Is The Online Church Really ‘Church?’

by Paul on January 9, 2009

I, for one, am so tired of this question.  Usually, it comes from people who don’t really want to answer the question.  Usually, it comes from people who want to defend the expression of church they are most comfortable with.

Usually, but not always.  But more often than not.

When ‘online church folk’ respond, they are always on the defensive.  In fact, the question is designed to put people on the defensive.  When they respond, ‘offline church folk’ say (or imply), “I wonder if you are really believe online church is a Biblical expression of church, or if you are simply validating what you doing so that you can feel better about it.”  Which again puts the ‘online church’ folk on the defensive.  

This is a no-win question.  Ever.

This question came up at the recent Dallas Tech Camp (#ctcdallas) – *Shock! Surprise! Couldn’t see that one coming if it was a purple cow wearing a bathrobe!*  Immediately there were calls for a definition of church and of community and whether you needed to separate the two.  The problem is, everyone has a different definition of church that they really like and that represents the form of church in which they feel the most comfortable.  Usually, these definitions are adaptations of something-someone-somewhere said about church.  All of us knew from experience that these conversations weren’t going anywhere.  But we all knew we needed to move on.

So I challenged everyone to read the Bible, cover-to-cover.  As they did, anytime they found something that addressed what church is and does, they should post it to the community so that the community could decide that particular description or action had any online expression.

It killed the conversation and – as far as I know – there were no takers.

So, here is what I’m going to do:

1.   I don’t think that I’m going to spend any more time trying to answer that question outside the context of a whole-Bible study.  If you really want to find the answer, join me as I read the whole Bible this year.  If you really want to talk about it, I will engage you for awhile, but eventually I’m going to invite you to study the whole Bible with me.

2.  As I read the Bible, I’m going to look passages that address one or more of the following: Metaphors for Church, Nature of Church, Structure of Church, and Function of Church.  Metaphors are word-pictures of the church like, ‘Body of Christ.’  Things that do not ever change are the ‘Nature’ of Church.  How the church is organized refers to the ‘Structure’ of church.  Finally, what the church does addresses the Function of Church.

3.  When I find any of those, I’m going to ask:  ”How can this (insert thing) find expression online?”  (“If” questions lead to ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers rather that intense wrestling.)

4.  If a particular element can find online expression, I’m going to deal with it.  If it cannot find online expression, I’m going to deal with that, too.  Either way, I will share my findings.

5.  I’m going to challenge people to join me in my study, because it can only help the church.  It doesn’t matter if you are an online church person, an offline church person, or if you don’t care – you need to wrestle with Scripture yourself and discover what church is for yourself.  Don’t depend on what anyone tells you about church – read the Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit!

Any conversation about the validity of church is stupid if it is removed from the whole counsel of the whole Bible.  Which means, we need to read the whole Bible together so that neither one of us is proof texting for one expression of church or the other.  Plain and simple.  Even if you’ve studied the Bible for years, you need the refresher.  I can’t remember everything and I know you can’t either.

Anyone going to join me?

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Discovering What The Bible Says About Online Church, or Just Church Period! : Reaching The Online Generation
January 9, 2009 at 10:00 pm

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

josh chapman January 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm

I don’t say this lightly, but I think I’ll try this with you. Let me know where we start!

Paul January 9, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Let’s start tonight in Genesis 1:1. I don’t know if we’ll find anything that directly speaks to church, but the point of the study is to find what is there. Read with a notebook in hand and write down what you find. I’ll try to figure out a good place we can share what we learn.

Also, I may explore http://www.youversion.com to see if it is a good tool we can use as we go through this together.

Blessings,
-Paul.

Nick Charalambous January 9, 2009 at 4:33 pm

I am joining you, Paul. I had the same resolution this New Year. I would love to swap notes. Love the four-part division you suggest. Maybe you can post any findings book-by-book and let your readers back-fill? (I’m not a You-Version user yet, because so far as I know you can’t search the tags or bookmarks and you can’t export anything you add.)

Paul January 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Great, Nick! I look forward to the interaction.

-Paul.

Paul January 10, 2009 at 3:29 am

@Nick – I will post updates to this blog if you don't want to be on You Version.

@Bobby V – Great! I think it will be lots of fun!

Bobby V January 10, 2009 at 9:19 am

I’m in, too! This is my personal challenge for this year. I’m also inviting some friends of mine to come and read these articles and challenge them to walk through this with us.

John King February 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Paul,

I suspect much of the problem arises from the pre-conceived ideas that church demands face-to-face relationships. While I can believe that there are real benefits to relationships being formed face-to-face, the very existence of the Bible causes me to be careful about not going too far pushing my personal preferences.

Paul’s letters are an example of the powerful role that written communication can have in relationships. While some will want to say that these letters were written to people with whom he already had a relationship that was formed face-to-face, that is not always true either.

Paul wrote the church at Colossae though he had not met any of them personally (Colossians 2:1). Yes, he knew Epaphras who brought the gospel to them (Colossians 1:7), but Paul had only heard of their faith (Colossians 1:4). This apostle anticipated nurturing a stronger faith in this community through the written word. I have no doubt he would be a gospel/church planter online. Consider also his letter to the church in Rome (his most detailed presentation of the gospel) was sent to people he had never met before. Yes, I know that he mentions many by name in chapter 16 that he knew and worked beside, but this group helps to vouch for the trustworthy nature of his writing for those who would be hearing from him for the first time through his writing.

Thanks for stretching our categories. Some will not be elastic enough to do online ministry, but don’t let them drag you down. Jesus warned that old wineskins cannot hold new wine.

John King

P.S., I am not going to join this Bible study because of others I am already involved in, but I look forward to future blog references to the study.

Paul March 4, 2009 at 7:52 am

John,

Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. The wealth of knowledge and understand you have about Scripture is incredibly valuable to the online mission field. We need guys like you in this space and I appreciate you being here.

-Paul.

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