Online Communion? Theology and the Digital Church

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White

There are many pressing areas in need of fresh theological thinking in light of a rapidly changing world. The redefinition of family, the nature of sexual identity, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering

… and the digital church.

One of the more pressing concerns will be how much tech can and should be used – and how – in light of an orthodox and robust ecclesiology. Is someone considered “attending” if it’s through an internet connection and a virtual reality (VR) headset? Is it appropriate to perform a digital baptism where avatars are immersed in water? What of a completely computer-generated church using VR and augmented reality (AR)? Which, I might add, already exists.  

On the most basic of levels, what is to be thought when people participate through an online service but consider themselves a part of a church—the so-called “bedside Baptists” and “pillow Presbyterians?” Or using apps to attend digital “events” and enter into corporate prayer through emojis and avatars?

There will be a knee-jerk reaction against such innovations, but there can be little doubt that a new way of doing – and being – church is being forged through technological innovation and an increasingly digital world. In other words, instead of a knee-jerk negative reaction out of distaste or stylistic preference, it demands vigorous theological reflection that takes the digital revolution seriously.

A single blog is grossly insufficient to tackle this task, but perhaps I could suggest one way of thinking about one of the many questions being raised: If someone is involved in an online campus, should they be encouraged to participate in the Lord’s Supper as they watch?

Again, this is not about a full-blown theology of the online church, much less the only kind of question that can be raised. So let’s just treat it as a sample question in need of theological reflection in light of the digital revolution.

My own conclusion? A qualified “yes.”

When I was in seminary and pastor of a county-seat First Baptist Church, one of the more meaningful ministries of the deacons was taking communion to shut-ins (I don’t know whether “shut-ins” is still the correct term, but that is what we called them.). We offered communion, or the Lord’s Supper, once a month. We had members of the church who were physically unable to attend—they were in the hospital, in a nursing home, or in their own homes, but not able to physically leave.

So on Sunday afternoons, following the Sunday morning services that we had communion, the deacons of the church fanned out across our little town and brought a communion kit with bread and grape juice to those people so they could also partake.

The deacons spent a few minutes talking with them, read scripture and prayed, reminded them of the church’s love and concern for them, and then shared the bread and the juice with them. It was beautiful and so much the epitome of the church and the sacrament. 

And theologically, what could possibly be the problem? They were members/attenders of the church, unable to physically attend and we, as the church, went to them on the days we celebrated communion to include them in the spirit of community and joint celebration of the sacrament.

Fast forward.

You’re celebrating communion as a church in the 2020s, and you have people unable to attend in person who are joining you online. They may be in a hospital, in a nursing home, a shut-in, traveling on business in a hotel room, on vacation and watching as a family, or living in a place where they have no church home and the online service has been their lifeline—becoming the only church home they are able to have.

What do you do?

Could you use the same theological and ecclesiastical reasoning that was applied by my former church?

What if an online campus pastor were to say, “For those of you joining us online who cannot be with us physically, go get a bit of bread and some juice or wine, and when we partake as a church, join us as part of that community.”

Why is that different from deacons taking it to them?

Today it’s just the internet “taking” it to them and they self-serve the elements. It’s still done in full honor of the sacrament, under the leadership of pastors, under the authority of the church and in the spirit of community.

So are there limits to online participation in such things as the sacraments? I would argue that there are. Take, for example, baptism. Do we say, “For those of you watching online, feel free to fill your bathtub and baptize yourself as we perform the sacrament of baptism as part of this service”? 

Heavens, no. Why? Because the goal is to think about each and every question being raised by the digital revolution and the online church both biblically and theologically. And the nature of the sacrament of baptism is that it is meant to be a public profession of faith. That means in front of other people. It’s for this same reason that you cannot marry yourself. When a couple marries they make public vows, and it is the public nature of the vows that matters.

Such conclusions may not satisfy everyone, nor do they reflect the way to think theologically about all aspects of the online church. Each will bring its own set of unique theological challenges. But perhaps this shows how we are going to have to reflect, and reflect deeply, about the digital world and the church’s operation in that digital world.

These three things I know: We cannot bury our head in the sand as if there are no new questions being posed to the doctrine of the church (there are); we cannot march blindly forward into the digital world as if theology doesn’t matter (it does); and we cannot restrain all ecclesiastical innovation as if there hasn’t been a digital revolution

… (because there has).

James Emery White

Sources

Dalvin Brown, “Online Church: Ministries Use VR, Apps to Deliver Digital Services and Virtual Baptisms,” USA Today, December 27, 2019, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.    





Originally published January 23, 2020.