Why there never can be an online Church

While there are a lot of helpful things we can do online as members of Jesus’ Church, it can never be the local church. I personally love writing and blogging, but make no mistake about it, nothing can replace actual human contact. Technology is great for processing and sharing information, but it’s terrible at making real human connections.

We already suspect this is true by how unsociable social media has become. For instance, a Psychology Today article cited a study that linked social media with negative outcomes like relational conflict, jealousy, break-up of marriages, and depression. And there’s a rather chilling psychological reason for this negative behavior when there’s no physical face-to-face relationship involved.

Stanley Milgram did an experiment on obedience at Yale University in 1962 that’s now famous. The experiment measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Here’s how it was set up:

“The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject is led to believe that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks (increasing the voltage with each wrong answer), though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.” (source: Wikipedia).

It’s a fascinating study, but the point I want to bring out here is what motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, observed. Here’s an excerpt of what he said about it in a TEDx Talk (emphasis mine):

“What ended up happening was that when the student could see and hear — when the teacher could see and hear the student, they would scream, he couldn’t go very far before he quit, he said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m hurting the guy” and he would quit the experiment….”

“When he could see him but not hear him, he could go further but still not very far before he quit. And the authority figure would stand over him every time he would say, “But I’m hurting the guy”, the authority figure would say, “It’s imperative that the experiment goes on.”

“And then when they could hear them but not see them, they could go further still, but they still couldn’t go all the way. But when they could neither see nor hear the impact of their decisions, 65% of the teachers were able to kill the guy.”

And here’s what Sinek added about the 65% who were willing to kill the guy:

“And you know what the people who had ‘killed the guy’ what their biggest concern was? ‘Is anything going to happen to me? Am I going to get into trouble?’ There was no concern for the person they just potentially killed.”

This ought to chill us to the bone. Sinek concludes that what Milgram was trying to show was that normally caring and decent human beings are capable of committing horrendous atrocities, like with Nazi Germany when people said, “I’m just following orders. I’m just following orders.” They had this mantra to justify their behavior of hurting somebody.

You can watch the whole Sinek talk here or read as text here.

This is just one of many examples showing where non-personal contact eventually leads us. We begin to rationalize and objectify people rather than actually know them as fellow human beings, which is one reason why our society has become so polarized. We don’t actually know where people are coming from, we’re fed soundbites from talking heads on 24-hour news channels instead.

Contrast this to Jesus’ Church, which is a culture, a living community. A culture is a group of people with a common set of values and beliefs. The Greek word for “church” (ekklēsia) means “an assembly of called out ones.” We can certainly share ideas in cyberspace, we can encourage each other and even make some level of relational connection, but the one thing we cannot do is be the Church. Jesus’ Church is made up of real people in real relationships, living real lives together in community for a common purpose, following Him the best way they know how.

 46 Daily they met together in the temple courts and in one another’s homes to celebrate communion. They shared meals together with joyful hearts and tender humility. 47 They were continually filled with praises to God, enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord kept adding to their number daily those who were coming to life. (Acts 2:46-48 TPT)

25 This is not the time to pull away and neglect meeting together, as some have formed the habit of doing, because we need each other! In fact, we should come together even more frequently, eager to encourage and urge each other onward as we anticipate that day dawning. (Heb.10:24-25 TPT)

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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 38 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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19 Responses to Why there never can be an online Church

  1. Wally Fry says:

    10,000 amens to this Mel

  2. hawk2017 says:

    Amen.

  3. Cindy Powell says:

    My quick two cents…AMEN! “Jesus’ Church is made up of real people in real relationships, living real lives together in community for a common purpose, following Him the best way they know how.” Yes, yes, and yes. You cannot, in my opinion, authentically do that online. Blessings to you, Mel–and happy 4th!

  4. jim- says:

    From one of the participants who wrote a letter to the study’s founder during the Vietnam war. He said, “While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority … To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself … I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted conscientious objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience …
    It is this same submission to religious authority that puts belief at odds with nonbelievers. The same submission that makes people anti/gay. We find when we no longer believe the authority figure our entire world is changed and more accepting. It wasn’t me that was fundamentally conservative Christian, but by submitting to authority we do and say things we would never do in our own.
    It’s a pretty consistent list of deconverts that experience this trend. Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities—Voltaire

    • Mel Wild says:

      Jim, you’re just repeating the same old shop-worn straw man argument here, which was what I was talking about in my last post. Yes, of course, if one is an extreme fundamentalist or ideologue in anything—religion, politics, or even science as we saw in the 20th century—they will act contrary to what they would probably do without being compelled by such ideology. But you don’t need religion to violate your conscience. It’s a human problem, as these types of studies reveal.

      And none of this would be relevant to what it actually means to follow Jesus.

      • jim- says:

        Actually it’s from personal experience. I used to spew the rhetoric too, but it wasn’t me nor was it my ideas or core. That is how religion hijacks out men’s natural kindness. You want to see how we behave before the indoctrinations take hold, just look at children play and fight and forgive—No matter the race or religion. But when they become real believers watch out! Everything changes.
        Is everything you fail to comprehend a straw man or wooden spoon argument?

        • Mel Wild says:

          This is still a straw man. I truly am sorry you had a bad religious experience, Jim. It actually sounds quite legalistic to me if your faith “hijacks kindness.” And quite ironic since kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22). My relationship with Jesus actually made me more kind and more patient and tolerant of those who believe differently than me. I was much more judgmental and self-centered before I actually started following Christ (instead of following religion).

          Btw, I totally agree with your point about bad versions of Christianity (or any other religion) but, again, your experience has nothing to do with actually following Jesus.

        • Mel Wild says:

          “Is everything you fail to comprehend a straw man or wooden spoon argument?”

          I will stop saying “straw man” when you stop making the fallacious argument. All people are indoctrinated to some degree. It’s not just Christians. Many Western universities indoctrinate young students in Marxist ideology. Our cultural assumptions indoctrinate us every day. It’s the fishbowl we’re all swimming in. It’s silly to think we’re not. Everyone needs to learn how to think, not just what to think.

          But let me say this. I have no doubt you’ve had this negative experience. I am not arguing against your experience, Jim. This is too common in religion and I am just as much against it as you probably are. But, again, these are human failings. You don’t need religion to be unkind or mean-spirited. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of that from people who left Christianity for those same reasons. We, as human beings, don’t need any help to be unkind or hate one another. And thinking that it’s the authority figures that are the problem is a bit naive and even dangerous.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “We find when we no longer believe the authority figure our entire world is changed and more accepting.”

      This is another straw-man, actually not even true in the real world. Yes, our world can change if we stop following an authority figure who lacks moral character or is evil; otherwise, it’s a foolishly ignorant thing to do. Our world would fall into into total lawless chaos where everyone just did what they thought was right in their eyes. There is no world safe for anyone where there is no arbitrary moral authority. The question is, the character of the authority, not should we have an authority figure.

      • jim- says:

        This is a religious blog. We’re discussing religious authority. Laws and consequences do fine keeping people civil. Beliefs are a cancer to the world. Your statement is false. My own experience and many, many are at complete odds with what you’ve read. Intolerance stems from religion. Christianity and Islam friggin speak out against everyone. There’s no straw man. Just astute observations through unbelief. This is how I accept all the anti immigration crap and the anti-everything-not-them crowd. We don’t have a people problem. The biggest problem we have is people defending beliefs without substance. It really doesn’t matter what anyone believes, it is by belief that we are divided, go to war, oppresses, and hates. It’s a belief that has you pissed off at me right now. Merely convictions of thought with no proof or substance that is defended like its some type of accomplishment.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Who is “pissed off” here, Jim? It certainly isn’t me. What I’m doing is disagreeing with your fallacious conclusions. You came here and just started making sweeping generalizations about the Christian faith, parroting the same old tired party-line of anti-Christian rhetoric, and you don’t expect some push back?

          And I won’t speak for Islam, but I’m sure there are a lot of Islamic believers who are not at all like how you are stereotyping them. Your assertion that a “true believer” would be more intolerant or unkind is simply false. You are not describing a true believer, you are describing a religious zealot.

          So, you can tell me I’m wrong if you want; we can agree to disagree. And I totally get that you’ve had a bad experience. We would probably agree on a lot of things about why it was bad and what’s wrong with Christianity as it’s commonly practiced. But, again, making sweeping accusations like this against Christianity itself only gets traction with ignorant people who don’t actually understand the problems and issues involved. These kinds of arguments won’t have any traction here.

          Since this conversation has veered away from the point of my post, which was why technology will never replace actual human contact and personal relationships, I think we need to leave it here. I wish you the best. Good night.

  5. Happy 4th, Mel!

    I would have agreed with you completely a few years ago, but I’m just not so certain anymore. My dilemma revolves around the question, are we actually meaner and more disrespectful of one another online because we are safely tucked behind keyboards, or are we simply being more honest, revealing more of our genuine, true selves because we feel anonymous? How much of how we present in real life on Sunday mornings is just a mask, dishonest, a lie??

    I’m also uncertain if non personal contact actually leads to objectification and dehumanizing others? I think there’s a real wild card there, the Holy Spirit! Chuckling here, but more personal contact with others doesn’t always make you love them more! However, more personal, direct contact with Him sure does.

    I think perhaps there really can be an online church. The Apostle Paul had a few of them going on with nothing but snail mail. 🙂

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks, IB. Good points. Let me use your comments here to respond to you and also further expound in general about this subject and why I am saying what I’m saying.

      It’s funny that you said you would’ve completely agreed five years ago because I would’ve agreed we could have an online church five years ago! 🙂 I don’t anymore for many various reasons, including some not mentioned here. And I can illustrate this by having to put an emoticon after my statement to make sure my exclamation mark isn’t construed to mean I’m angry or yelling. LOL! We end up having to do this because 96% of communication is non-verbal. Body language and “gut feelings” in the presence of someone else is where most of the communication actually happens. Written or verbal forms of communication are the lowest levels of actual communication. But technology (and redefining words like “friend”) lulls us into thinking we’re having a meaningful relationship.

      But I totally get your dilemma and agree with that. I’m not really talking about a “Sunday morning” kind of relationship. That’s also superficial and can be fake. You can hide in a pew as well as online. Of course, this religious facsimile is far removed from the type of church we find in the New Testament, which is what I’m really talking about. And you have a valid point about meanness online vs. personal contact, that’s true in many cases. Nonetheless, the data is pretty solid that people tend to be meaner and less gracious online. And all I have to do if I don’t like someone, or a ministry, online is “unfriend” them or not go back to that site. I haven’t really grown at all in how to deal with relational conflict or let someone peer into my soul and help me with my blind spots. It’s too easy to not deal with my distrust of people online. I can project a narcissistic image of being “all that” online. Much harder to with people who actually know me.

      And let me say again, I believe that there are LOTS of very good things that we can do online. That’s why I’m here blogging. 🙂 And if someone is already part of a healthy local community of believers, it can be a great supplemental benefit. My point is that it just can’t replace the local community. We just can’t do deep and meaningful, biblically-based relationships online (just like we can’t have a real marriage online). We can’t do intimacy (in-me-see) online. I’ve counseled with several couples now who met online, talked for months, really hit it off, then they got married, lived together, and had nothing but problems. This is because they didn’t really get to know each other until they lived together. That’s where the real test of relationships begins.

      To your point about the apostle Paul, as you know, he didn’t actually have any churches that existed by letter only. His letters were circulated between real and personal communities of believers, working together, having problems, living life together, and interacting together face to face. And this would be a good example where online communication can assist a local church. But Paul always did the hard things when he could physically go to those local churches, as he said in his letters.

      My main point is this: the Church is primarily a family. And real relational growth happens in an environment where problems are worked out between people in personal and physical relationships, where real encouragement and comfort can happen in the embrace of another. For example, if I have something catastrophic happen in my life, I might mention it online but I will find the most comfort from the people I am in personal relationship with. Again, the Church is not a big Bible study, or even a forum, it’s a family, first and foremost. And while families can stay in contact and share information online, they really are a family when they sit around the family table and have a meal together, when they spend time together and live life together. And we cannot grow as human beings, loved by God, beyond our ability to grow in these kinds of relationships.

      Hopefully, you can understand my heart here, in spite of the deficiency of words. 🙂

      • Your words are always awesome, Mel. I’ll keep pondering the whole thing, perhaps even write about it.

        Karen Swallow Prior, (author, teacher) kind of shares my curiousity and my optimism about relationships, faith, and the internet. She’s studied literature and my faith was really born of reading books which is a kind of a two dimensional relationship with people, similar to online communication. I guess we could change the question and ask, “could the church exist without books?” I think not! 🙂

        As to romance and relationships, in the days of old often people had only letters. I wonder if our struggles with relationships are more a sign of the times then the medium we are using to get to know one another?

        The Babylon Bee also did a spoof about the online church which was quite funny, but I still found myself disagreeing with them. If someone would just start an on line church I could join and then we could analyze the whole thing. 🙂

        • Mel Wild says:

          Your words are awesome, too, IB. 🙂 And you bring up important points. There are always many facets that we have to consider when discussing anything worthwhile.

          I DO think that the Internet will become more effective than it is now and may even be a healthy component of a local church. Still, it can never replace real human-to-human contact where people are learning now to receive God’s love and love others with His love in the context of a healthy community of believers who are doing life together. That’s what discipleship actually is about. Unfortunately, we’ve turned it into Bible studies and learning what the church believes instead of becoming better human beings, which is what it means to be more Christ-like. It’s demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit where people live, in relationships.

          And just like the letters weren’t the relationship in the romance in days of old, but a distant second to actually being together, any type of media cannot replace the local church. There’s just too many aspects of human relationships and intimacy and heart-to-heart communication that simply cannot be duplicated by bits and bytes. 🙂

          Anyway, I really do appreciate your push-back (and humor!). Again, it’s important we thoroughly think through these things if we are going to change and grow as Christ’s body on the earth.

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