What does a virtual church look like – forgiving, of course, the fact that the question seems to be an oxymoron? If a church does not exist in bricks and mortar, with live people, is it a church? If you just reproduce a real world church on video is it really virtual? And, if you just put a selection of hymns, prayers and sermons online so someone can click on them, does that qualify for either? This is a strange concept, this virtual church, raised most recently and bravely by our Executive Director, Cathy Knight. It will not be answered without wide discussion and participation.

It seems that to get a satisfactory answer to the question, we might need to start from scratch – even with the very basic question of, “What is church?”

One small part of the answer comes from Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Sitting alone clicking a key to play a recording or view a video does not strike us as quite fitting the bill. When we read the word “church” in the Bible, we are reading a translation of the Greek word ecclesia, meaning “an assembly” or “a gathering.” Central to the Biblical notion of church, whether it’s taken from the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistles or Acts, is a gathering of people.

Does the notion of church being a gathering dispel the whole idea of a virtual church? Not necessarily, it seems. The need for a virtual church is based largely on the number of people who spend so much time online, for whatever reason, or that cannot find or attend a service that appeals or meets their needs.

With computer technology commonly encompassing webcams, built-in microphones and wide-screens, however, gathering is just some software away. It may be strange to consider, at first, but picture your screen with your picture from your webcam appearing somewhere on it, surrounded by the pictures of the other participants. There could be advantages to gathering this way – if you need to visit the restroom, you can put your camera on a still picture so no-one knows – if you sing like a file being rasped over sheet-metal there’s that little mute button. Now, this may not yet seem like church, but the gathering part doesn’t seem to be a huge problem.

Another aspect of church is the concept of koinonia, or intimate communion. Communion includes, but goes far beyond, the breaking of bread together. It also encompasses the whole notion of a church community – that sense of belonging that comes with being known and knowing. Now, this could be the breaking point. How could you possibly achieve koinonia, with each  separated by distance?

Andy’s experience may help reconcile this. He belongs to a group called Soulforce.org, and is an active participant on the site’s forums. Hundreds of people posting and responding, with a few dozen being the most prolific and respected as go-to people for questions and care. Many of these people, from all over the country and even the world, have developed strong, lasting relationships – virtual relationships. They counsel, commiserate with, encourage, quarrel, bicker and flirt with each other online. Okay, well so far, that also happens in church. And, whenever it can be arranged, there are some that even manage to gather one-on-one or in small groups in a central location or while on route to a destination. Breaking bread together and pictures, of course,  seem to be unwritten rules in these personal encounters. Soulforce is, indeed, a koinonia and it is primarily virtual.

Service to others, for us, seems like another essential aspect of church. The internet has proved its ability to provide myriad ways of increasing exposure for causes, and also mobilizing people to collective effort for the common good. The internet communities may already be better at this than most churches.

There are, to be sure, many other aspects of church that are dear to people’s hearts – things that make church meaningful and soul-feeding. What are they? How about it? Do you want to participate by helping first define the essence of what makes a church a church, and then wrestle out whether or not a virtual church body can be forged in cyberspace? This could be cutting edge stuff, or simply a fun and valuable exercise but, either way, it will not be a waste of time. We will be engaging in community together.

Authored by Cathy Knight, Andy Little & Jenna Zirbel. Written by Andy.