Friday, November 25, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Digital Christianity

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

USA Today has a story about Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, a church that is all-but-entirely online.

Download a worship program if you like. Stream a sermon and share your own thoughts about it in real time through live chat. Donate online or swap goods and services with your fellow believers. Sing along with a tablet hymnal, if that’s your cup of tea.

Tom: This is not merely an evangelical thing. Catholics with iPhones can download a “confession app” to speed up their next visit to the local parish priest.

Are we starting to reach the level of self-parody, Immanuel Can? Or do you see some value in a digital church?

Almost an Oxymoron

Immanuel Can: It’s almost an oxymoron, isn’t it? A “digital church”. How can a genuine church be digital? It’s like a “virtual” relationship: if such a thing is even possible, it’s rather attenuated and pallid relative to a real church, no?

Tom: That would be my thought. Well, let me qualify that a bit:

A digital church can be a useful short-term source of encouragement and spiritual food for someone in palliative care that still has the use of fingers and faculties. A digital church might be helpful to the sick and disabled, or to others who are cut off from regular fellowship with other believers for reasons out of their control.

But of course the ever-present danger in such things is that they can become wholly-inadequate replacements for real church life, even with all the bells and whistles cooked up by technically savvy Christians.

“God Knows How Many”

IC: Any idea how many people are actually relying on a digital source for their “fellowship”? I don’t imagine such a statistic is readily available …

Tom: I started to realize this was becoming a “thing” when an old friend recommended digital church to me a couple of years ago. Her husband had left her, and the comments and advice of some of the Christians at her old church were unhelpful enough that she retreated to her keyboard rather than look for a new place to worship or weather the storm. I suspect that happens a fair bit.

According to USA Today, Christ Fellowship has 2,100 people physically attending their Texas campus and “God knows how many” online. I guess the essence of being a keyboard warrior is anonymity. You can engage if you want, or lurk if you want, but if all you do is lurk, you’re essentially accountable to nobody. I’d say getting those numbers would be next to impossible.

I will say I engage with Christians every week in Internet forums, many of whom are not in RL (real life) churches. Their reasons are all over the map, but it makes me think there are large numbers of these folks out there.

What Is Gained and What Is Lost

IC: Hmm … well, maybe we should be asking ourselves what is to be gained and lost by taking that option. On the gain side, you mention anonymity. Convenience would be another one, obviously, with nearly universal access.

Tom: Anonymity is a two-edged sword though. Sure, you don’t have to listen to anything you don’t want to hear, you don’t have to engage with anyone you don’t like, you don’t have to worry about being identified as a Christian … wait, these are all negatives from a biblical perspective.

IC: Okay. Maybe that’s another positive of a sort: you never have to deal with real people, their personalities, preferences, attitudes, choices, and so on. You can click away as soon as you don’t like anything you’re seeing or hearing. But I was talking to another Christian last night. You know how it’s often easier for an outsider to see what needs to happen in a person’s life than in is for the person himself? Well, I think maybe the Lord wants this guy — who is a talented leader — to learn the discipline of submitting to people he currently regards as “less talented” than he is. I fear he’s got an ego issue and doesn’t know it. But if he were a member of a cyber-church, he would never have to learn that lesson. And I think that would mean he would really be more able to resist what the Lord is graciously trying to do in refining his character.

Retreating to the Keyboard

Tom: Good point. I might argue that my friend who ran for the hills from her old church because she found the criticism of other believers painful would have been better served by staying too. In refusing to be overcome by the words of hurtful people, we are frequently being equipped to be genuinely helpful later on to others who are going through the same sorts of things. But if we run whenever we feel afflicted or misunderstood, we neither receive the comfort God intends for us nor are able to communicate it later to others.

Back when there was no virtual church to retreat to, my friend would have had to weigh her fellowship options a little more carefully.

The Faith of the Incarnate God

IC: Okay. Now, this brings us to what I regard as a very important theological and practical point: Christianity is the faith of the incarnate God. Unlike all other world creeds, ideologies and religions, we believe that God himself came to earth as a man, in a physical body, to find and rescue us. The heart of the gospel is “God with us”. If salvation is premised historically on a physical interaction between God and mankind, how is it that we get to feeling we can dispense with our physical forms and have more genuine and fulfilling relationships in disembodied cyberspace? If bodily presence does not matter, then why did our God insist on reaching out to us in that way?

Tom: To take it further, even though he is no longer physically on earth, all Christians believe that Jesus Christ is uniquely present with us when we gather. Catholics may believe this in a rather horrible, physical way, but they do believe it. It is generally recognized that it is not just our consciousness of Christ in our hearts that changes when we gather, but that he is genuinely there with us in a different way when we come together than when we do not.

To take it further still, we believe the Church is his body; the presence of Christ in the world today. That being the case, how do I serve the Body of Christ in the more practical ways if I am not physically in contact with any of its members? Some kinds of service are unaffected, sure. I can send money over the Internet. I can encourage fellow believers. I can certainly communicate truth. But I cannot show hospitality. I cannot wash feet. I cannot greet my brothers or sisters with a holy kiss. Oh … wait …

Stating Propositions vs. Modeling Truth

IC: Can we really “communicate truth” over the Internet? We can state propositions that are true, sure: but can we communicate truth in the whole-bodied, life-committed, role-modeling, active way that Christ commands us to do? Can the truth of Christ be communicated as mere propositions?

I say no. If the truth could have been communicated adequately by remote, why did God send his Son? And why do the apostles enjoin us to present our bodies and incarnate the truth if propositions alone would do the job? In fact, as you say, why has Christ not instantly removed his Church — his Body — from the world and left a nice little note to let others know the way, if our bodily involvement was not necessary?

Tom: I understand what you’re getting at there, but I think the real issue here is not about testimony to the world, which we can certainly have over the Internet, though not as fully as if we met someone in RL. In most cases, no single one of us amounts to more than a step or two in the process of bringing others to the Lord anyway, so I can certainly see how online interaction may be one helpful step in the process of communicating a specific truth or truths to the lost. I agree with you that it cannot be the whole thing, or yes, the Lord would not have needed to leave us in the world.

And it’s not really about encouraging, instructing and sharing with fellow believers (which I definitely believe is possible, and so do you, or we wouldn’t be doing this). We can be a step or two in the process of helping our fellow believers grow to maturity — though, again, we cannot do that as completely and as organically as we could in RL.

To me, the real issue is whether we can live church life and carry out our full responsibilities to our fellow believers within the Body of Christ — exercising all our spiritual gifts as the Holy Spirit intended, worshiping, serving, enjoying fellowship and learning together as first century Christians did — over the Internet. That, I am fully convinced, is impossible.

Does that clarify what I’m saying?

Glorifying God in our Bodies

IC: Not quite what I’m saying. Yes, to share the way of salvation with others is rightfully an “incarnate” activity, involving the whole person. But when Paul, in Romans, speaks of how we Christians must “present our bodies living sacrifices”, it’s not to the world we present them. And when we are commanded to “glorify God in our bodies”, that’s not for evangelistic purposes. And when we speak of “the Church which is his body”, we are not primarily thinking of outreach but of what we might call “body life” in the church. Why would we have any of that mandated to us, if being bodily present simply did not matter? That’s my larger point. “Incarnation” as a value is everywhere in scripture.

Tom: Sure, but is there not a sense in which, when I sit down at a keyboard with the Lord’s glory in view with the goal of communicating that to others, I am “presenting my body”, not to the world but to him? Can I not “glorify God in my body” through serving him over the Internet? It seems to me those answers are self-evident.

I’m not at all disagreeing with you here about the importance of being bodily present in the church as opposed to staring at a screen. And I’m not disagreeing with you about the importance of incarnation. I’m simply saying not every aspect and activity in the Christian life requires my bodily presence in the same degree.

IC: No, of course not. And, of course, we are currently using a mediated form of communication: this blog. So we can hardly say Christians are wrong to do likewise, can we?

But the Internet and cyber-presence are relatively new on the historical scene. Before this, there was mail, and telegraph, and telephone … and all were used in some way to serve Christian purposes. But nobody even dreamed of fulfilling their lives as Christians through any of those means exclusively. The Internet is different: people look to it in starstruck wonder, and believe that it can deliver to them anything — perhaps even the gifts of spirituality and Christian obedience.

Tech-Savvy Christians in RL

Tom: And the Internet looks even more appealing when you compare its hypnotic charms to a church experience that, for many people, can be quite rocky. When churches are not functioning the way the Head intended, they are a lot less desirable places to be.

But I came across something this morning, IC, that was more than a little encouraging. I was scanning the comments on one of my favorite blogs only to find a reader making the suggestion that the blog host use his “connective powers” to bring together interested readers all over the world for small, autonomous home Bible studies ... in the real world. And you should have seen the positive response!

It seems what large numbers of high-IQ, tech-savvy Christians all over the world are REALLY looking for is an authentic, real-world, modern-day New Testament church experience. How about that?

IC: Well, now … that sounds great. I think that as a tool, the Internet has a lot to offer: new opportunities for evangelism, ways of connecting with Christians at distance, Bible study tools, and so on. If we use it like that — to enhance our church life, but not to replace it — then I’m in favor. I’m not equally enthused about supplanting church life with cyberspace.

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