Is Virtual Church Really Church?

By Brandon Evans:
Remember back in the old days (as in, any time before March 2020) when online church services were an anomaly?
Then the pandemic hit. And virtually every church became a virtual church.
For most congregations, the move to virtual services was a pragmatic decision. But now that many across America have the green light to open (with limitations), the theological question is “do we need to resume physical gatherings?” Or are online services sufficient for the church to be the church?
The cliché answers to these questions are plentiful: “The church is the people, not a building”. “You don’t attend the church. You are the church.” Etc. But aside from the obvious fact that words can have more than one meaning (“It’s Will’s will to write a will. But will he?”) and the English word “church” can refer to a building as much as a people, we still have to ask ourselves what exactly is the church? And does virtual church fit the definition?
So it’s time for a biblical word study.
Behind the English word “church” is the Greek term ekklesia (ecclesiology is the “study of the church”). We need to understand the ekklesia in the New Testament to answer our modern questions about virtual church.
What is the church?
In a general sense, ekklesia means assembly (ekklesia is translated as “general assembly” in Acts 19:39, and, in the LXX, is used to translate the Hebrew term qhl, which means “assembly”).
In the New Testament, ekklesia most often refers to the disciples of Christ who assemble. It’s not that we are the church only when we assemble (1 Cor. 14:23), but that a necessary aspect of being the church is that we assemble.
So what?
So this means that your morning devotional is not church. Listening to a sermon podcast is not church. A prayer walk is not church. Singing along to Lauren Daigle on your commute is not church.
I am not the church. You are not the church. We are the church. And we are the church because we assemble in Jesus’ name. The ekklesia requires a gathering presence with one another.
Which leads to the next question.
Who is the church?
Only those who are followers of Jesus can be considered part of the ekklesia (1 Cor. 10:32 is one example where Jews, Greeks, and the ekklesia are distinct identities). The ekklesia is a trans-cultural, multi-national, assembly of unique individuals who have sworn their allegiance to King Jesus.
Which leads to the next question.
Where is the church?
The ekklesia is both local, like the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), and global (“the churches of God” in 1 Cor. 11:16). In other words, there is one church in many locations.
The church is glocal, to put it that way.
It’s not that the local churches add up to the global church. It’s that each local church is a total representation of the global church. What’s true of the global church is true of each local church.
A helpful analogy would be Russian dolls.
The church is like those stackable dolls (but less creepy). So in first century terms, the individual house churches in Lystra composed the church in Lystra which composed the churches in Galatia which composed the churches in Asia which composed the global church. But each individual house church was still the church.
This leads to the next important question.
Why the church?
One reason for the ekklesia is that we assemble for worship (which is far more than singing along to Christian pop songs). The gathering from start to finish is an act of worship. And the two ordinances of the church—communion and baptism—are acts of worship that require an assembly.
The lordship of Christ over the world is visible when the church gathers in worship. (In fact, it is Christ who assembles his church in the first place.) And the wisdom of God is displayed through the assembly of Jesus followers (Eph. 3:10).
The ekklesia is greater than the sum of its parts.
Another reason is that we assemble to build each other up. There is a necessary interconnectedness and mutual benefit between the members of the ekklesia.
This is why Paul uses the analogy of the human body to describe the church (see 1 Cor. 11:12-31). There is one body, but many members. Each member is unique and serves a unique role. Some are more prominent than others, but all are indispensable. When one suffers the whole body suffers. If one is honored, all rejoice. The gathering of the ekklesia enables the individual members to function together like a body. A significant aspect of our identity as Christians is our relationship with one another as we gather together. And we gather together in the name of Jesus, who is the head of the body, the church (Col. 1:18).
So is virtual church really church?
Virtual church has been a controversial topic since its inception. Some say virtual church is not a sufficient alternative. Some use stronger language, like Barry Jones from Dallas Theological Seminary who calls online church “a pseudo experience of what the church is called to be”.
But I’m going to make a claim here—yes. Virtual ekklesia can still be the ekklesia.
It is still possible to assemble virtually, even if it is different than in person. Sure, the New Testament authors had no concept of modern technology that would enable people to be connected from across the globe. But the New Testament doesn’t require that physical presence was necessary for being connected to the ekklesia. Paul tells the Colossians that even though he is absent in body he is still present with them in spirit (Col. 2:5). Virtual churches do assemble followers of Jesus, even if it is through screens.
And even though the ekklesia is inherently local, the internet still provides that, although it has transformed the definition of local. Local is no longer tied to geography (or time, for that matter).
Virtual church is truly glocal.
And the church can still worship and build one another up. Virtual church still provides presence with one another (especially through Zoom community groups), but it has broadened what it means to be present. Like Paul, we can be absent in body but still be connected to God and one another in spirit. It is still possible to take communion together, baptize individuals, and provide pastoral care. You could even get blocked from a message board as a form of church discipline.
So, is virtual ekklesia the future of the ekklesia?
Virtual ekklesia is still the ekklesia. But I’m going to make another claim—virtual ekklesia is a diet version of the physical ekklesia. It can never match the fullness of gathering in person, and it will never replace the real thing.
Why not? Because virtual church cannot duplicate human sensory experience. This is true of the internet in general, which blocks several senses (taste, touch, and smell). Until you can smell someone through a screen, you are not getting the full experience of church (that probably sounds weirder than I was going for.) My point is that vital aspects of our sensory human experience are removed in a virtual context, so it can never replace the real thing.
Virtual services also run the risk of reducing the assembly to the performance of preaching and music. They run the risk of individualizing the experience. And they create a barrier to connecting with one another. But even our physical services run those same risks. The ekklesia has always been more than an hour on Sunday mornings, and that’s no different virtually.
Virtual church is still church. But it is not ideal. In the words of John, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn 12). Connectedness through technology (paper and ink is technology) still produces joy, but meeting face to face makes that joy complete.
Virtual church is a helpful supplement, but it doesn’t replace the real thing.
Welcome to the age of the hybrid ekklesia—virtual and in person
As churches resume gathering in person, they will still provide virtual services for the foreseeable future (including us at RCF).
We are effectively entering the age of the hybrid ekklesia.
For some people, virtual church might be the only option. It has risks (like anonymity and relational disconnection) but it is still sufficient to be the church and is good for those who need it. If you can only assemble virtually, that is ok.
For others, in person assembly is going to be the choice once more. It has risks, too (such as potential exposure to covid), and will have social distancing limitations, but it is still the ideal.
The bottom line is that, whether online or in person, you assemble with other Christians for worship and interconnectedness.
Either way, attend church, because we are the church.