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Digital churches have been thriving throughout the pandemic

Technology is upgrading religion to the world of bits. But not everyone thinks it's such a great idea.

By Stav Dimitropoulos , written on January 26, 2021

From The Culture Desk

In August 2020, Mathias Melendez, 22, from San Antonio, Texas, stumbled upon a Facebook ad of Life.Church Online, the cyberchurch of the American evangelical multi-site church Life Church.

Having struggled with seizures for a long time, which led to depression, and ultimately thoughts of suicide, Melendez decided to attend a service and see whether it could help him tackle his psychological demons.

“I felt so welcomed,” he remembers. He came back the following week. At the end of each service, attendees are asked to “raise their hand” if they have decided to devote their lives to Jesus; Melendez raised his enthusiastically and has been attending Life.Church Online every week since.  

 

Online churches have been gaining traction since the early 2000s

Internet churches are not new: they began gaining traction in the early 2000s and have exploded in popularity since. An online churchgoer can attend a Bible study and live services, watch past services, contact pastors or band together with other e-parishioners, and much more through the web communication tools their church provides them. 

“We serve a sizable population globally,” says Bobby Gruenewald, a pastor and innovation leader at Life.Church. “Some people are outside the reach of a church or a Christian church community because of perhaps the political dynamic in their country, religious restrictions, or religious beliefs. Others have physical health problems that make it impossible for them to go to church,” he says. No matter the reason why they turned to cyberchurch, these people usually end up cherishing it so much that it becomes their primary church community, Gruenewald says. 

 

VR Church exists entirely in the webspace -- but not everyone thinks this is such a good idea

For DJ Soto, lead pastor at VR Church, online churches are a unique opportunity for the church to be redefined and reimagined. VR Church is the first of its kind: unlike Life.Church Online, whose real-world equivalent has 36 physical locations across 11 US states, VR Church exists entirely in the webspace. To immerse in a full 3D environment, you put on your VR headset, download an app, create an avatar, and click on enter the VR church event or the world, where you can “give high fives” to other attendees or “hug” as you step into a big church building. Oculus Rift, the technology responsible for the experience, ensures you also have the experience of 3D spatial sounds.  

In 2002, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Social Communications, one of the official congregations of the government of the Roman Catholic Church (which was merged into the Secretariat for Communications in 2016), declared that "the virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel", although it did add that the internet can still "enrich the religious lives of users". It has been many years since Gruenewald has met with members of the Council, and although he has “seen a great interest on their part to use digital tools to engage people with Scripture”, the reality remains that the official church establishment has not changed the theological statement it made 19 years ago. 

“Christian life is meant to be lived out in word and deed and not on a screen,” says Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in suburban Washington, and editorial director for 9Marks, a Christian ministry that “aims to equip church leaders with the biblical vision and practical resources to build healthy churches”. “Imagine trying to raise your kids over Zoom. That doesn't work,” he says, describing virtual churches as a poor substitute for the real thing if not downright ridiculous.

“Jesus was born in a very real, not augmented reality manger and grew up with a mom and a dad. He had flesh and bones and eyes and was incarnate. Christianity is not just a spiritual religion, it's also a physical religion,” he continues. He suggests that internet churches separate the physical realm from the spiritual realm of ideas and are doing church in a way that weakens Christianity.“Why don't you invest some of your resources into raising up other churches and raising up other leaders so that more sheep know their shepherds?” Leeman asks. Part of internet church thinking is that pastors are worried more about building their own kingdom and less about building the kingdom of Christ, he adds. 

One of the foundational principles of virtual churches is reaching out to as many and different people and locations as possible, yet this is a point of conflict with Christianity, Leeman continues. “ When I’m a pastor in a gathering of a local church, I look around, see what people are wearing, talk to them afterward. I know them, I can talk to them in a way they can relate, and they can relate to me.” It is an important cultural and contextual sensitivity that is inherent in Christianity, and which goes amiss online.

 

Others argue that online churches break down the walls and encourage people to explore church culture

Yet therein lies exactly the power of cyberchurch, says Soto. In 2016, he had his first VR church service. The first visitor was an atheist from Denmark. “I don't believe in God or anything. I’m just curious to see what this is all about,’’ he told Soto. “That moment blew my mind. I had been a part of church culture for a long time and never once had an atheist come through the door and tell me he wanted to chat and talk about faith and science and all that,” Soto remembers. In contrast, brick-and-mortar churches remain very walled off from each other and the community, he and Gruenewald agree. But the online church doesn’t care about your creed, race, weight, financial status, or even sexual orientation, says Soto. All fear of judgment that shuns many an individual from physical churches vanishes in the network.

Only in 2020, Life.Church Online had 42,000 churches sign up to use its Church Online Platform, the technology it gives away to physical churches to also set up and run their own online churches. Since COVID engulfed the globe in early 2020, Gruenewald has seen an indisputable jump in the numbers of people seeking out to Life.Church Online. “The pandemic has been some sort of awakening for them to seek spiritual things,” he says. Soto says the coronavirus will act as a catalyst for people to go on a massive exodus from physical churches. “There will be apprehension to be in environments where there are multiple people,” he says. Churches that are not proactive and tactical enough to engage new, hybrid versions will be eventually forced to shut down, Soto says. 

The view that internet churches are here to stay is even shared by Leeman, though he never sees this version of church becoming the predominant form. “Most people will always recognize you can only get a thin version of a fellowship this way and it’s not what the Bible calls us to do,” he says. Gruenewald, however, thinks virtual churches will be a priority for many people--even after the pandemic. He believes that while some newcomers might lose interest post-pandemic, because that’s the typical pattern of human behavior (become spiritual when the storm strikes, and back to mundane once the storm is over), most will stay the course. Melendez is definitely one of the latter, he says. He will continue attending online service, relentlessly. “I am at last full of hope,” he says.

 

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