The Church Virtual?

My good friend Kurt Willems just launched a funny post over at The Pangea Blog about reasons “You Might be an Evangelical Reject if…”  I got a good giggle out of the post and many of its follow-on comments, because I certainly have found myself in the “Evangelical Reject” camp with some regularity category myself.  But the post got me to thinking…what kind of church am I really part of?

That’s a question without a simple answer.  I attend Sunday worship services regularly at a local church where we have chosen to plug in as a family.  I enjoy the fellowship there on at least a superficial level; I sing with their praise singers, I participate in Sunday School discussions, and I am gradually developing friendships with a few folks that may, some day, go beyond casual conversation.  But while the conversation is ongoing and the door is not entirely shut (yet anyway), I probably cannot be a member there–or ever participate in a teaching or leadership capacity–precisely because my theology does not conform to the prototypical Evangelical statement of faith that is a condition of “membership.”

Nor have I found any real alternatives among other sorts of fellowships.  I don’t fit into the Catholic or high-church Protestant molds because my Anabaptist proclivities don’t mesh with notions of Apostolic Succession and the sacraments; I don’t fit into a mainline Protestant setting because I still hold a higher view of Scripture’s witness to (for example) such things as sexual ethics than many of them now countenance, and I find this same problem causes me to clash with the Anabaptist-descended Mennonites I’ve checked in with over the years.  While I’m too “liberal” for the “conservatives” among whom I now worship, I’ve found with equal certainty that I’m too “conservative” for the “liberals,” as well.

None of this prevents me from choosing a group with whom to worship.  I think regular assembly is important, not only for my own spiritual life, but for the example I choose to set for my wife and kids.  But it does seem to preclude the sort of spiritual give-and-take that is required for fellowship to go to the next level…and by this I mean the sort of relationship in which one can seriously, candidly, and respectfully engage with other brothers & sisters on important matters of faith and thought and practice, even when the discussants disagree.  It took me nine years to find anybody with whom I could pursue faith at that level in my last church, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it’s not happening in the first year at a new place.

But what is weird, and the reason for the title of this post, is that what I have not found in person at the local church, I have found with some of you online.  The challenge of re-examining a scriptural passage, or critiquing a long-held doctrine, or daring to get serious about a point of discipleship…these things that ought to be part of anyone’s “church experience” are exactly what a few of you blogging partners have been for me.  In a paradoxical way, I find fellowship in these dialogs, with some of you whom I’ve never met face to face, to be far more vital to my own spiritual thinking than most interchanges I have with people who are breathing the same oxygen in the same room.  You are becoming, for me at least, the Church Virtual…invisible to me (except maybe on Skype), separated from me and from each other by hundreds or even thousands of miles, but a fellowship of great significance nonetheless.

Is this healthy?  In all honesty I’m not entirely sure.  It seems to me that true Scriptural fellowship ought to involve the breaking of bread, and prayer and worship and teaching, that happen in a decidedly physical, local context.  I hope and pray that one day I’ll be able to share those things with some of you.  But in the meantime, I thank you for your engagement.  It has, for me at least, been a true lifeline to staying engaged in the faith.  Peace and blessings be upon you!

14 thoughts on “The Church Virtual?”

  1. Kurt Willems

    Dan, this is beautifully true for me as well in many ways. I am privileged to be part of the church virtual with you and so many others. While it is not a replacement for my incarnated relationships, it certainly is a complement to such. And our friendship, if we lived in proximity, would certainly involve elements of both. For now, we are separated by miles, but our fellowship, though paradoxical, is deeply valued by me. You have been with me since near the beginning of my blogging journey. I think the first one you commented on was: Entering the Missional/emergent/pomo/red letter/et…. Conversation. Anyway, its fun to see what has become of such friendship and I look forward to the years to come! Also, I’m very excited about your new website!

  2. Ben Bajarin

    To your last point, is it healthy? I’d say its healthier than not having the kind of fellowship we all do.

    I fully agree that having face to face fellowship and community is valuable and important but i’d reject the idea that, that is the only kind of fellowship and “church” that can happen.

    Since I am a technologist, i’d look at it and say technology all though sometimes detrimental to humanity (like the A-bomb) more often than not adds something of value.

    The fact that we can have this kind of virtual church, i’d say, is something Jesus would encourage us to embrace. After all progress was something God built into the world. We are moving from a garden to a city aren’t we?

    Perhaps God had this in mind as well as a perfectly acceptable fellowship.

    Now the last point is, technology and more specifically the Internet is, in my opinion, the single greatest tool the church and christians should use to create unity. Unity in the bride is after all at the core of God’s desires.

  3. Allen

    I’m with you in the “too conservative yet too liberal” desert. I graduated from an extremely strict, fundamental school, and now work in a much less conservative congregational church. I guess I’m somewhere between them.

    I’ve found the sort of like-minded communion online you’re talking about (as sick as that sounds to me); you can ask Kurt. When I first found his blog, I didn’t know any Christians pacifists. Reading and participating on blogs like yours has given me hope that I’m not in a crack between visible expressions of Christianity.

  4. Dan Martin

    Oh, you’re in a crack all right, Allen. You’re just not the only one there. Thank God the internet is helping us find each other, ’cause the atmosphere in our churches is no use in this regard! Welcome!

  5. Jonathan

    Dan, I affirm you in all these things you stand for, as well as your unwillingness to compromise. I also join you in the Church Virtual, though I’ve recently been blessed with a position in a wonderfully embracing physical congregation.

    I don’t guess there’s an opening for a music pastor in the Church Virtual, is there?

    This rejection from the main veins of evangelicalism has to be based on fear. We all have the temptation to fear doctrine that we can’t wrap up neatly and hold in our own hand.

    How easy it is to forget the source of all Truth is the One who owns it.

    Anyway, blessings to you, friend.

  6. Aaron

    I’m with you all the way, Dan. My wife, daughter and I have been struggling with the very same thing for about 2 years, and I have to admit that the Church Virtual has become the oasis in my spiritual desert.

    We have just found a local church that looks interesting (ie people seem genuinely loving and its all a bit of a disorganised mess, despite the church professing to be Anglican), and I believe that God would have us ‘plug in’ there for a while, but I feel that real Christian community is about being willing to be flexible.

    We also have a few friends round on a Monday to do a kind of ‘house church’ thingy, where we basically share our lives, encourage each other, and ask pressing questions.

    Responding to and creating theological questions and ideas via the internet has drawn me closer to God and to people in a way that attending a regular service doesn’t allow.

    And I thank God for opening that door of oppportunity for me.

  7. Dan Martin

    My brother, who’s not a Facebook or blog theologian, sent me a link to a fascinating video from TED about a Virtual Choir conducted by Eric Whitacre. I recommend it.

    It’s a great talk and a fascinating concept. It’s simultaneously inspiring, and precisely what I find somewhat pathetic about the virtual community, because although it’s possible to create great beauty, and true community, I have also sung in a real choir, and I remember the feeling of standing in the middle of all that harmony on a stage or in a practice room. It’s not the same. I think there may be a parable here.

    Don’t get me wrong…I reiterate that the community I’ve found with you guys is vital. In point of fact, it’s often the only thing that allows me to love God with my mind, as my mind is not terribly welcome in most physical “church” settings. Nevertheless, it’s different in a way you can only know if you’ve ever stood in the middle of a live choir, blending your voice in real-time with the rest.

  8. Ruth Martin

    As a “veteran” of more than 50 years of the “too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives” game (and it’s probably our fault you have that problem, Dan), I have to add an enthusiastic “amen” to the “Virtual Church.” Although we have recently found a small group that seems to be more in tune with our search, and we are cautiously optimistic, it would be premature to relax. I am SO grateful for the way you have made the Net accessible to your technologically-challenged mom! Being able to share the work I was “assigned” many years ago, and see folks find it helpful, and even find some who contribute to it, is liberating in the extreme! I never cease to give thanks for you and those who have been willing to try to “be church” for each other! May their tribe increase!

  9. RJ

    Good morning Dan. Since I am posting this comment on Sunday morning it is obvious that I have yet to find a brick & mortar church to replace the one where I “asked too many questions”. Part of this is my wife’s reluctance to do church now. She just can’t see herself as anything but a Lutheran and will not go back to the place that kicked her husband out.

    While the virtual church of my blog friends, and you are certainly one of those, can’t be a full replacement it does, due to my handicap, put me on an even playing field with everyone else here (that is until we start using non-captioned videos :) ) At least I don’t think I will be kicked out of this one because I don’t fit the mold.

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  12. Maxwell Mooney

    Dan,

    This is a wonderful post, and I found that it resonates with me quite heavily. I have this problem all the time, that I’m too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals (both ecclesiastically and politically). This is particularly challenging as I’m currently in a paid ministry context and find myself in some sticky situations with some key leaders who are *very* conservative. I’ve thought about simply finding another church to serve at, but I truly believe God has me where I am to both grow personally and to grow the church to a more authentic understanding of the Scriptures. I feel almost like a missionary to my own church!

    Perhaps God brings us to these “in-between” places to grow us and strengthen our relationship with Him even more. Regardless, I too am thankful for the “Church Virtual” that can provide some reprieve from the mental and emotional tax that comes from constantly monitoring what I say at church.

    Thank you for this thoughtful, sincere post.

    Max

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