Virtual Church, Football Matches and Marriage image

Virtual Church, Football Matches and Marriage

The current crisis is forcing us to do things online that we have always done in person, and in the process it is raising some important ecclesiological questions. Is virtual church "real church"? Should we carry on running it after the crisis is over? Can we share Communion together, and if so, how? How should we help people respond to the gospel in a virtual service? How can we best facilitate community, and care for the vulnerable, in an exclusively online world? Questions like this have been simmering beneath the surface since the Internet made them possible, but the Coronavirus has made them everybody's problem, and produced an intriguing variety of answers.

I have actually been very encouraged by the conversation. In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to be. I had assumed that a combination of pragmatism, a low view of the sacraments, squishy ecclesiology and a desire to put a positive spin on things would lead people to insist that virtual church was just as good as the real thing. But almost nobody is saying that. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing it now, and finding that physicality matters in all sorts of ways we might not have noticed: the hug on the way in, the sound of other people’s singing voices, the sight of hundreds of hands raised, the tearing of the loaf, the taste of wine, the laying on of hands in prayer, even the smells of the venue and the congregation and the coffee all mingled together. But partly it’s because, for all our desire to use technology to reach as many people as possible, we have deep convictions about the church. So I can disagree with people over whether (say) we should have an online celebration of the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, but I can also rejoice in the candour with which they admit its limitations, and explain that this is exceptional, and clarify that it should never replace the real thing.

The local church, it seems, is more like a marriage than a football match.

A true football fan will always prefer watching their team live to watching them on TV. It costs more, and is colder and often wetter, and takes far more time, but there is no substitute for the atmosphere, the live experience, the shouting and singing and ooohing and aaahing. Having said that, there are plenty of people—dismissed by true fans as “armchair supporters”, but a large group nonetheless—who actually prefer the virtual experience. They like the comfort of their own home, or the pub; they like having the commentary, and the analysis at half time; they like the instant replays and varied angles, and being able to see things on the far side of the pitch. So far as they are concerned, it is just a different means of watching the same game. The first group might think that the second group are missing out on all sorts of important things, but they would be hard-pressed to deny that they are still watching the match.

No doubt there are some advocates of virtual church who see it in a similar way. The live service has its advantages, but given that some people will never set foot in a live service, we might as well advertise the possibility of experiencing the exact same thing from the comfort of your home. This, in my apprehension, is what I thought I would hear lots of people saying in the age of Corona. But by and large, they haven’t. People don’t think about the church like a football match, and they’re right.

They think about it more like a marriage. Here’s Tim Challies:

I spend a fair bit of time travelling … Through the marvels of modern technologies, I usually have the ability to not only hear [my wife’s] voice, but even to see her face. I’ve been to many spots in the world where there is no access to clean water, but full access to 4G internet—access plenty strong enough to allow us to FaceTime. Yet Aileen never worries that I won’t come home. She is never concerned that I’ll conclude FaceTime is good enough and decide to only ever stay in touch virtually. She knows that while FaceTime may be a blessing, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face time … Why is this? It’s because physical presence matters. There are certain things we can only do as a husband and wife, certain things we can only be as spouses, when we share the same space …

I am not concerned. I am not concerned that committed Christians will reject actual church for cyber-church anymore than I’m concerned that committed spouses will reject face-to-face time in favour of FaceTime. Just as healthy marriage calls for physical proximity, so does healthy church membership. Just as a husband and wife need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of marriage, Christians need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of church membership. Just as a husband and wife long to share space, church members long to share space. A camera and screen will do when necessary, but they are at best a shadow of the real thing. They may provoke gratitude in those times they are the only option, but they will also provoke longing.

I find that such a helpful analogy. Couples are still married when they are on FaceTime, but an entirely virtual marriage is not a thing. I actually think the metaphor could be extended, since both marriage and the local church involve physical expressions of union (although I’ve generally avoided making this point out of fear that someone will mischievously refer to it as Sex and Sacrament). And it is borne out in the way that churches I know are talking about virtual church in this moment. When the lockdowns are lifted, and we are finally able to gather again—whether in groups of ten or twelve, or in groups of hundreds—our first Sunday together will be quite something. I can’t wait.

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