Is an Online Church Really a Church? A Grumpy Response to Ed Stetzer (@tim_hutchings)

This month, Ed Stetzer tackled the thorny question of online churches for Christianity Today magazine. Is an online church really a church? Well, Ed’s answer is mostly no. Every church should have an online presence, he says, but they should use that presence to move people away from “being alone on the screen” and towards “being in community with others”.

Now, I like online churches – I’ve studied and written about and lived with online churches for many years, as an academic and a participant. So how does someone like Ed Stetzer – American pastor, church planter, president of a research company, Visiting Professor in missiology at two different seminaries – come to be so hostile about them?

Ed is, he assures us, a big fan of the internet:

“If a church is not online, then it is not actually engaging the culture. A church needs to be where the people gather and they are online and on social media sites.”

We should pause here for a moment. That’s a terrible starting place for any internet theology. Lots of people spend time online, but people with internet access are not “the culture”. Every church needs to work out what culture they are ministering to, and that doesn’t mean every church should communicate to the same people in the same way. That’s an issue some of you might disagree with me on!

Moving along, we get to the real argument. Ed Stetzer thinks online church is bad because it is meant to replace the local church, and if people stop going to their local church they miss out on what “church” really is: “a gathering of believers under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that practices two ordinances, seeks to advance His kingdom, and holds each other accountable in covenant.” The Eucharist is available in online churches, but “it is better done in physical community”. We need churches where “social media enhances rather than excuses community”.

Oh, boy. Where can we start with this?

My approach to a debate like this is always to look for what real people are actually doing. Some of you might prefer to start by checking Stetzer’s Bible references (2 John 12, if you’re wondering), but I’m more interested in finding out if people actually behave the way Stetzer says they do. There’s no point using the Bible and theology to critique a culture if you haven’t taken the time to find out what that culture really is.  

Clint Schnekloth makes a similar point in his new book “Mediating Faith”, a theology of the internet written for a Christian audience but based in academic research. According to Clint, “theology is, to a considerable degree, ethnography… ethnography can be excellent Christian theology”. Ethnography is the study of people, through spending time with them, sharing their activities and talking with them, and Clint argues that this is how we should begin our theological study of the internet. The only way to make sense of online churches is through “immersion in the actual context of the virtual world in order to learn the language, participate and be mediated there.  In this way, theology can be an exercise in a real ethnographic experience of the virtual rather than a virtual conversation about the virtual one assumes to be real.

For me, Ed Stetzer’s criticism of online churches shows an absence of ethnography. There’s no sense in this article that Stetzer has bothered to spend time in online churches, talking to the people who use them and finding out what they do and why. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the diversity of online churches (from to St Pixels, i-church and the Cathedral of Second Life), or the diversity of reasons for using them. As a result, Stetzer is left writing about “the virtual he assumes to be real”, and missing what’s really happening.

Stetzer admits three motivations for going to church online: “avoiding traffic”, “illness” or “being in a country where the Gospel is persecuted”. But he thinks those are exceptional cases. People who go to church online might cite those reasons, but what they are really doing is “avoiding (intentionally or unintentionally) real community.” Maybe those are motives for some – illness certainly is – but the churchgoers I’ve spoken to are much more interested in exploring new kinds of worship, listening to great preaching and finding opportunities to be creative in serving others. The most common motives I heard in my research were actually based in relationships and community. Online, people can pray together, argue theology, meet believers from around the world, discuss their lives, share their concerns and support each other, all day every day, and those are opportunities that a lot of physical churches actually don’t offer.

Stetzer assumes that online churches are a threat to local churches, a replacement, but in my research I found very, very few people actually acting that way. Almost everyone I spoke to was already attending a local church, and didn’t need anyone to lead them into local community. They had that already, thanks. They were going online because online community added new dimensions to their life and faith. If people did stop attending a local church, they had strong reasons, usually illness or abuse – these weren’t people who could attend a local church, right now, and they certainly hadn’t started attending online just because they were lazy.

Stetzer’s article also tries to compare online church with an idealised, unrealistic vision of local church. We need to share the Eucharist in physical community, he says, because there is more joy in face-to-face conversation than in letter-writing, according to the Bible, and also at his housegroup people cry a lot and hug each other. OK, but crying and hugging are not things that happen during the Eucharist service at any church I’ve attended, and online community doesn’t have much in common with sending a letter 2000 years ago. For a lot of people, attending a local church just isn’t like this at all.

So think of this as a grumpy argument for ethnographic theology. Don’t dismiss people you don’t understand, or idealise your own community so much you can’t see its flaws. If you want to say something about the world, go live in the world for a while, with your eyes open, finding out what people really do and what they care about and why. And when you’re writing theology, prove to your reader that your ideas have some foundation in real experience.

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.