Digital church is missing the point (even with VR)

(COMMENTARY) The world is at our fingertips. With increased access to every form of entertainment, news and education we could ever dream of, some are even attending church online. But the rise of Internet-based congregations just perpetuates the loneliness epidemic in the US and misses the point of church.

Today, individuals not only want but expect easy access to services on their phones that meet their every need. While churches have been streaming sermons for the last decade or so for congregants who are unable to attend on a particular Sunday, and while churches see an increase in online streams, they also see a decrease in physical attendance. According to Gallup polls, church attendance is at an all-time low with less than 50 percent of the population attending any type of religious institution. This is a sharp decrease from 70 percent in 2000. In a very consumeristic fashion, Americans are consuming from churches and not participating in the life of the church or giving back in return.

USA Today reports of a virtual reality-based church that has recently been developed. A pastor in Pennsylvania was on a mission to create a digital church experience to attract skeptics of the faith. Attendees that have VR headsets can feel like they are in exciting and fun locations like Jerusalem as they listen to a sermon. They can even attend weekly events for the church body, be “baptized”, and “mingle” with other congregants.

While it seems convenient and potentially could be a method for outreach, are these types of Internet-based churches missing the point of church completely?

The use of technology in and of itself is not wrong. Many churches have developed apps that include options for giving, downloading audio or video of recent sermons and devotionals. These items may actually support the life of the church and involvement in the church body.

The danger comes when Internet sermons or VR experiences completely replace in-person church attendance and human connection with other believers. Spirituality then becomes self-focused and consumeristic. If we view what Paul described in Acts about how the church should function as a body, always supporting one another and living life together in community, we see that Internet church is out of touch with what Christ intended for his bride to look like.

Church is not just a sermon. It is not just the pastor. It is not just a motivational speech. Church is so much more. Virtual church misses the point.

As a nation, Americans are more connected digitally than ever, yet lonelier than ever. Real, physical participation in the church could actually help solve the loneliness epidemic in America. Being part of a church community should mean deeply getting to know those different from you. It should mean bringing a meal to those in need in the church. It should mean serving in the church nursery or on the greeting team. Church by definition involves intimacy with others. Without the human connection, it is hardly church at all.

Laura Turner, author of a forthcoming book on the cultural history of anxiety, noticed the church consumption trend in a piece for the New York Times on Internet church. “This, then, is the beauty of the church: not that it is perfect or convenient or fits easily into my life but that without it, my life would be deficient,” she concluded. 

While it is far easier and more convenient to just listen to a sermon online and move on without having to regularly attend events throughout the week, it is not the full experience of church.

Zsuzsa Williford is a recent graduate of The King’s College in NYC with a major in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.