Online Church Part 2: Worship & the Theology of Presence

online church worshipIn 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?

Biblical Evidence

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.

Virtual Distractions

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?

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

13 Responses to “Online Church Part 2: Worship & the Theology of Presence”

  1. To your last question, Paul, about whether telepresence is "partial presence" that is a kind of "second best" to the real thing…I would say: Maybe. To some people. Event to a majority of people right now (undoubtedly those who are about to emphatically quash the idea of telepresence in this thread).

    But if you'd asked people in the year 1900 which was a better, more reliable, more comfortable form of transportation? They'd tell you without a doubt it was the horse–even though the automobile was already around at that time. And they would be right, in their time and from their point of view.

    I guarantee that someone is going to say in response to my comment that "telepresence will never be as good as real presence, no matter how good technology gets." And there's a chance they could be right, but history and the odds are against it.

    –> A heavy machine made of tons of metal will *never* fly through the sky.
    –> Computers will *never* become widespread.
    –> People will *never* buy things online instead of a real, physical store.

    And yet, despite overwhelming conventional wisdom of the time, we do all of these things today. Here's the problem: Most people judge technology on it's current merits, and how it stacks up to whatever it's purporting to "replace" or "change." That usually means that it's competing against something that has been culturally entrenched for hundreds of years, and something that is refined to a high degree of sophistication–something in its prime.

    I say with utmost confidence–there will come a day (sooner than you'd think) when virtual reality will be **completely indistinguishable** from physical reality–taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and any form of perception we have can already be replicated virtually, within our brains, though the cost to do so is prohibitive today. Just like the cost of a computer was prohibitive in the 1970s. So perhaps a better question is this: WHEN you can hug someone in virtual reality, when you can taste the salt of your own tears in virtual reality, when you can eat bread and drink wine (and even get drunk) in virtual reality, will anyone then argue that we can't gather or be present together as God's community?

    We're not there yet.

    But by the time we are, this question will already be long settled. Some of us are looking down the road a little bit ahead of schedule, realizing the inevitable change that's coming, and asking ourselves, "What can we do to BE the church in this world?" Many of you probably don't want to live in a world like that, and that's ok…you don't have to. There are still Amish people today, quietly and contentedly living their 18th century lives.

    Finally, I'll say that even while today's virtual presence falls short of physical presence in many ways (as Paul aptly pointed out) there are ALSO some early ways in which physical presence has already been left in the dust, and we actually prefer virtual presence–not as a 2nd rate substitute, but as a preference. Take Black Friday, for example: did you really want to be physically present in the midst of that? I genuinely preferred buying things online–being "virtually" present at a store. When an Army soldier operates an unmanned flying drone on a mission over Afghanistan, I'm pretty sure he prefers to be "virtually" flying through the unfriendly skies than to be doing so physically. And finally, consider this the next time you pay all your bills through your bank's website: Do you "really" prefer to saddle up your horse and ride to each of your creditors to see them in person and pay them in real cows and chickens? Because, surprise, surprise, even your money is "virtual" cash registered in a database somewhere, or at the least, represented by a piece of paper…which even has an "avatar" of George Washington on it.

    Telepresence is nothing new. But it is changing the world in new ways, whether we hide our heads in the sand or not. Rather than arguing against it, or arguing that churches *can't* gather online, or will *never* be as good as physical gatherings…I hope this conversation can get back to the question of how we can best use the inherent strengths of telepresence to make our online church gatherings better, or how we can shore up the inherent (current) weaknesses of telepresence in our online church gatherings so that they can still accomplish what God has called them to be and do.

    If we can answer that, or at least consider it, count me in…otherwise, I'd rather just go spend some time in some churches that will actually still be around in the next hundred years. :-)

    • >>WHEN you can hug someone in virtual reality, when you can taste the salt of your own tears in virtual reality, when you can eat bread and drink wine (and even get drunk) in virtual reality, will anyone then argue that we can't gather or be present together as God's community?

      Wow, good stuff Neal. Sounds like you're ready to do church in a holodeck on the U.S.S. Enterprise. I don't know if anyone can say with certainty whether that will ever be possible or not, but I'm certainly not willing to rule it out.

  2. Love the holodeck metaphor, Paul — especially because the producers and writers of the show (Star Trek: TNG) explored both the positive AND the negative side of that kind of virtual reality Holodeck recreation and collaboration, but also Holodeck addiction, malfunction, etc. Wharf even used the Holodeck for religious rites!). I hope people remember that technology is neither inherently good nor evil in itself: it brings about great promise…and great peril, and usually both, depending on who is using it for what. I'm just saying that the future (and completely realistic virtual reality) is coming one way or another…will we find ways to use it for God's purposes?

    "Make it so, number one!"

  3. I think Neal makes some great points… While "We're not there yet"…. our ability to grow, maintain, and learn how to "do" relationships virtually is growing quickly. For myself I can say there are people I'm getting to know online, whom I've never met, but am learning and sharing with them regularly through blogs, Twitter, etc. If we limit what we call "church" to having to be "present", we have a mountainous challenge ahead of us as the masses are naturally congregating on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other online venues in this. Facebook has over 300 millions users and growing. Why not attempt to bring the church to where people are already hanging out?

  4. This idea is of the devil. The only thing it will acomplish is church attendance will decrease the offerings will decrease and God will not get the Glory He deserves. ” Unto Him be glory in the Church” Eph 3:21 not online.. You can preach on line share your witness on line but Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” the Her is His church that will be married to Him at the great wedding found in Rev. 19:7-8.. The onliners may be guest at the wedding, but that is questionable Also not all church members will be involved in the wedding. It takes faithfulness to the Groom’s commands.. No one can be baptized on line..First commandment after trusting Jesus as their personal Savior..Matthew 28:19-20..Then they become teachable and it is a choice one has to make. Romans 12:1=2

  5. This idea is of the devil. The only thing it will acomplish is church attendance will decrease the offerings will decrease and God will not get the Glory He deserves. " Unto Him be glory in the Church" Eph 3:21 not online.. You can preach on line share your witness on line but Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 the gates of hell shall not prevail against her" the Her is His church that will be married to Him at the great wedding found in Rev. 19:7-8.. The onliners may be guest at the wedding, but that is questionable Also not all church members will be involved in the wedding. It takes faithfulness to the Groom's commands.. No one can be baptized on line..First commandment after trusting Jesus as their personal Savior..Matthew 28:19-20..Then they become teachable and it is a choice one has to make. Romans 12:1=2

  6. Marilyn Fisher Dec 8, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    I agree with you completely Mark. I was thinking of another avenue that I haven't seen attacked lately that should be held more to accountability (on-line Schools). We Christians know that we are going to come under attack whenever, where ever and however we go about spreading and sharing Gods Word. "I have been in some very Distracting PHYSICAL Church Services," that after the service I had to approach the Sr. Pastor about the problem. When in a Worship Service the focus is on The Lord and the Message, not on a game, not on work, not on email, tweeter or anything else. Yes, I participate in chat for 30 minutes after the official service is over. Our chat feature is enabled for 15mins. before the service so that we can receive prayer request and praise reports then it shuts down, our online giving function is active before and after also for those logged into the service.
    I don't know about Holodeck yet, but I'm not going to be close minded to anything that The Lord (might) see fit to set into action…….Through Him ALL Things Are Possible..

    Rev. Marilyn Fisher

  7. Richard. Of the Devil? Seriously?

    Well, here's one place I think you're off: "Church attendance will decrease, the offerings will decrease…" Yeah, these things have been happening across the board in western Christianity LONG before online churches came on the scene. Even churches that are growing are only doing so at the expense of other churches. The kingdom (in the west, at least) is shrinking. On the contrary, if you count online churches in the mix, they offer the possibility of an increase in church participation and offerings. But from your comment above, I doubt you'd be open minded or far sighted enough to count online churches as churches at all. Good thing (for my online church) that Jesus is the groom and not you :-)

  8. I would not rule out where computers and technology will be at many years from now (or even just a few). I learned to program with punched cards on an IBM mainframe. Those days are long passed, but I’m a more careful programmer than the kids today who can cut and paste and recompile and crash and burn in a couple of seconds.

    All of the comments, the leading article, and the book excerpts give examples of humans benefiting in virtual settings and talk about the benefits of their virtual presence (soldiers, shut-ins, and the like). How does God Himself work through a virtual environment? It is His presence I’m concerned about people experiencing.

    At this point, technology, cost, and bandwidth issues would prevent the church service I attend in the real world from being effectively done in a pure computer driven environment (specifically with a completely distributed member base). I’m not willing to say that would never be possible or cost effective but it isn’t now.

    The problem is only partially the downstream feeds from the church. Not everyone has a computer, let alone a high speed internet connection. They would not be able to participate, just as the shut-ins can’t participate the other way today. Even if they could, most networks are managed for downloading. Uploading bandwidth is limited even on most “high speed” connections. So the effective participation that we would get in a virtual service from a real world audience would be limited at best.

    Some denominations might not find that an issue, but I would feel much was missing if there was no effective way for the Holy Spirit to work through His gifts with a particular group of members and have that transmitted to the entire body. This is especially true when the members might change from week to week.

    I’m not saying God couldn’t find a way to work around those situations, but I’m constantly reminded of His unchanging attributes when I think that. There certainly were occasions in the Old Testament where people presumed to think they could do things a bit differently and found out that they not only couldn’t but would be struck dead for trying it.

    We must be careful in what we do. The printing press opened up the words of God to common man and made it affordable. I’m not against change if God is with it. I just want to be sure He supports a particular path before trudging out there myself. It can be lonely on point if the army doesn’t decide to follow.

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