Do Virtual Churches Actually Exist?

Article
11.09.2020

Do “virtual churches” actually exist?

Certainly, Christians can get online and watch a pastor preach on a live video stream. They can join a group chat. And God will use these things for good.

But that doesn’t mean we should call these activities “churches.”

Just think. Have you ever called a Christian conference, denominational meeting, or youth camp a “church”? No? Why not? There’s preaching, praying, and singing. Nonetheless, we understand they aren’t churches. We could start calling them churches. We could redefine the word “church” to include conferences and camps. But we know that calling them “churches” wouldn’t make them churches, at least by the Bible’s standards.

So it is with the “virtual church” or “internet church.” By biblical standards, these things do not exist. They aren’t churches. When we say those words, we unwittingly redefine the word church. The phrases are sneaky like that.

THE BIBLE’S “HOW TO BUILD A CHURCH” GUIDE

What do we learn when we turn to Jesus and the Bible as our “How to Build a Church” guide?

Step #1 for building a church, we discover in Scripture, is to gather Christians in Jesus’ name. The very etymology of the Greek word for “church” teaches that. Ekklesia, translated literally, means assembly. So a church, first and foremost, is an assembly of people who identify with and declare the name of Jesus and his gospel.

Yet if etymology doesn’t convince you, let’s do exegesis. Jesus himself says that the gathering bears his authority and flies his flag. After referring to an action of a “church” (Matt. 18:17), Jesus affirms the church’s license to act as it acted by saying the physical gathering represents him: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). He is “there” and “among” the “gathered”—three spatial words. And it’s in that space, that physical space, that a church officially declares the gospel and identifies themselves with the gospel.

How do they identify themselves with Jesus and his gospel? See Step #2.

If Matthew 18 gives us Step #1, Matthew 28 gives us Step #2: baptize people into Jesus’s name and teach them the whole Bible (Matt. 28:19–20). Which makes sense. It’s those who gather in his name who should baptize and teach in his name. It’s those with whom he promises to dwell now (Matt. 18:20) that he promises to dwell with always, particularly as they move out in time and space (Matt. 28:20). Never does he say he’ll dwell on the internet.

Scattered among the nations, each one of these gatherings function like an outpost or an embassy of Jesus’s kingdom. He doesn’t want his followers to claim a land, draw borders on a map, and raise up a military. Yet he knows his citizens still need a piece of geography to stand upon once a week, a way to become visible so that they know who they are and that the world knows who they are.

The assembly is where the church finds its once-a-week geography, a sanctified space that looks back to the Garden of Eden and the Temple where God dwelled with man, and also forward to the new heavens and earth where he will dwell with them once again. It makes the church—the universal church—three-dimensional, incarnate, seeable, touchable for just a couple of hours on Sunday. You can walk in, look around, rub shoulders, and feel the temperature of the room rise as bodies fill the space. The assembly is where unbelievers can come and witness the kingdom of God and say, “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:24–25).

Step #3 for building a church is to rehearse this gospel and to re-affirm one another as members of the same body through the Lord’s Supper: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17; see also Matt. 26:27–28). Hence, Paul is deeply concerned with how the church practices the Supper “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18–34). Notice in this phrase, there’s a sense in which the church is not a church until it gathers. He’s therefore adamant that, when they partake of the Supper, they both “discern the body” and “wait for one another” (vv. 29, 33).

I’m not just saying all this because I’m a congregationalist or a One Assembly dude. The Westminster Assembly’s “Form of Presbyterial Church Government” (1645)—the lesser-known cousin of the “Westminster Confession”—said that a church will “meet in one assembly” for public worship.

WHY YOU WANT TO GATHER ACTUALLY, NOT JUST VIRTUALLY

To be sure, the technology of Zoom or Google Chat gives us some of the benefits of actual presence. Praise God. Yet one can also understand why many Christians around the world sympathize more than ever with the Marine general’s quip: “Virtual presence is actual absence.” This point is heartily affirmed by anyone standing on a beach awaiting a Marine rescue.

Likewise, you don’t want to be with your wife virtually on a honeymoon. You want to be with her actually. You don’t want to gather with your kids virtually on Christmas morning. You want to gather with them actually. How many of us in this season of pandemic, too, are discovering as never before the difference between virtual and actual presence in our churches?

Remember how you struggled with hidden hatred toward a brother all week, but then his presence at the Lord’s Table drew you to conviction and confession? Remember how you struggled with suspicion toward a sister, but then you saw her singing the same songs of praise as you, and your heart warmed? Remember how you struggled with anxiety over the recent election, but then the preacher declared Christ’s coming victory and vindication, you heard shouts of “Amen!” all around you, and you recalled that you belong to a heavenly citizenry allied in hope? Remember all those times you’ve been tempted to keep your struggle in the dark, but then the older couple’s tender but pressing question over lunch—“How are you really?”—drew you into the light?

Christian, you and I can “download” biblical truths virtually. Wonderful. Yet we cannot feel and experience and witness those truths becoming enfleshed in the family of God, which both fortifies our faith and creates cords of love between brothers and sisters.

By biblical standards, there’s no such thing as the virtual church. And aren’t you glad? Scripture offers us something embodied, better, and life-giving—the assembly of his blood-bought bride, who is beautiful.

Last question: are you a pastor who’s thinking of starting a “virtual campus”? Brother, don’t cheat people out of the real thing. Stand with Scripture by insisting that the Bible means to inconvenience their lives and schedules for the sake of love. In-person love is always better than virtual love. Just ask your wife and kids if you’re uncertain.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.