In a recent Christianity Today article entitled “The Embodied Church in a Digital Age,” Kara Bettis shares the story of how one church performed a virtual reality (VR) baptism. According to Bettis, the baptism had no water and required no physical, interpersonal contact. Then on the heels of that article, Judah Smith pastor of Churchome announced a new location for this church. He claims the new location is everywhere due to the fact that it is completely application (app) based. In a Twitter message he shares about having a church experience completely through the app, including the ability to meet people in the “lobby.”
Now I am no anti-tech Luddite, and I believe technology is good and useful in a number of ways, but as we continue to see the transformative power of technology at what point does technology actually lead us into practical heresy (heresy that is perhaps not spoken but in practice offers a false Gospel)? With the two examples above, I think we may have arrived there. Allow me to explain.
The Apostle Paul writes to the Colossian church, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church . . . “ (Colossians 1:24). Paul makes a claim that seems audacious. In his flesh he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s affliction?” Scripture is clear that the work of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection are completely sufficient for the salvation, sanctification, and glorification of his people, so what does Paul mean? What is lacking is not anything related to Christ’s work. Rather, what was missing for the Colossians, and for us, was and is the visible representation of Christ’s suffering. Therefore, Paul, in his sufferings, is offering the in-person (fleshly) presentation of Christ’s suffering. His argument is that his suffering will point the Colossian church to Christ’s suffering. In other words, his bodily life, not his avatar, points people to the work of Christ. There is an element in the presentation of the Gospel of Christ that cannot be replicated apart from an in-person, bodily demonstration. Thus, there is an element of our salvation, sanctification, and glorification that will be lacking apart for the bodily witness of other Christians. There would be something missing from the Gospel.
This truth is not that surprising in light of the bodily incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By taking on human flesh at the incarnation Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but experienced all the sights, smells, tastes, hunger, the hot/cold, the dirt and dust, the hurt, brokenness, pain, loss, and joy that this physical life offers. He physically stepped into our world to bring about our salvation. Then, for his final instructions to his followers, he tells them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them all he commanded (Matthew 28:18-20).
Upon his resurrection he ensured that his followers understood that his resurrection was a bodily/physical resurrection. He told Thomas to place his hands in his wounds (John 20:27). He ate with the disciples (John 21:11) and traveled with them on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-33). The incarnate dimension of Jesus’ life is what makes him Savior. He stepped into the physical world to one day redeem the physical world. Why, because humans are both spiritual and physical beings. When God crafted mankind he formed him from the dust of the ground—physical—and breathed into him the breath of life—spiritual (Genesis 2:7). God came to redeem our entire beings, which means our entire being is significant and none of it should be diminished.
Diminishing the physical nature of our humanity is the danger of the app based or VR church. When church interacts only in the ethereal realm of cyberspace it ignores the physical aspect of the Gospel and vital aspects of our humanity. In other words, in practice, this approach offers a truncated Gospel.
This virtual approach to church is a truncated Gospel because the Gospel is incarnational. Christians don’t serve a Savior who is unfamiliar with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). He stepped into the physical and experienced our physical weaknesses. His experience is significant for the church. As Christ stepped into our physical realm, we are to step into the physical realm of others for the purpose of experiencing and walking with others through the joys and pains of life. To do so authentically requires a nearness that a screen or VR headset can never match.
The Gospel was and is meant to be lived in an authentic life-on-life manner through the church. Church members are meant to be close in times of celebration. They are meant to offer hugs of comfort, hold hands at deathbeds, and hold babies when moms need to eat at the potluck. Elders are called to lay hands on and pray for the ill. Each and every one of these physical acts states something about the Gospel. While there are areas where the digital can be helpful, the Gospel and the church will always point to its cornerstone and head, Jesus Christ, who took on flesh and dwelt among us. The Gospel is incarnational, hence the church is meant to carry and live the message of the Gospel incarnationally. Any substitution is less than the complete Gospel.