Is Online Community real Community? Questions about the Virtual Church

Lately this question seems to be popping up more and more so I thought I’d post some initial thoughts. For example, while at the Echo Media Conference I have met several ‘Internet Campus Pastors’. Including a church planter who has planted an online (only) church. In a question I used the term ‘virtual church’ and he corrected me saying virtual implies ‘not real’ so therefore it is an online church. As I’ve reflected on the question, I feel like we are asking the wrong question. Let me explain:

The question of whether online community is ‘real’ is one that the entire culture is going to ask. It is in the realm of sociology, philosophy, etc. I believe people do have ‘community’ online. I can meet, get-to-know and develop real relationships with people online. The questions we as Christians should be asking is:

What are we called to be as a Biblical community? And can this be done with technology?

Our question is not just one of whether ‘community’ is happening but of definitions of what life/community looks like for the people of God. One place to examine is the ‘one-anothering’ passages:

John 15:12 – Love one another
Romans 5:13 – Don’t pass judgment on one another
Romans 12:5 – Be members of one another
Romans 12:10 – Honor one another
Romans 12:16 – Live in harmony with one another
Romans 14:19 – Build up one another
Romans 15:5 – Be like-minded toward one another
Romans 15:7 – Accept one another
1 Corinthians 12:25 – Care for one another
Galatians 5:13 – Serve one another in love
Galatians 5:26 – Don’t provoke or envy one another
Galatians 6:2 – Bear one another’s burdens
Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind to one another
Colossians 3:13 – Bear with each other and forgive one another
1 Thessalonians 3:12 – Abound in love toward one another
1 Thessalonians 4:18 – Comfort one another
Titus 3:3 – Don’t hate one another
Hebrews 3:13 – Encourage one another
Hebrews 10:24 – Stir up one another to love and good deeds
James 4:11 – Don’t slander one another
James 5:9 – Don’t bear grudges against one another
James 5:16 – Confess your sins to one another
1 Peter 4:9 – Offer hospitality to one another
1 Peter 5:14 – Greet one another
1 John 1:7 – Fellowship with one another
1 John 3:11 – Love one another
Ephesians 5:21- submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Now maybe you think you can add ‘online’ to each of these so that “Love one another online” seems to fulfill these. But since we are the only community not formed for ourselves but we are gathered as a people for God and others there is no way with the current state of technology that we can go to the depths of this type of one-anothering community. Quite frankly most of churches that do meet throughout the week will struggle with this type of intense call of communal life.

Instead of asking, “Is virtual community real community?” Let’s spend more time considering “What is Biblical community?” Which leads us to consider “How can technology assist the life of a Biblical community?”

  • Paul Steinbrueck

    July 30, 2009, 1:33 pm


    This is an excellent post. I have given a lot of thought to this issue as well. It’s especially difficult to discuss when so many well-known, innovative churches are launching Internet-only campuses.

    I’ve come to the same conclusion you:

    “there is no way with the current state of technology that we can go to the depths of this type of one-anothering community”

    Two articles on the topic I recently wrote are:

    Online Church = Online Sex

    Online Church = Spiritual Fast Food

  • Jim

    July 30, 2009, 2:06 pm

    i’m still processing this

  • Zach Nielsen (Vitamin Z)

    July 30, 2009, 2:28 pm

    Great post. I’m linking to it now…


  • Stephen Dancer

    July 30, 2009, 3:29 pm

    Thanks for this interesting, and, I guess, somewhat disturbing post.

    I agree with you that there can be community online. My problem is that thinking is subtly changing from church –> fellowship –> community as though these things are synonyms. I find it amazing that anyone can hope to plant an online-only “church”!

    Here’s why: I am a reformational guy and when I think about “church” I begin to think about the marks of the church, which were recovered at the reformation. These are
    1) preaching of the gospel,
    2) right administration of the sacraments, and
    3) church discipline.

    So it seems to me that if we want a genuine biblical church (that’s what we want, isn’t it?) we need to ask how these can happen through the online medium. We might argue that online video can deliver the first of these adequately (though I have my doubts).

    However, can baptism be done? taking of the Lord’s Supper where we “discern the Lord’s body”? The mind boggles!

    Finally, how is discipline carried out online? In fact, how can one possibly have any idea that an online avatar is professing genuine faith without any kind of face to face contact? This is a basic starting point for exercising discipline. Even if one has a method, how can one effectively help with dealing with sin especially if one is at the stage of getting an individual to see that there is a sin to repent of? I don’t think any of this can be done without life-on-life involvement.

    As you can see, I am a bit of a skeptic!

  • D. Goodmanson

    July 30, 2009, 3:35 pm

    Stephen – Good word.

  • Daniel Berman

    July 30, 2009, 5:48 pm

    I don’t believe we should ever consider a 100% replacement of face-to-face interaction with online community. The reasons have been stated in numerous places including here.

    That said, what sort of opportunities for ministry partnerships, intra-regional relationships and building common interest ministry groups might be possible if we stopped playing this either or game.

    Rather we looked into encouraging safe online relationships with believers from fellow congregations as a complement to existing friendships and small groups….Remember language, culture, and timezones don’t have to be barriers…

  • Dan Smith

    August 2, 2009, 5:02 pm

    In my opinion, your last question nails it. We should be asking how technology can further the church as we now know it, not replace it. Businesses went through it in the ’90s, with internet businesses trying to do away with brick and mortar (see how “ancient” this idea is?) entities. It didn’t work for the most part, with only a few exceptions.

    This is a fad that will go away in time. While that is happening, we should think about how technology can help the church, such as blogging to help pastors feed the flock throughout the week, facebook to let small groups keep in touch between meetings, and the like.

  • stephy

    August 3, 2009, 7:17 am

    Technology can either help or enhance relationships, just like anything. I think that’s all there is to say.

  • stephy

    August 3, 2009, 7:17 am

    Uh, I meant to say technology can either hurt or enhance relationships just like anything else can. Duh.

  • John Spencer

    August 9, 2009, 1:56 pm

    It is my opinion that there is is a huge difference between a ‘virtual church’ and having a robust ‘on-line’ presence. An active on-line community however is today part and parcel to increased communication in the biblical community. Today, the importance to getting the right information, to the right people at the right time is paramount. The notion of a ‘virtual church’ should be one part of a delivery tool for teaching and learning and be relegated to those who cannot attend a physical church because of remoteness or health.

    The one pillar that is essential to our foundation is the aspect of maximizing our God-given talents and energies and these gifts should include incorporating the new technologies in communications.

    John Spencer

  • Josh Cramer

    August 11, 2009, 3:45 pm

    Thanks for writing this Drew. I think your last question is fundamental and it should be what we are trying to figure out. I am really excited about the mission you are undertaking to understand how technology and the web can profit the mission of the church. We have much to learn.

    I don’t think you provide much support for your statement, “there is no way with the current state of technology that we can go to the depths of this type of one-anothering community.”

    This is probably ok, because it is just your opinion. However, I think finding some support for that statement could help us discover answers to the question, “How can technology assist the life of a Biblical community?”

    If you break it down, all of this biblical community happens through one or more mediums of communication. To name a few, you have:

    1) Verbal Communication
    2) Non-verbal communication (face to face by sight)
    3) Physical touch (hand shake, pat on the back, holy kiss, etc.)
    4) Written communication
    5) I’m sure you could think of more

    With this in mind, what is it that is lacking from our interactions online versus the face to face interactions? In other words, what medium of communication is lacking from our online relationships that makes you (and some others here) think it is not possible to experience full biblical community online? And further, is it that medium required for biblical community?

    You could say that for sure, the non-verbal communication aspect is definitely lacking in online relationships. We use those signals to detect what might be going on beneath the surface in someone’s life. Is this alone enough to call the whole thing off or is there something else going on here.

    I’m not sure I disagree with your statement, but I am also not sure I’m ready to say that real biblical community is not possible using the current state of technology.


  • D. Goodmanson

    August 12, 2009, 1:49 pm

    Josh – Thanks for your thoughts on this. I am ready to say that Biblical community is impossible with the current state of technology. I do think technology can greatly assist the community though. I don’t provide much support because it is fairly self-evident in my opinion. We may be coming from diff’t perspectives but certainly (as someone mentioned) communion, baptisms, serving (eg. helping someone move), hospitality, sharing a meal, living in harmony and the list goes on and on just doesn’t translate in a holistic way through the current state of technology.

  • Charles Woodward

    August 15, 2009, 10:39 am

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    I’ve wondered if this plunge into virtual church online is not a horrible step in the wrong direction. Given that people here in the U.S. seem to be living more fragmented and isolated lives I cannot see how this is truly helpful.

    If the church is the bride of Christ and the adopted family of God, then a different set of questions can be asked:

    Should we expect a husband and wife to have a healthy marriage if it was mediated totally through technology? Would it be reasonable for a parent to raise their son or daughter using only technological mediums? Could a family be a family if all of its interactions were mediated through some medium other than direct human to human contact?

    If we can answer yes to these questions then it is possible for a church to exist in this capacity. But if we answer no, then how can we expect the church exist virtually?

    It just seems like the trend towards technologically mediated relationships as standard is something we should be called to repent of. Technology is really just a means of communicating. But community is far more than communication – whether by smoke signal, letter, phone, e-mail, chat room, or live video. Community is ultimately about presence – unmediated, direct presence of the other.

    Would we desire a technologically mediated relationship with God? I cringe to think that my relationship with Jesus in the coming age will be available to me only through chat rooms, video, or some form of holographic interface. Why then should we accept this as a viable form of community for the church now? A Matrix-like life just doesn’t seem like the goal of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.

  • John Dyer

    September 12, 2009, 11:25 am

    I know I’m late to the party, but I had something I thought might be worth adding to the discussion as you have it with others.

    Since I come from the world of seminary nerds, I did a word study on the concept of “face-to-face” in the New Testament.

  • D. Goodmanson

    September 13, 2009, 12:12 am

    John – It really isn’t a party until you arrive anyway so, yes thanks for the added thoughts. Very helpful blog post. I did a session on CWC on this stuff so I’ll be posting some more on these ideas too.

  • Drew Tucker

    October 18, 2009, 7:41 pm

    If you are doing, excited about, encouraging, perpetuating “online church”, please share with me your Biblical definition of church.

    Posing this to someone who is “all for” doing an internet campus will be very revealing. Can technology enhance community? Sure. But that is as far as it goes. And even if it was a great source of community – the ends never justify the means. The question remains, “What is your Biblical definition of church?” You can’t get to internet church.

    I’ve visited a lot of these online campuses and read up on a lot of folks that are on this train and haven’t come across anyone doing it whose ministry is theologically sound. Just sayin.

  • Alan Crookham

    December 17, 2009, 12:31 pm

    Well, I think that you can have online church, I have tried it out myself just to see how it is. You can get the message, but you will never get the depth of relationship that you get in a regular church setting.

  • Anon-y-man

    January 6, 2010, 7:01 pm

    While there is no replacement for “face to face” relationships, and I don’t think internet campus pastors would argue, online churches have a huge role to play. They present the Gospel message to those who may otherwise never seek the Gospel. Many people bury themselves in “online worlds” and the internet in general as an escape. Hurting people covering their wounds. Online churches allow doors to be open that are critical to a person’s faith. The anonymity the web provides tends to make people more open about their hurts, doubts, beliefs, opinions, etc…

    Internet Campuses are wonderful tools for presenting the Gospel, and I would absolutely call them a church, because they are absolutely part of the Church, and are a relational group of believers – disregarding geographic separation.

    Stephen said, “In fact, how can one possibly have any idea that an online avatar is professing genuine faith without any kind of face to face contact?” But you can never have any true idea how genuine any other person’s faith is: online, or face to face.

    A committed believer should totally seek face to face relational small groups – this is without question. But what about those who can’t? Whether it’s physical or mental disability, the internet is the best option for some folks. Many autistic children and adults find it easier to socialize via the web than in person, and actually have deeper relationships with people online than those they try to meet face-to-face…

    Anyways, I’m a random passer-by, and there’s some food for thought.