Sometimes on Sunday mornings during the lull between breakfast and time to leave for church, I sit in my recliner and click through TV channels looking for interesting church services. I do it less for inspiration than for curiosity, though occasionally I am drawn in by a colorful story or some soul-soothing music. While channel surfing one Sunday morning my attention was arrested by a kindly-faced, grandfatherly-looking man leaning forward into the camera and boldly declaring "You are my church." At first I thought this minister must be addressing a congregation but I soon discovered that it was a media audience, not a gathered body, to whom he spoke. He was speaking to me! He informed me that I need not go to a building to belong to his church, that I could have spiritual unity with members all over TV land right where I was. He went on to explain how together we could raise a volume of prayer heavenward from across the nation and have mighty power on high. He then read a letter from one of our fellow-members - a young woman who was experiencing a marital dilemma - and offered some sage pastoral counsel that we could all listen in on and benefit from. After an upbeat sermonette and some lovely music, he explained that money was needed to keep the work of the church going forward and encouraged us to send in our tithes and offerings.
Brilliant, I thought. Absolutely brilliant. This minister had figured out how to do church without all the messiness of relationships. No more petty power struggles, no more ugly gossip, no more bickering over doctrinal fine points or what color to paint the sanctuary. And we don't even have to leave the privacy of our living rooms! We can sit in our robes on Sunday morning sipping our coffee and be at church. Then, just as I was pondering the genius of this cyber-church pastor's methodology, he leaned forward so that his whole face filled my TV screen and he said with an expression of total sincerity, "I love you." I could almost feel it, see it in his eyes! This man really loved me! Never met me, of course, but in some cosmic way his love was coming right at me. Unbelievable!
Fine-tune your perceptual scanner and you can pick up in this cyber-church strategy a hidden message aimed at a society that values individuality over community. It whispers: You can have both community and independence…you can enjoy intimacy on demand while maintaining your autonomy. Laced with warm-family-togetherness type words, the message has a seductive attraction for those who desire the benefits of closeness but prefer to remain relationally uncommitted.
Broaden your scan beyond the cyber-church and you discover that this subtle appeal is not limited to the ethereal church of the airwaves. Virtual-relationships with thousands of anonymous TV watchers may be the epitome of pseudo-community, but let's be honest. How authentic is the "community" of the now predominant commuter church that extracts its scattered members from neighborhoods far and wide for an hour-long weekly event?
Church in its very essence is relational. Its power is made manifest in interdependent community. Its most visible expression is witnessed in acts of kindness and self-sacrifice among those who live their lives within sight of each other. As emotionally powerful as studio-produced worship may be, unless it takes root in the soil of community where relationships are immediate and accountable, it is no church at all. Even worse, it may be anti-church. Any program or structure, whether technological or social, that draws people away from redemptive, corrective relationships is anti-church. Any organization, no matter how spiritual it appears, that distances people from their neighbors is anti-church. The cyber-church, removed from the grit and grind of human interaction, exposes for us a wholly unintended yet powerfully prophetic message: the extent to which the church is disconnected from the soil of community is the extent to which it relinquishes its capacity to impact society.
This is certainly not to say that evangelistic broadcasting or telecasts of religious services necessarily sabotage the mission of the church. On the contrary, they can beam Good News to isolated peoples or keep homebound parishioners in contact with their church. Admittedly, it may be difficult to distinguish between the ministry-value and marketing-value of televised church services, but technology is hardly a demonic weapon designed to destroy the church. It can serve as a tool for community-connecting just as easily as it can be an instrument of isolation.
The issue is not technology. The issue is relational engagement. The power of the church is released into society when the gathered saints are equipped and sent out to engage in redemptive relationships among their neighbors and co-workers. That which discourages the people of God from gathering for worship, study and fellowship is quite likely at cross-purposes with the Kingdom. That which draws the people of God away from caring relationships with their neighbors and away from service in their community is also quite likely not of Kingdom design. Just as the cyber-church can work against the church gathered, so can the commuter church can work against the church deployed.
And, oh yes, about the prayer theology that my self-appointed cyber-pastor was advocating: can a simul-prayer of scattered fellow-members lifting our anonymous voices really have unusual power on high? It seems to me that our Lord said that when two or three of us are gathered in His name, there He would meet with us. And if even two of us would agree together on something, anything, He would answer our prayer. Sounds very relational to me. But, then, I suppose it would take more of a prayer scholar than I am to intelligently critique cyber-prayer.