed to the development of cyber churches met in London. Among
those present were representatives from the Church of England and the
Methodist Church of Great Britain. Both organizations have already
launched their own versions of an online church. However, the push is
especially strong within the world of Christian bloggers.
What is a blog? A blog (short for web log) is a website that operates like a
journal. The host of the site posts short articles, and online visitors can
add comments. Blogs encourage conversation and engage participants in
dialogue. The heart and soul of the Christian blog is continuous, real time
communication, which allows participants freely and actively to discuss
various issues relating to the Christian faith.
In his provocatively titled work, We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why
Bloggers are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church,[i] Tim Bednar
sees the increasing popularity of blogging as an impending sea change
for pastors and the church. He goes on, We are not just a new kind of
Christian or an emerging church fad. We are a new kind of preacher,
theologian, pundit, apologist and church-goer. The phenomenon of
blogging is transforming our expectations of church. Bednars desire is

to see a new community formed to cultivate spiritual development


without the limitations of time, buildings and pastors.
Bednar and bloggers who share his convictions want a church shaped by
the technological advancements of our age. The primary means of grace,
leading to spiritual maturity, is dialogue through blogging. According to
Bednar, it is a new kind of church created by believers transformed by
their use of the Internet. Their so-called virtual life is changing them and
in turn, they will change the church.
What is Driving the Demand for Change?
Bednar argues that the invention of the Internet is the basis for this new
philosophy. Technological changes necessitate a rethinking of how we do
church. Is this really the case? What developments have the Internet
brought to the human race that necessitate a departure from the church
life of Christians in the past?
Sure, the Internet connects us to a global community and allows
instantaneous, real-time communication. Sure, all these benefits are
received by the average person; you dont need to hold a degree in
computer science to use the Internet. As a result, we have greater
resources and opportunities to spread the Christian message. This is all
very positive.
However, the basic forms of communication known to mankind are the
same now as they were in any given age: oral, sign and written. These
forms were available to Moses, Paul and Calvin. What has changed is
the means of communication. Moses communicated the written word on
stone tablets, Paul used scrolls, and Calvin promoted reform using printed
books. Now we use electronic means/methods to communicate
instantaneously and globally. We communicate better, but not differently.
We are still using speech, sign and written word.
Although some claim technological advancement as the basis for change,
it is difficult to understand why. What is it about electronic means of
communication that demand a change in the way we think about the
church? The invention of the printing press did not lead the reformers to
rethink the church. Instead, it drove them back to the origins of the
church. They were not interested in the emergence of a new church but in
repentance and reformation in an unfaithful church.

The great need of our day is a return to apostolic ecclesiology. Ignorance


about the biblical doctrine of the church, not advancements in technology,
it seems, is driving the demand for change.
Desiring a Subhuman Church
Apart from leaving out people who are not, and perhaps never could be,
computer literate, one characteristic of the online church is that it
restricts physical communion and fellowship. By its very nature, it is
devoid of physical, face-to-face interaction. The world of the Internet
accommodates a part of us but not the whole man. This is a great
weakness.
God created us as body and soul. In Genesis, God reveals that we consist
of material (out of dust) and spiritual (breathed life into us) elements.
This is basic to the Christian understanding of human nature. Many of
those promoting cyberchurch tend to emphasize the spiritual aspect of
man to the neglect of the physical.
According to the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, Man has a spirit,
but that spirit is psychically organized and must, by virtue of its nature,
inhabit a body. It is of the essence of humanity to be corporeal and
sentient. Hence, mans body is first (if not temporally, then logically)
formed from the dust of the earth and then the breath of life is breathed
into him. He is called Adam after the ground from which he is
formed.[ii] An environment that has no place for the physical is
subhuman.
What implications does this doctrine have on the church? Primarily, it
dictates how we worship God. Worship involves the whole man, not just
the spiritual part. Thus, true worship must be offered to God in body and
soul.
This is easily demonstrated in the Old Testament, because worship was
connected to a physical location, the temple. However, the New
Testament seems to provide for more freedom in worship. Jesus tells us
the restrictions of Old Testament worship will be abolished; now we
worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). Is Jesus opening
the door for spiritual, as opposed to bodily, worship? Is he giving the
church liberty to introduce cyberworship?

The reference to worship in spirit is not in opposition to worship in body.


It most probably refers to Trinitarian worship. In the New Testament era,
we worship God as he is fully revealed as Triune. We worship the Father
in the Holy Spirit and in Truth, a term used by John to speak of Jesus.
[iii] Yet, we worship Him as men, whole men, body and soul.
The importance of bodily worship is clear in the New Testament. We
continue to worship using the concept of a temple. The temple is no
longer in Jerusalem; it is now every believer. To be specific, the temple is
the body of every believer. Our body is a member of Christ and is the
temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:15, 19). Paul is speaking of the
physical body, not something virtual. The context makes this abundantly
clear. He is exhorting the Corinthians to refrain from engaging their
bodies in immoral sexual acts because the body is united to Christ. It is
this bodily temple in which or by which we worship God.
This is also seen in the coming together idea spoken of in the New
Testament. Paul speaks of the Corinthians coming together as a church
(1 Cor. 11:18). He goes on to define this gathering by the terms in one
place (1 Cor. 11: 20) and to eat (1 Cor. 11:20,33). They meet in a
physical location to perform a physical act, namely eating the Lords
Supper. Paul highlights the corporeal nature of the Corinthian church.
The New Testament continues to insist upon assembling in person but no
longer calls Christians to go to Jerusalem. Now we worship wherever
believers are physically gathered.
Denying the Sensual in the Sacraments
Christian worship involves the whole man, body and soul. It also appeals
to all the physical senses. The worshipper hears the word sung, prayed,
and preached. In addition, Christ gave His people a visible and tangible
word. In the sacraments of Baptism and the Lords Supper, the senses of
touch, smell, and sight are engaged. The whole man fully participates.
In the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin wrote, Wherever we see
the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments
administered according to Christs institution, there, it is not to be
doubted, a church of God exists. [book iv, ch. 1. Sect. 9] Does
cyberchurch offer this?
It would not be surprising to hear of an online church offering virtual
communion, but is that a sacrament administered according to Christs

institution? Virtual bread and wine benefit us as much as a virtual Christ


dying on a virtual cross. The very purpose of the sacraments is that they
are physical, tangible and concrete. They are sensual signs that confirm,
support and nurture our faith.
This is not to say that the way we understood the church before the
invention of the Internet was better. It is not a qualitative distinction. The
historic understanding is the only way to view the church. Cyberchurch is
not, nor ever can be, a viable option.
Devaluing the Unique Place and Authority of the Local Church
and Local Church Elders
Another common feature of the online Christian community is the
emphasis on the universal church to the neglect of the local church.
Cyberchurches boast of having members from all over the world. One of
the distinguishing marks of Bednars participatory Church is that
Christians belong to multiple congregations. The local church is
marginalized; it is all about globalization.
Closely connected to the denial of the local church is an aversion to
church authority structures. Bednar wrote, The dominant theme to
emerge from my research is that bloggers value this medium because they
can participate without being filtered by church structures,
denominational restrictions or even doctrinal impurity. We have grown
tired of pastors being the gatekeepers of what is important. He seems to
think that the blogging community values being able to say what they
want to whom they want without accountability. This may be the biggest
problem facing Christian bloggers, whether they agree with Bednar or not.
New Testament writers speak highly of the local church and local church
elders. According to apostolic practice recorded in Acts, churches were set
up in cities and towns throughout the Roman world. These local churches
were in some way lacking until elders were appointed (see Acts 14:2123; Titus 1:5). Paul speaks of elders as gifts sent by Jesus to protect the
church from error and bring the church to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:1116). It sounds somewhat similar to what Bednar derogatorily calls
gatekeepers.
Jesus Christ cares for His church through duly appointed and ordained
elders. This is the teaching of the New Testament. The Apostle Peter
exhorts younger people to submit themselves to their local church elders

because he views local church elders as Shepherds of the flock of God (1


Peter 5:2 & 5). Bednars view of the church directly contradicts apostolic
teaching.
Also, the local church is unique in that it creates an environment for
spiritual nurture designed for a specific people living in a specific cultural
context. The universal church is unable to provide such an intensely
personal environment for discipleship. For example, Paul exhorted Titus
to appoint elders in the Cretan church who understood Cretan culture.
Such men were ideally suited to address the specific needs of that local
church. Similarly, Christ addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor
(Rev. 2-3) according to their unique strengths and weaknesses. He spoke
to them individually, not generally. He spoke to them as unique local
churches.
Things to Consider
Opportunities for the church abound in the online world. We should not
minimize this. However, we should not allow technological progress to
lead to ecclesiological regress. We must learn how to embrace new means
of communication in a God-honouring way. How can this be done?
Many of the problems we face in the online Christian community arise
because we are not clear in our own minds about the biblical doctrine of
the church. Elders and pastors need to teach their congregations about
the church. Individual Christians need to study the church. Read through
Acts and the apostolic epistles looking for information about the church.
You may be surprised how important this doctrine was to the apostles.
If you have a blog, then make it a priority to communicate the glorious
doctrine of the church. Let people who visit your site know where you
stand and why you think an exclusively online church is unbiblical. Also,
communicate the importance of the local church and the necessity for all
Christians to belong to a local body of believers.
One of the greatest dangers facing Christian bloggers is the lack of
accountability. Remember, blogging is a public forum, not a private
conversation. If you blog, inform your elders and welcome their oversight.
This is especially relevant for young, technologically savvy Christians.
Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. (1 Peter
5:5)

If you are a pastor, you might consider starting a blog in connection with
your local church. It could be added to your church website. Why? Many
Christians, possibly even some from your church, are being spiritually fed
and led by non-ordained men. According to www.blogs4god.com the most
popular Christian blogsite is run by a non-ordained man. Fortunately, he
has a high view of the church and has placed himself under the authority
of his local church elders. However, shouldnt those who are appointed by
the Holy Spirit to teach and preach, those who act as the mouthpiece of
Christ, be involved in Christian discipleship wherever it is taking place?
As we grapple with how to make the most of modern technology, let us
learn to use electronic means of communication to the benefit and
strengthening of Christs church.
Tim Bednar, We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers Are the
Vanguard of the Participatory Church, April 22,
2004, http://djchuang.googlepages.com/WeKnowMoreThanOurPastors.p
df (accessed 4 August 2009)
[ii] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, Baker Academic, Grand
Rapids, Michigan, page 559.
[iii] For a fuller discussion on this point see Robert Letham on The Holy
Trinity, Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, NJ, page 415ff and D. A.
Carson The Gospel According to John, in The Pillar New Testament
Commentary, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, UK,
page 224ff.
[i]

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd Matocha is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian


Church, Cardiff, Wales (a member church of the Evangelical Presbyterian
Church in England and Wales). This article was first published in the
November 2009 issue ofEvangelicals Now (UK). Reprinted by permission
of the author.
http://katekomen.gpts.edu/2010/12/cyber-christianity-church-of-future.html