Church Online is different from Online Church. The former is a transition of medium from on-site services to digital platforms while keeping the essence of the on-site programs. One example is broadcasting the live stream of a church service (prayer, praise and worship singing, sermon preaching, giving, etc) on YouTube, Facebook Live, or via Zoom.
The latter is the translation of church digitally. The Online Church can do or gather in different digital spaces such as the metaverse and social media platforms that are more dynamic and immersive. Discord can also be an avenue for simultaneous Bible Studies, prayer time, or social fellowship. This thought is highly cultivated by Christopher Helland’s (2000) view: “‘Religion online’ provides information about conventional religion through institution-controlled one-to-many communication, while ‘online religion’ shares religious experiences through grassroots community interaction.”
To begin with, Paul shared his words by sending scrolls of his writings through his disciples to designated church communities (eg. 2 Cor 2). These writings were read out loud during a Sunday gathering then believers start to have a dialogue on the subject matter. Even Jesus used this method in Luke 4. Likewise, both in 2 John 12 and 3 John 13-14, the author intended that he used “paper and ink” to give his address to the respondent. However, the “completeness of joy” is not achieved unless they meet “face to face.”
This short essay is not to choose one over the other. Neither I do not define the term ‘church’ here nor defend ‘online church’. My goal is to present ‘church hybridity’ as biblical. Nevertheless, let us explore what the Scripture states about a church that is not only relevant and efficient during a certain season, but a church that lasts for the glory of God. In this post-pandemic context, I contend for church hybridity (Jeff Reed calls it phygital = physical + digital)—I prefer Peter Phillips’ use of the term, Hybrid Church.
** To clarify, the use of papyrus, scrolls, paper, and ink, is a technological advancement during ancient times. Even Plato–in his well-known Thamusian skepticism–was against the use of these materials. (On Papyrus, read Michael Haykin’s The Weekly Historian; On Thamusian skepticism, read Plato’s Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII).
Ever since the Early Church, they were already practicing a hybrid style of ministering to churches. However, it does not suffice the biblical idea of complete joy or the fullness of joy. Presence (face to face/ on-site/ rubbing elbows) is vital in church life. A hybrid setting is ought to be supplemental not an alternative nor a substitute for corporate worship. To this point, I contend for Church hybridity.
Online versus Offline is a false dichotomy. Doing church online or having an online church is supplemental to the present local church. It is not an option, nor a substitution but supplements the body of Christ. It is a means, not an end in itself.
Additionally, younger millennials, GenZ and the nexus generation recognize this kind of connection as real social interaction, an authentic space for building relationships and creating genuine communities. Arguably, both Church Online and Online Church are great approaches for serving the body of Christ, especially during the pandemic season and post-pandemic situation.
Let us stop criticizing those churches that do ministry digitally. Katherine Schmidt warns, “Claiming to have true embodiment, we criticize the digital for being disembodied. Claiming to have true contemplation, we accuse the digital of being a distraction. Claiming to have true community, we accuse the digital of being a simulacrum at best and an anti-community at worst” (“Digital Inculturation” in Missio Dei). Take note of this; those who participate Online simultaneously are not second-class church members.
While being critical, embrace the church you have. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded the church, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” Bonhoeffer was trying to say that “You don’t get the church you want, but you get the church you need” (a phrase from Rediscover Church).
Lastly, both Online Church and Church Online are physical/ incarnational realities; not less-than-real nor not-fully genuine. Anthony Le Duc notes, “In the dynamic and increasingly inextricable relationship between the digital and analogue spaces, any presence that promotes communion and worship is valuable, authentic, and real.”
But again, I am for church hybridity, and we need one another in order to navigate through this post-pandemic challenge. John Dyer notes, “If we assert too strongly that digital offerings are entirely sufficient, then we risk invalidating the longings of those who cannot meet in person. Conversely, if we too highly privilege in-person meetings, then we devalue the important work of digital outreach and even the Spirit’s presence and activity when we cannot meet” (Digital Ecclesiology 15).
To conclude, let me echo Le Duc’s contention, “Therefore, the post-pandemic Church will serve God and humanity well when it is able to navigate and harmonize the analogue and digital spaces, giving due priority to communicative forms that are most beneficial to spiritual sustenance of the faithful, but not be rashly dismissive of other forms that can be valuable when properly understood and prudently utilized” (Digital Ecclesiology 31).
At the end of the day, do not coerce your local church to embrace hybridity if it’s not significant in your context. John Dyer notes, “Each church will need to reflect on its own tradition and values to decide which combination of media best reflects its calling and identity.” Do not criticize those who practice; do not pressure those who do not.
Christopher Helland, “Online-religion/religion-online and virtual communitas,” in J. Hadden and D. Cowan, eds. Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises (London: JAI Press, 2000), 205–224.
Heidi Campbell and John Dyer, eds., Ecclesiology for a Digital Church: Theological Reflections on a New Normal (London: SCM Press, 2022).
Heidi Campbell and Ruth Tsuria, eds., Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in Digital Media, Second Edition (NY: Routledge, 2022).
Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2016).
Jonas Kurlberg and Peter Phillips, Missio Dei in a Digital Age (London: SCM Press, 2020).
Teresa Berger, @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (NY: Routledge, 2018).
Tim Hutchings, Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media (NY: Routledge, 2017).