A United Methodist church in North Carolina is creating a stir by planning to offer communion on the internet at its “virtual campus.” The online church is complete with streaming video worship services and pastoral counseling via live chat. Does the sacrament need to be IRL (in real life) to be real, true, and meaningful? Or is virtual church just another way we are selling out or dumbing down to the culture in order to pander religion and cheapen faith? Our colleague, Dr. Gordon Mikoski is quoted in the Wall Street Journal article about the online church,
“God spoke through voices and thunder and lightning and burning bushes and all kinds of things,” Dr. Mikoski said. “But the highest, most complete way that God communicates is, God takes on human flesh and becomes human.…From a Christian theological point of view, that’s significant.”
And Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean puts it this way on her Facebook page:
I think pheromones matter in church. We need to smell each other (even…especially…when we stink). Trust is the gift of being able to sniff each other out. So I’m with my buddy Gordon Mikoski on the priority of a the church being a community where we’re in each others’ faces.
I get that — the value of being in each other’s face. The senses of smell and touch are as important as seeing and hearing; experience is key to our faith and mission. Can we not have real experience through technology? Recently a pastor told me about an online spirituality group that was some of the best “community” he’s ever experienced. And I have had great experiences with coaching, praying, and even meditation with a spiritual advisor through online technologies.
As part of my work with the staff at Monmouth Presbytery, we are considering the pros and cons of moving to a “virtual” office. Reading blogs and articles about people working from homes, Starbucks, their cars, etc. I’ve learned that working remotely can work, but only if we move ahead intentionally.* Most of the time, working ONLY through virtual connections is not enough. Technology, though, can allow us opportunities for togetherness and a “gathered-ness” that doesn’t happen or is not able to happen “in real life.”
So … back to communion … if we really need to be smelling each other, touching each other, or “in each other’s face” in order to experience the community of communion … then we need to make huge changes in a lot of our congregations. How many times have we served communion by passing a tray of bread cubes or mini-cups without touching each other or looking into each other’s eyes? How many of our congregational members sit in pews as far from other congregants as they can? (no pheromones there)
Can you imagine an online communion that may, in fact, be more “in your face” than the scattered pew-sitters passing a metal tray? I can. I’m not suggesting that a totally virtual reality is enough … but it can be a piece of a larger mesh of relationships both online and IRL … where our real life, pheromonal relationships, are augmented by connections that happen via the telephone, Skype, instant messaging, texting, Facebook, online meetings, blogs, dropbox, etc.
I understand that Christ is God incarnate … made flesh … not made into digital bytes of data … I also wonder, though, if the internet were available to Jesus, what would he imagine with it?
* I will write another post to discuss the pros and cons of virtual offices and add the link here when it is completed. Click here for the pros and cons of a virtual office.