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Online Church: Virtual Faith?


(Photo: Unsplash)

Church attendance was already declining in the West when COVID prevented many of us meeting. Online church became a way to stay in touch, express our faith, and hear encouragement from God’s word. So, is the future of the church online?

People were experimenting with online church before COVID. You could join a church in the virtual world, and even be baptized through your avatar (>1 million views).

What about online church? Could it be the salvation of the church in a world where people don’t want to or can’t attend?

Online can complement genuine human interaction, but it can’t replace it. Facebook often shows me what friends are doing. Skype lets me chat with family. Zoom lets me understand corporate goals. You may know people how met online and eventually married.

But there’s a huge difference between marrying in the real world versus getting married in the metaverse. One becomes a lived experience in real life; the other is just a game, a game that does not reflect one’s true marriage status.

A virtual baptism is just a game. When you enter a game, you’re play-acting a role: soldier, dragon fighter, car thief, race driver, killer, cop, alien, a different gender, a foreign culture, or another faith. Game-playing is essential for children and can be helpful for adults. Trying on another role is a way to experience what others do (empathy) and escape the confines of the real world.

But we’re in trouble if we don’t understand the limits of the game. Addicted gamers can lose the boundary between their actual life and online persona. Online flirting can distort a real-world relationship. Virtual faith may have little relationship to how you live and treat others in God’s world.

In a virtual church, how do you know if the person you’re chatting to is just role-playing? Heavens, you may not even know if you’re just role-playing.

Hypocrite is one of the harshest words in the Christian faith. It literally meant a play-actor, a thespian playing a role. Isn’t that what we mean when we speak of an avatar? Baptizing an avatar is not baptizing a person. Something we make in our image is not something God made in his image.

Theology gives us a clear distinction between what we create (artificial intelligence) and what God created. We can’t predict the future, but we can describe the limits of AI today.

When IBM’s computer “Watson” won Jeopardy in 2011, IBM invested heavily in Watson Health. The software promised to do a doctor’s job faster and with greater knowledge. But Watson Health failed to deliver. Recently IBM sold it off for a fraction of what they had invested. The problem? A British journalist summarized like this: Watson Health could see the data, but a doctor can see a person. (Context below.)

Theology also gives us a clear picture of what the church is. Just as it has always been a mistake to think of that building on the corner as the church, it’s a mistake to think a virtual address could be the church. The church is not a meeting (real or virtual).

What is the church? It’s the community of people who live in allegiance (faith) to the king anointed by heaven to reign over earth (the Lord Jesus Christ), implementing his kingship through the Spirit who empowers us to live as family honouring Father.

That community is way bigger than the people I know in my lifetime and locale, but the people I know are the community of faith where I belong. Church is not an optional extra after salvation. It’s not a game you can join and leave at will. It’s the messiness of genuine human relationships that every family knows, the joys and challenges of shared life where we hurt each other and learn to heal because that’s what God is doing in us. And through the church, God rescues his world.

Let’s use all the appropriate online tools, just as we’ve always used buildings, vehicles, and letters. But let’s not mistake the tools for the church.

Only living people can reveal the reign (Ephesians 3:10-11). We’re not playing games.

What others are saying

Rupert Goodwins, Machine learning the hard way: IBM Watson’s fatal misdiagnosis (The Register, 2022-01-31):

It started in Jeopardy and ended in loss. IBM’s flagship AI Watson Health has been sold to venture capitalists for an undisclosed sum thought to be around a billion dollars, or a quarter of what the division cost IBM in acquisitions alone since it was spun off in 2015. …

IBM’s Watson Health failed at the time, like so much AI/ML, because it didn’t know what the question was – ironic, since the game of Jeopardy at which it excelled is all about deducing questions from data. It wanted to automate the highest skilled aspects of healthcare, diagnosis and treatment, but the problem wasn’t one of getting the most data and the best algorithm. Rather, the problem was one of meaning.

A good doctor sees the patient, not the symptoms. Watson saw the symptoms of inefficiency and lack of capability. It did not see the process of care and making whole, where doctors, not data, were what needed to be understood.

Will Oremus, In 2021, tech talked up ‘the metaverse.’ One problem: It doesn’t exist. (The Washington Post, 2021-12-30):

People are getting married in the metaverse now, we’re told. Speculators are buying real estate in the metaverse, according to the headlines. Managers must learn to hold meetings in the metaverse, it would seem. This month, an executive at Facebook — er, Meta — gave an interview in the metaverse.

One slight hitch: The metaverse doesn’t exist yet, and it probably won’t anytime soon.

Related posts

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
View all posts by Allen Browne

Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.

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