Hjalti á Lava was searching his iPhone for a Bible app when he stumbled across Church Online, a service of Web site LifeChurch.tv. Soon he was regularly logging into the Oklahoma-based cyber-church — some 4,100 miles away from á Lava’s home in the Faroe Islands, west of Norway.
“It allows me to connect with others and have conversations about the message,” says á Lava, who shares his faith with other believers in the site’s live chat room. “Technology allows us today to have fellowship across borders and cultures.”
In doing so, á Lava joined growing numbers of Christians worldwide who are migrating from the chapel to the computer. A map on the Church Online site showed users from 22 countries logged into a recent service.
Online religious services offer convenience to those who are too isolated or infirm to attend a real-world church. But can worshipping via a computer offer true spiritual fulfillment?
Internet pastors and parishioners cite their 24-hour access to interactive tools and social-networking platforms to show their online experiences are as meaningful as those that take place with face-to-face congregations.
“We were blown away at how people could actually worship along [online],” says Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at LifeChurch.tv. “The whole family will gather around the computer, and they’ll sing and they’ll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them.”
But critics believe virtual worship separates followers from a trinity of spiritual essentials found in brick-and-mortar Christian churches: community, Communion and connection with Christ.
“Online church is close enough to the real thing to be dangerous,” says Bob Hyatt, a pastor who leads the brick-and-mortar Evergreen Community Church in Portland, Oregon. In a blog post for ChristianityToday.com, he writes that calling it virtual church “gives people the idea that everything they need is available here.”
The debate is an extension of a wider argument over social interaction in virtual environments versus the physical world. But because practices of faith are involved, both sides are deeply invested in the outcome, seeing it as a statement on the nature of the Christian person’s relationship with God.
Supporters of online churches have a common response to their skeptics: Try before you criticize. The virtual experience goes far beyond using live chat rooms to exchange emoticons instead of hugs and handshakes, they say.
Links allow congregants to “raise their hand” and publicly commit to Christ, while prayer requests and one-on-one guidance are a click way. Sermon notes can be shared and discussed. And many online churches are aided by volunteers, allowing them to hold services several times each day.
The Internet campus of the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Florida, pulls in more than 2,000 congregants from around the world during its Sunday services. Pastor Doug Gramling said his three children are part of the Internet generation that will eventually decide the future of worship. They use Web tools to stay in constant connection with friends over vast distances, which Gramling says “gives me confidence that it can happen in online church.”
But the disconnect from physical closeness is what Hyatt said he’s “fighting hardest against.” His own church offers online extensions such as podcasts and forums. But he believes “the computer screen is a supplement, not a replacement.”
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