Online Church Part 2: Worship & the Theology of Presence
In the discussion surrounding Online Church Part 1: What is a Biblical Church? it seems that just about everyone agrees that for a church to be a real, biblical church it must gather together regularly to worship God. The question for today is…
In what ways can online churches excel at gathering for worship and where are there difficulties?
The Theology of Presence
When we gather in our offline churches we often talk about being in the presence of God. We pray and ask God that he would be present with us. Being present together and being in the presence of God is a big deal.
In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.”
Up until about a century ago coming together and being present with each other mandated physical proximity. But the invention of the telephone, radio, TV, and now the Internet have made a new kind of presence possible – telepresence.
Is telepresense biblical? Can God be present in the midst of people who are telepresent?
It’s difficult find strong evidence one way or the other in scripture, because this wasn’t an issue in biblical times.
Some online church advocates point to John 4:21-32
Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
I think this passage speaks more to the fact that God cares more about our hearts and the attitude of our worship rather than worshiping at a holy site rather than addressing the issue of presence.
Questions that Lead to Answers
In the book SimChurch, Douglas Estes asks some very good questions, which can help us better understand the idea of presence.
- If I come to worship service on Sunday morning but spend the whole tie thinking about the Dallas Cowboys’ upcoming football game that afternoon, am I present?
- If I am working in he nursery at my church during the service and hear the pastor over the speaker system, am I present?
- If I break my leg am stuck in the hospital on Sunday morning, but pray for the pastor’s message and listen to it over the radio, am I present?
- If I break my leg and am stuck in the hospital on Sunday morning, but I have my laptop and log in to Second Life and attend services at the Anglican Cathedral, am I present?
Later he goes on reference an experience most of us have probably had… If a friend is going through a difficult time in life, calls us on the phone, and we pray together, are we present together? Is God present with us?
These questions lead me to believe presence has a lot more to do with where our hearts and minds are than our bodies.
If that’s the case, then it may be possible for people to be present together and for God to be present in an online setting. But I also think it points to one of the biggest challenges online churches face – distractions.
In the last couple of weeks, I have checked out several online churches. Each time there were several things going on in the real-world room I was in that distracted me from the service. Plus there were the online distractions of twitter, checking email, and so forth. I could really not be present in the midst of all those distractions.
You can argue that that was my fault and I should have put myself in a more distraction-free environment, and you’d be right. But this is also going to be the reality of most people engaging in online church.
But I also noticed another interesting thing. In every online service I experienced (these were services where video was live streamed and not virtual, Second Life churches), there was a chat feature. People chatted throughout the service – during the message, communion, worship, and prayer. Even the moderators were chatting at these times. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I personally did not worship, pray, or commune with those online or in the church building.
I was an observer rather than a worshiper.
Of course, you could make the case that many people who attend off-line churches are observers as well.
Wish you were here, but…
The last point I want to make comes from considering presence and telepresence in other settings.
A few weeks ago, U2 streamed their LA concert live over the Internet. It was cool. Millions of people got to see the show that otherwise wouldn’t. But if you’ve ever been to a U2 show, you know it was not the same as being there.
If I couldn’t get to a good friend’s wedding, I would love to watch a live video feed of it over the Internet. But it still wouldn’t be as good as being there.
Thousands of men and women are serving in the military and stationed out of the country right now. They are probably pretty bummed they won’t be present with their family for Christmas. I know they really cherish those phone calls with their wives and kids. I bet if someone set up a live video feed so they could see and hear their families Christmas morning they would like that even more. But every one of them would jump at the chance to fly home and spend the day physically present with their family.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
If a person is a shut in or laid up in a hospital or living in a country that is openly hostile to Christianity, online church has to be better than nothing. This is an opportunity for online church to excel. But because of the examples above it seems like technology hinders people in online churches from being fully present to the degree they can be when physically gathered together.
It leads me to believe that presence is not a binary, yes-or-no factor but rather it’s experienced along a continuum.
And since we can see that each advance in technology – from the telephone to live streaming video with chat to virtual 3D worlds – has increased engagement and presence, it also leads me to believe that as technology continues to advance and we become more innovative in the ways we use it and the ways we worship that online churches will be able to move further along that continuum of presence.
What do you think?
Whew! Sorry for being long-winded today. I just hope I haven’t sucked up all the oxygen on this topic but that it sparks some thoughts, opinions, and ideas you’ll share in the comments.
What do you think?
Is presence something experienced along a continuum? Is telepresense sort of a partial presence that’s better than nothing but can’t quite reach the level when gathered in the same physical location?