Church of Fools
In 2004, the 3D Church of Fools website was opened as a three month experiment in online church. Users interacted by controlling on-screen characters or 'avatars' that appeared on the screen in a traditional Gothic Church of England church background. Sunday services were held, and throughout the week people gathered via their avatars to talk and pray spontaneously.
In 2004, online church was a novelty, but as the net has become increasingly social, creating an online presence is easier and cheaper. A growing number of Christians believe they are called to create a Christian presence online to meet people where they are.
Online churches, ministries and communities have continued to spring up and are arguably important fresh expressions of church. Thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of online ministries now exist at all levels, from Facebook pages through to customised sites offering professional standard worship via live streaming, videocasts and podcasts.
i-church is a continuing experiment in online missional community set up by the Diocese of Oxford. It has an Anglican priest in charge, but ecumenical membership.
Lifechurch.TV is based in the US and allows users to worship online via satellite connection with an online 'church'. It is also planting offline churches among members of the online church who live in the same area.
Anglican Cathedral of Second Life
The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life is based around the cathedral building on Epiphany Island in the virtual world of Second Life. Membership is strongly ecumenical and international, with an Anglican liturgical identity.
St Pixels is a forum-based successor to Church of Fools. It offers member blogs and online worship via a chat room. It is ecumenical and independent.
Church on the Net
Church on the Net was set up by a Church of England parish for online evangelism and discipleship. It provides material about the Christian faith and offers one to one response to enquirers.
Scripted Scriptures is an area of Second Life where scriptures are interpreted through art and visitors can leave prayer requests. It is independent and ecumenical.
A theological rationale
Are we talking about online church or online ministry? Indeed, who decides whether something is a church? How might contextual mission be helped or hindered by the label of 'church' and the demands that the label imposes? These are some of the questions thrown up by online church and are relevant to other fresh expressions of church, especially as they mature.
Online communities can provide prayer, fellowship, discipleship, study and even worship, just like offline churches. Participants are usually insistent that they are members of a church, despite the obvious differences between online and offline communities.
There is no doubt that authentic relationships can be formed online - just as they can be formed by pen friends. Even the keenest critics of online community will admit, if pushed, that they have meaningful working relationships conducted mainly by email.
In many ways, the question 'Can you have church online?' is a distraction, though it has interesting resonances for offline fresh expressions that do not demonstrate all the 'marks of a church' (One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic) that are seen to qualify a community for that description.
Perhaps more pertinent are questions like:
- can people find faith online?
- can you pray online?
- can you worship with others online?
- can people deepen their journey of faith online?
- can people be in community with other Christians online?
- can the Holy Spirit work via the internet?
The answer to these and other more practical questions is a clear 'yes' from those who have tried it. WebChristian.org.uk provides a short theological rationale for a Christian presence on the internet.
Things to bear in mind
Pam Smith, formerly a Reader at Coventry Cathedral and a lay prison chaplain and now priest in charge of i-church:
While it's fairly cheap to set up a basic website, it takes time and money to stay online and build up a community. It is notoriously difficult to make money out of websites. Be realistic about what can be achieved with the available resources.
Responsibility and accountability
The idea of legal responsibility doesn't sit well with the free-flowing culture of the internet, but people who run websites are responsible for everything that's posted there! The internet is not outside the law and you need to keep an eye on what members are posting. The most common issues are breaches of copyright and defamation. Data protection, child protection, disability, employment and privacy legislation also need to be considered. If you ask for donations, you need to be able to account for the money you collect.
People often assume that their communications online are completely private. If this is not the case, be up front about what can be read and by whom.
Identity and authenticity
Someone can quickly build a high profile in an online community and move to a position of responsibility, but may disappear equally rapidly. Reputations tend to be built on what people say about themselves and are often not checked out. Some people join online communities with the deliberate intention to deceive; others get carried away by the apparent anonymity. Be aware that not everyone is who, or what, they claim to be.
There is no one style or methodology that defines 'online church'
The best way to find out more is to have a look and talk to those who are doing it.
- Douglas Estes, Simchurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, Zondervan, 2009, 978-031028784-1;
- Richard Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds, New Riders, 2003, 978-013101816-7 (supported by an informal online resource);
- Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together, Penguin, 2009, 978-014103062-3;
- Charles Leadbeater, We-Think: Mass innovation, not mass production, Profile Books, 2009, 978-186197837-0;
- Steve Hollinghurst, Yvonne Richmond, Roger Whitehead, Janice Price, Tina Adams, Equipping your Church in a Spiritual Age, Group for Evangelisation, 2005, 978-085169314-9 (download for free here).