Deanna Thompson describes herself as a “digital skeptic,” but that changed while undergoing the isolation imposed by a serious cancer diagnosis. During that difficult time, friends and family members connected with her through virtual tools, and that care and assistance caused her to rethink the power of digital relationships. She highlights an insight by Jason Byassee that “the body of Christ has always been a virtual body.” The Apostle Paul, rarely physically present with other members of the same body, is connected to the Church spread throughout the Roman world through an important technology of his day – letters. Virtual presence presented real challenges, but it also possessed real advantages.
Thompson states that “while conventional wisdom tends to view virtual spaces as disembodied and therefore inferior to embodied,” we must learn to appreciate the ways that our virtual gatherings are deeply meaningful and real. As a fellow “digital skeptic,” I’m trying to recalibrate my perceptions and not see digital connection merely as a cheap, temporary substitute, but appreciate it as timely and substantial. How can being an Online Church meet important needs today and provide real connection? Are there aspects of community involvement that work better online than in person? I want to think differently about Christ’s virtual body, Christ’s virtual church. I want to keep in mind the way that virtual connectedness can offer something to us even as we are disconnected.
As 2020 and COVID have taught us, human beings are much more likely to make decisions based on stories than science. So, as we approach the challenges of “Online Church,” let’s be sure to get our story straight – the Church has always been a Virtual body. Being a virtual body is not something that the Church has to “pivot” to, instead it is a principal part of who we are – it’s in our DNA, it’s in our source code.
Thompson’s main example for exploring the way the Church is a virtual body is through the Eucharist. While the practice of communion is certainly a place to find and remember this truth, there are other parts of Christianity, beyond the Lord’s Supper, where it is evident as well. It is also essential to see our virtual interconnectedness in pneumatology. Our virtual connectedness through the Holy Spirit is both real and powerful.
Leonard Allen notes that “to enter the community of Christ is to enter the sphere of the Spirit’s power. One of Paul’s fundamental convictions is that the Spirit of God is active among groups of Christians (Rom. 15:19; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:7,14, etc.)” (Poured Out, 175).
As we approach the challenges of being an Online Church, it is important to remember that our connectedness is not based on Zoom, Facetime, or Google Hangouts. The interconnectedness we inhabit through the power of the Holy Spirit means that Christ’s virtual body is a deeper truth about who we are. What if we saw the Holy Spirit as the great facilitator of virtual connection? How would that help us continue to be the virtual body of Christ today? May we not give into despair at the challenges of “Online Church,” but lean into this as right in our wheelhouse as the people of God. May we have greater hope today that God continues to weave worshippers together in relationship to each other through the activity of the Spirit!
- Deanna Thompson, “Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion” March 26, 2020 https://wp.stolaf.edu/lutherancenter/2020/03/christ-is-really-present-virtually-a-proposal-for-virtual-communion/
- Jason Byassee, “For Theological Education: Maybe the body of Christ has always been both virtual and physical” March 2, 2011 – https://faithandleadership.com/jason-byassee-virtual-theological-education
- Leonard Allen, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God. ACU Press, 2018.