“Online Church” is an Oxymoron

The commodification of church is selling people short.

Last year Seattle-based megachurch “Churchome” announced their newest location: your smartphone. It’s an app called Churchome Global, and it’s their latest attempt at making church more palatable — and consumable — than ever. “Our new location is everywhere, it’s global” pastor Judah Smith says (though it’s currently only available in English).

And they’re not the first megachurch to launch something like this. Many megachurches — from Life.Church to Hillsong — have “online campuses” with “online pastors.” But the messaging Churchome used to roll out their app was particularly bold: church “in the palm of your hand,” Smith announced in a tweet. It all feels very much like a parody of our modern, consumeristic culture, but it’s not. It’s real, and it’s here to stay.

How did we get to a place where an app or website would even be considered a feasible alternative to a local church? Perhaps it was the next logical step from the seeker-sensitive megachurch model. Sunday services at most protestant churches already revolve around the pastor’s sermon (often being projected on a screen), void of any sacraments or liturgy that involve the congregations participation.

As Drew Dyck pointed out, “we’ve arranged church services as largely passive, consumeristic affairs. And that’s part of what’s made the very idea of a disembodied app church imaginable in the first place.”

He’s right. This trend reveals just how disembodied and heady our worship has become. Our churches today require so little of the body that to go to church online wouldn’t make all that much of a difference. The jump from watching a sermon on a screen in a church building to watching a sermon on a screen in your home is not a large one.

This disembodied version of church we’ve come to expect is a result of our seeing ourselves as merely rational creatures. We’ve inherited a model of the human being as a “thinking thing,” as Descartes put it. That is, we assume our beliefs and thoughts are more central to who we are than our bodily practices or behaviors. This enlightened, Western view of the person forces the sermon to do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to our sanctification. James KA Smith describes this trend in his book Desiring the Kingdom.

“It is just this adoption of a rationalist, cognitive anthropology that accounts for the shape of so much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on ‘messages’ that disseminate Christian ideas and abstract values (easily summarized on PowerPoint slides). The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixaded on doctrines and ideas, even if it is also paradoxically allied with a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.”

The sermon is the centerpiece of the service that all else is built around. Communion is rarely taken, and when it is, it’s an afterthought. Maybe even an annoyance. If we see ourselves as simply “thinking things,” of course we don’t appreciate the significance of communion. It doesn’t speak to our brain. This intellectualization of our faith, coupled with the rise of the seeker-sensitive movement, has led many churches to almost exclusively focus on reaching as many people as possible, by whatever means possible, to promote these life-changing messages. Church, then, is no longer a community of Christians gathered together to participate in fellowship and the breaking of bread; it is a system to promote a personal, salvation-message.

And nothing is more efficient at promoting a message to large swaths of people than the internet. Before the internet, the megachurch model was the platform of choice for seeker-sensitive, evangelical pastors. But now, if you’re trying to get the maximum amount of people to hear your sermon, an “online campus” is your best bet. It’s far more effective. Running a nursery, having to deal with difficult people, and all the other logistics that go into a Sunday service are inconvenient, and they’re definitely not efficient. With an app, everyone can hear the message, but without all the mess. It’s the commodification of church. Church streamlined and scalable. Church “in the palm of your hand.”

But it’s not church. It’s a cheap, plastic, fast-food version of church, and it’s selling people short. This should not need to be said but here it is: a church is a group of Christians who gather together in a physical space to participate in shared, embodied practices. It’s a lot more than that, too, but it’s not less. Church is inherently physical, tangible, and embodied. In How (Not) to Be Secular, James KA Smith defines the church as a “community of humans in communion.”

“Salvation is only effected by, one might say, our being in communion with God through the community of humans in communion, viz., the church. To depersonalize God is to deny the importance of communion and the community of communion that is the church, home to that meal that is called ‘Communion.’”

By Smith’s definition, “online church” is a contradiction in terms. The idea of going to church online is only plausible in a time and place that has lost sight of the Christian practices of fellowship, communion, prayer, service to the poor, and ultimately, the “community of communion.”

We need more than just sermons. The kind of church the world needs today is one that engages the whole of who we are. One that looks us in the eyes and calls us by name. One that challenges our cultures tendency to gravitate towards efficiency, pragmatism, and leisure, as opposed to catering to it. One that encourages us — forces us — to sit in silence, offering us a respite from our non-stop, noisy lives. One that, for just one hour a week, might actually require us to look up from our screens and look into someone’s eyes. One where patience and slowness is valued over pragmatism and productivity. One where “excellence” is in character and in service to the poor, not in appearances. One where worship is ordered in such a way that it requires our active, physical, communal participation. Ultimately, one that would be impossible to replicate online even if you tried.

If church is the place where we gather with one another, disciple one another, break bread with one another, and meet one another’s needs — no online experience could replace that. But most modern evangelical churches are not that place.