Friday, December 21, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Virtual Fellowship

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

A few days ago, I watched a popular YouTube video one of our readers passed on. It was intended as a spoof of lazy, millennial, hipster Christians who have figured out how to avoid the inevitable complications and commitments of church life by going to “virtual church”. By themselves. From bed. Provided they can work up the energy.

Tom: It’s actually quite entertaining, and if you can watch it without cracking up, you have more self-control than I do. In fact, to really get the picture, you should probably watch it first, if you’re that sort of reader.

Here it is:

IC, for those of our readers disinclined to YouTube, care to summarize?

Immanuel Can: Well, it’s basically one joke … the idea that some equivalent of all the spiritual activities of church can be had remotely, through a virtual reality platform, without the expedient of going anywhere, meeting anyone, or having to put up with anything you don’t like or expect. Of course, the results are, to say the least, less than satisfying.

Tom: One example — the idea that you should be able to customize the “worship leader” to your personal taste, right down to the skinniness of his jeans — gives you an idea of how ridiculous it is. And at the same time, how far is it really from the sort of unstated criteria people are using today when they go church shopping? I know of people who have left churches for reasons almost as silly as skinny jeans. Some of us are frighteningly selfish and trivial about our reasons for doing or not doing anything in the spiritual realm.

Consumer Culture

IC: Life in our postmodern world teaches us to be, above all, consumers. That means that everything is and ought to be a “commodity” that is designed to appeal to us. Now, a part of making that appeal is to customize the “product” until it suits our present tastes. And we ourselves are the arbiters of whether or not the final “product” has sufficient appeal for us to decide to “consume” it … there’s no one else invited or qualified to make such a judgment, we think. Increasingly, that is our view of the church as well … though we don’t think about it long enough to tell ourselves that.

Tom: Well, and I find some criticisms of church life and the “gathering” experience immature and/or mutually contradictory. It’s not just that you can’t please everybody all the time (as if that should somehow be the goal of gathering to the name of Christ, God forbid), but sometimes you can’t even please the same people from week to week by giving them what they ask for. You get complaints that a church gathering is “too informal” and “disorganized”. So you provide a little more structure, and then it’s suddenly “too stuffy” and “too rigid”. It’s hard for me to overlook the faint possibility that some people may be literally impossible to please. Or perhaps they view their personal contribution to church life as something along the lines of a movie or restaurant critic.

I wonder if that sensibility is a product of social media …

IC: Not just that, but that’s a contributor, I’m sure. It’s a media, consumption and marketing driven thing, really. But media, consumption and marketing are everywhere now, so it’s not surprising that we transfer that set of assumptions, that way of functioning, to the church. It would take a deliberate, counter-cultural shift in thinking for us to do anything different.

Legitimate Spiritual Hunger

Now, Tom … part of the problem is on the consumerist side. But I’m not so sure that some of it isn’t on the traditionalist side as well. After all, we haven’t done much in the last 100 years to keep church life connecting with how real people live real life on a daily basis. I believe that not all cries for that are selfish, either. Some of it may well be a legitimate spiritual hunger, a desire to apply spiritual principles to the realities of modern life.

Tom: That’s fair, I think. And there has been some movement in that direction by many evangelical churches in the last couple of decades: modernizing church music and Bible translations, making preliminaries more natural and less formal, relaxing dress codes, shortening sermons and/or reducing the number of services, getting rid of hymnbooks, adding video, increasing kid-friendliness, making seats more comfortable, using PowerPoint to make sermons more memorable, allowing coffee in the auditorium, and so on.

But I have a strong feeling you’re going to tell me we’re not hitting the target with these modifications to the traditional format. And in fact, part of the problem with doing this is that Christians do not all live “real life” the same way. Some of us were perfectly happy with the old way of doing things, gave it up quite grudgingly, and are more than a little resentful to discover that millennials and others are still not happy with the result.

IC: Right. The problem with being traditional is it’s inapplicable and unconnected to actual living. It can easily turn into nothing more than a slothful conformism. But the problem with postmodern updates is that they are unspiritual, consumerist, shallow and self-centered, just as the video says at the end. So the alternative to both is a return to genuine application of biblical principles to actual life: and our church life really ought to take its forms from that.

Relating Outside of the Church Meeting

Tom: Another thing the spoof inadvertently points out is the need for real, positive interaction between believers during the week. I don’t know if you have experienced this, but I have: you can be in a church that has a dreadful format, weak teaching, antiquated and irrelevant. It feels pointless to be there. But — and it’s a huge BUT — if you have other people you know at that church to whom you are genuinely close and who you love in Christ, you get yourself out of bed and go to church anyway. You don’t even think about staying home. Why? Because your literal “fellows” are there: other people that think the same way you do. So you go and have fellowship, because that’s what real Christians do even when things are dreadful.

IC: Yes. That’s very true. If the fellowship is real, you can put up with a very empty kind of ritual. At the same time, that’s really no excuse for leaving things at the dreadful stage, of course.

Tom: Of course, but it’s a huge help in getting through those situations that can’t be immediately changed when you can look down the row or across the table at someone who you know sees the same needs and believes the same things.

And those personal relationships only become deep when you are seeing one another outside of church; ergo, hospitality. If you’re not regularly in one another’s homes, you are not in one another’s lives, and you might as well stick on your VR headgear and lie back on your pillow for all the good going to church will do you.

Living Relational Elements

IC: Yes, hospitality. Hospitality, and shepherding. Shepherding, and fellowship. A common mission. A shared understanding of God. A common hope. It’s these relational elements that breathe life into the church. Without them, it’s a shell, and it may as well be a virtual one.

Tom: This is it. And my own experience is that many, many Christians go to church every week and go home alone with no expectation of seeing their fellow believers before the next official service in the bulletin. Partly this is because so many of us live up to an hour away from the church we attend, and it’s an imposition to invite someone home with us if it requires a long drive, both on them and on us. So we simply … don’t. And our relationships with our fellow believers are the shallower for it. Because they are shallow, they are unimportant factors in our lives, and we do not consider it particularly pressing to maintain them. Perhaps we do not even feel it’s our responsibility.

When that happens, our relationship is really with the church building, not the people in it.

IC: Or worse … with a program, not people.

Living Omni-Virtual

And speaking of that, what’s the correlation between the “virtual” attitude to church and our relationship with God? We might ask, are we in a real relationship with him, or only a virtual one? I ask because it’s quite clear from scripture that at the judgment there will be plenty of people who thought they had a relationship to God, and who are totally surprised to realize they never did.

Tom: Well, I think we can answer that with the words of the apostle John: “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

When you love your brothers and sisters, you want to be with them. Virtual fellowship is a poor substitute.

IC: No substitute at all, really. If we have virtual church, can we also have virtual obedience, virtual growth, virtual use of gifts, virtual mission and a virtual hope? If we think we can, then I suspect that maybe our salvation is only virtual as well.


  1. It seems you have not seen The Matrix? Supposedly that is where this world is heading. Might as well get ready for it :-\ .

    1. "Remember, all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."

  2. The truth with a sense of humor here (I would think).