There is no denying the absolutely revolutionary effect of digital and Internet technology on society in the twenty-first century. For many people, the Internet provides an instant connection to friends, family, colleagues, workstations, entertainment media, and other valuable (or completely trivial) information. As a result, the world is becoming more networked, opportunities for entrepreneurial growth are more widespread, and the speed and efficiency of everyday life is increasing rapidly.2 Add blistering growth in digital Smartphone technology, which effectively turns every mobile phone into a web-connected personal computer, and one can easily see that “connectivity” is quickly becoming the new norm—and a key societal value. Many churches, for which “connection” between people is also a key value, are attempting to harness the power of these new technologies in innovative and exciting ways. Some Christians view the Internet as an invaluable tool for evangelism, teaching, community building and pastoral care. There are even some who advocate the formation of standalone virtual congregations: churches whose primary (or only) mode of meeting together is through the medium of the Internet. And yet, despite this optimistic embrace of the virtual world by some, the ambiguous nature of technological advancement also necessitates critical theological reflection. As noted by a study on “virtual Christianity” sponsored by the World Council of Churches, “being too quick to employ new technologies may lead to the divine message being shaped or even substituted by a human medium.”3 This essay will analyze potential opportunities and dangers presented by the phenomenon of Virtual Churches (VCs). The main contention of this essay is that the VC phenomenon conveys a truncated, anti-biblical anthropology, ultimately undermining the very gospel it is trying to share. Toward that end, 2 will outline what is meant by VC—including aspects such as the nature of cyberspace, digital representations of the self (avatars) and worship as practiced by some online communities today. §3 will attempt to disrupt the idea of a morally neutral technological medium. Following Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The medium is the message,”4 it will show how technological media, regardless of apparently “sanctified” content, affect human society and psychology through implicit assumptions about what is important, normal, or even possible. §4 will then make the case for the importance of an embodied, Augustinian theological anthropology. Finally §5 will show how, by virtue of the “message” conveyed through its very “medium,” the VC movement is incompatible with such an anthropology. This essay will conclude with a call for a more critical engagement of the Church with the Internet—engagement because the Church is commanded to take the gospel into all the world (Matt 28:19), “and that includes cyberspace;”5 critical because “that society never existed in East or West, ancient time or modern, [one might add virtual or embodied] which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system.”6
Pickell, Travis, ""Thou Hast Given Me a Body": Theological Anthropology And the Virtual Chruch" (2010). Faculty Publications - George Fox School of Theology. 395.