I recently started a Facebook group for the people in my city, called Pray for Ipswich. The idea came during a small prayer meeting, to create an online community with the goal of bringing local Christians and churches together.
So, after a few months of putting it off, I created the page, emailed an invitation to nearly every church in the city, and hoped people would catch the vision.
Seeing people engage with each other online around the purpose of bringing gospel transformation to our city has got me thinking: can an online community of Christians function as a church?
Life.Church, the American church that brought us the YouVersion Bible App, hosts the largest online church, with a weekly ‘attendance’ of 70,000 people. It’s been in existence since 2007.
I visited one of the online services today to see how it worked. I found some things I expected, and some that I didn’t.
You’re greeted with video content which addresses you as an online community. If your timing is good, you skip the countdown timer and head straight into prerecorded worship music and a sermon. On the side there’s a live chat, with Hosts and Lifegroup Leaders who warmly greet newcomers.
There’s also live prayer, where you can ask someone to pray with you.
It’s much like watching a service on television, but more interactive. In this regard, I think it’s a step closer to real church than watching a televised service or listening to a podcast.
The Life.Church website says that, “Church Online is making knowing and following Christ possible for people where it is discouraged, illegal, or unknown.”
Hard to argue with that, and also with a testimony of one lady who has used Church Online to hold services in prison, through which 37 inmates have given their lives to the Lord.
Online community can’t replace the face to face interaction of traditional church, which offers accountability, shared meals, and deeper connection, amongst other things.
At the same time however, I can see that having church online has its place in our increasingly digital society. In fact, I don’t think we can truly, “go into all the world,” as Jesus tells us to in Mark chapter 16, verse 15, unless we do engage with people over the internet.
Church online compared to church at a physical address
One of the most interesting and important observations I came away with after my time attending Life.Church’s Church Online, was how similar many physical churches are today.
In fact, many people who attend my moderately-sized church could leave with a near identical experience to that found on an internet church.
You can listen or sing along to worship music at both. Both offer a sermon preached on God’s Word. You can even greet the other attendees in a not so different way.
What’s scary is, that many people dwelling in the rearmost pews, don’t feel any more connection to those around them than they could watching an online service.
How should we church?
We could complain about the way the world is increasingly moving away from personal, face-to-face relationships, but like anything in culture, the only way to change things is to enter in.
The church has challenges ahead, but also great opportunity afforded by the digital age. We need to engage in the online space the best we can because that’s where lost people are.
We also need to reflect on how we do church, and make sure we’re offering something different to the world. Is our church a place that offers real relationships that go deeper than those you could find online?
Where to for my online prayer group?
I’ve decided to treat my Facebook group more like a church than I originally intended. I’m realising that while there are great difficulties in communicating over the internet, it is possible to go deeper; especially when a post triggers something for someone and opens up an opportunity for a conversation over private messaging.
I’m learning a lot about people and can see how an online group has the potential to encourage others in their faith. It certainly can’t replace getting involved in my local church, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered a church.
My involvement in the online space has actually led to meeting many Christians around my city that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. This, face-to-face meeting, I’m discovering is a crucial step for deepening online relationships.
So, yes, I believe that a church can exist online, but it can’t stay there. Just as a church can’t stay within the four walls and structure of a Sunday service, a church online must also find ways to connect on a personal level.
Tom likes Indian spices, French cars, British drama and Japanese gardens. He goes running nearly everyday, but early in the morning so that he doesn't miss time with his wife and two young kids. In his spare time, Tom is a Special Needs and Technology teacher. He is currently working towards planting a church.
Tom’s other articles can be found at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tom-anderson.html
Tom Anderson is pioneering www.haventogether.com, an online church plant supported by his in-person church, Catalyst, Ipswich. He has a young, growing family and enjoys playing backyard sport. Tom is a keen long-distance runner, averaging 21km each day last year. He has worked as a teacher for eleven years and enjoys perfecting a flat white on his home espresso machine. Tom would welcome a visit for a coffee some time… or an online catch-up via Zoom. See the Haven Together website to get in touch.