Can Community Exist Virtually?

The Community Group I lead has been studying the book of Ephesians these past few months. One of its main themes is what the church ought to be like, so I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about that as I prepare for our sessions. Along side this, I’m a regular listener to William Bennett’s morning talk show, Mornings in America. While listening one morning last week, I heard a discussion about how the current war in Iraq is perceived by folks here at home, with the point being that, as a society or community we don’t feel that we’re very involved in this unless we have a family member or friend over there. We’ve lost some sense of the larger community as a culture. So all this converged to get me thinking about community and today’s church.

At the beginning of my professional career in the mid-1980’s, I remember when the first personal cassette tape players came out, dominated by Sony’s Walkman. Personal computers were a relatively new idea, not widely used or even available. Cell phones were not really around yet, and a car phone was an unusual thing to see. Communication was by telephone over land line, FedEx was in it’s infancy, and faxes were not widely available. Letters were still written and sent by mail as a routine way of keeping in touch. Face to face communication was still the norm.

Today, we primarily keep in touch with each other electronically. Virtual community is what it’s called, and I’m certainly a participant as I sit in the food court across the street from my office and write this on my new MacBook. (No I don’t have my iPod – today’s Walkman – plugged in.) But as I look at the condition of community in our culture more broadly, and in the church specifically, I think something really important has been lost.

God intended for Christians to gather together, to live in community, as his design for the church. This is very clear from both the Biblical example of Acts and from Paul’s writing in Ephesians. This is to be a face to face community, not a virtual one, because there is something very important about actually being together. Without being together, we lose half of our communication media, the non-verbal. We can’t see facial expressions when we talk together (emoticons just don’t cut it, and besides, they can be lies). We can’t reach out and touch someone when the comfort of an embrace, or the unspoken “I’m here” of a touch is the best way to communicate the community’s support. Contagious laughter or joy is impossible virtually because it can’t be heard or seen. And we’ve all experienced the misunderstandings that can occur without the nonverbal parts of our language.

This applies to meeting together for worship as well. Television church attendance from the comfort of your easy chair is no substitute for the gathering together of the saints. Experiencing worship with other believers can lift us to a place where we never will go alone. Hearing the Word spoken and taught live and in person forces us to listen at least a little bit more. And the power of the Spirit at work in a corporate worship setting can be life changing.

Can this kind of community exist virtually? I don’t think so, and I would argue no kind of real community can. We are called as Christians to be counter-cultural. Maybe how we do community is a place we should begin.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

The "Worship Experience"

Driving home from a meeting one night recently I heard an advertisement on one of our local Christian music stations that used a phrase I had heard many times, but that had never stuck out to me. The ad was placed by a mega-church in our area looking for musicians and worship leaders to help create a “worship experience” at this church. For some reason I began wondering what was meant by the term “worship experience?” Is it only an alternative to the more traditional “worship service?” I expect that is the case, but are the users of such a term unwittingly, or intentionally, changing the nature and objective of corporate worship? Such usage certainly seems to reflect the growing, and to me disturbing, trend toward experientially grounded faith in the contemporary church.


So is it right to use the term at all? Well, I suppose that it depends on whose experience we’re talking about. The only person whose worship experience we should be concerned with is that of God, who should be, but all too often isn’t really, the object of our worship. I fear that what most mean by “worship experience” is their own pleasure in it: whether their favorite song was sung, the musicians were skilled, the prayers were eloquent, thing started and ended on time, and the sermon was entertaining and/or made them feel good about themselves. Nothing at all to do with whether God was glorified or pleased with the service of worship.


As I read and study more and more of the Scripture, I am struck by the Bible’s emphasis on God’s perspective on things. The study we’re doing on Isaiah at Orange Hill points to this again and again. Whatever we may want to think about the reason we gather and what we do when we do, God’s idea about this seems to be that we are there to give praise and honor to him, not satisfy some want of our own. In fact, the real shame, and I mean that in the sense of how we should feel when doing wrong, is that our main want should be what God wants rather than all these other things.


Next time I wonder why the Sunday worship was unsatisfying, I need to remember to ask myself why I was there and who I was trying to satisfy with the songs or prayers or anything else that was done that day. Most importantly I need to ask myself if my heart was pleasing to God. Did I want what he wants…to worship him? That’s the “Worship Experience” we need to be concerned with…God’s and God’s alone.

Face Down

In my recent contemplation of the bigness of God, I was thinking about the creation story. This has been in the news some recently, associated with the whole Intelligent Design debate in the scientific community. When you think about it, our attitude a Christians is often too passé about God and creation. We read through the first few chapters of Genesis pretty quickly, not stopping to think about the significance of what the writer is saying. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We Christians sort of go past this pretty quickly most of the time, along with the verses that follow, all beginning with God saying, “Let there be…and there was.” Let’s just slow down for a minute and hang out in these verses.

The more we learn about the origins of the universe, the more awesome, breathtaking, and incomprehensible it becomes. Isn’t it often true that the more we learn about a subject, the more we understand how little we really know? How our universe came to be is one of those, and in that light, Genesis 1:1 could probably be safely described as the most colossal understatement in the history of the universe. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wow! Given what we now know, or think we know, about how the universe got started, there a lot of stuff that happened inside those ten words.

First, God was there already. God is the only being that always lives in the present tense. No matter when God is, he always “is.” He never was or will be existentially. I have read just enough of William Lane Craig’s book Time and Eternity, which I think is the light version of a more academic work, to understand that part of what he is trying to grasp is that God is outside our experience of linear time and reaches into the timeline to do things like create the universe. You know, the little stuff. This is the kind of stuff that makes my head hurt to try and get hold of, but God is like that. His bigness is beyond our ability to reason it out. God’s very existence, not that He does, but how He does, is unexplainable in human terms.

God created it all. It was His conscious choice. It was an intentional act. It was no accident. Creation was not a random event, driven by a wildly improbable convergence of circumstances. God had something in mind when he created our universe. Our existence and that of the Earth we live on, and the solar system of which it is a part, and the galaxy of which it is part, and so on, has a purpose. That purpose is to please Him. More about this in a minute.

As God executed all the steps of creation as outlined in Genesis 1, He spoke everything into existence. Think of that. To be able to say, “Light, be” and have it happen is a level of power that we can’t even measure. Our most brilliant scientific minds can’t even describe how light really works except in a rough way. The knowledge that it takes to even conceive of light where it had never existed before, and then to create it with a word… Words fail.

On and on through this abbreviated story, God speaks a few words and amazing things spring into existence that had never been before. Fully thought out. Well ordered. Just what he wanted. And at the end of the six steps, including the creation of man in his image, which is another thing to think through on another day, he pronounced it not just good, but very good.

I’m not going to debate whether the process took a literal six days, or some other six-step process over a longer period. Neither position dilutes the fact of God’s awesomeness, or his power, or his creativity. It is no wonder that so many of the characters in the Bible spent a bunch of their time face down before God.

It occurs to me that we Christians need to redefine and rediscover a term that gets used today in the business world when it comes to our interactions with God. It refers to time with a colleague or client in a close encounter. I’m talking about the term “face time.”

We, no I, need more face time with God. And this kind of meeting is not one of colleagues across a conference table, or over coffee, or at dinner. I’m talking about time in the presence of the Creator. Given the nature of who he is, of how powerful he is, there is only one way to really have face time with God, only one posture that’s appropriate. Face down.