Leadership Journal just released a responsible evaluation of the online church movement by Chad Hall. Hall’s general take is that the question of online church is forcing evangelicals to re-evaluate the presuppositions they are making in their own churches (an argument I am rather fond of), and is one of the more fair treatments of the question that I have read.
The conversation about the possibility of online church has somewhat receded, the second half of 2009 was marked by a flurry of comments and conversations by participants and observers of evangelicalism’s latest fad—conversationsthat eventually found their way into the main-stream publications.
This enthusiasm for a controversial topic is not only a familiar feeling for evangelicals, but for the church at large. The creeds came about through an internal conversation about the meaning of the Incarnation and the Resurrection—a conversation about nothing less than the identity of the Christian God, and derivatively the identity of his people.
It was, in other words, a clarifying moment where the church had to articulate what she meant when she spoke of God. As a Protestant, I think another such moment happened at the Reformation, where we had to clarify what we meant when we spoke of authority of the church, and of justification. One way to understand the effects of the emerging church conversation is through this lens: it has prompted us to reconsider and clarify how we shall speak of truth.
This is, I think, the value of the conversation about online church, which is why I hope evangelicals do not move on yet, but stop and consider what we mean when we speak of the church and of the human person. The question of online church and of video-venues depends upon our concepts of both, and in focusing our attention here we can learn to better live out the Gospel as humans.
Most pastors will never have to deal with the practical realities of online church. Their churches—or perhaps more importantly, their budgets—will never be that large. But meanwhile, evangelical discourse about church and notions of what shape it should take will be driven by those pastors whom they seek to emulate, and the criteria for being a “successful pastor” in America will continue to shift as well. As Saddleback and Willow Creek were for evangelicalism, so Bethlehem Baptist and Mars Hill have become, and thousands of pastors’ understanding of what the church is and does have been influenced accordingly.
The online church question is a sign of life and vitality, and an opportunity for greater clarity. In these clarifying moments, we explore how the Gospel intersects with our lives and culture. That we get so excited about them suggest an enormous interest in that question, which gives me reason to hope for the future of evangelicalism. Division isn’t a necessary result of any conversation, and certainly not this one.
So seize the online church moment—though when it passes, I am sure there will be another.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?