What is an (Online, Virtual, Broadcast, Local) Church? Some Helpful Distinctions

Twenty years ago, Chris Helland proposed a distinction between religion-online (when an religious organization provides information over the internet) and online-religion (when religious people engage in spiritual activities on the internet). The line was somewhat fuzzy between the two, but Hellend’s categorization spurred new conversations. A decade later, other scholars like Heidi Campbell wrote about online and offline religion, showing that the same people moved fluidly between both as they connec with networks of Christians.

Today, terms like online, virtual, and digital church are being used to describe what churches are doing to provide services and community in a time of when they cannot gather due to social distancing. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, expanding on a tweet from earlier this week, I think it might be helpful to more clearly delineate these terms to enrich our conversations and understanding.

  • Broadcast Church – a service or elements of a service delivered primarily through a one-way medium.
    This form of church can be traced back to the first broadcast technologies like radio which has been sued to rebroadcast Sunday sermons from popular preachers or to reach into closed countries. Religious television was an expansion of broadcast church, and today, when a church makes their songs, sermons, and sacraments available to consume through internet platforms like YouTube, they are continuing in this tradition of ministry through broadcast.
  • Virtual Church – a service or community that meets in a fully virtual environment.
    Though the term “virtual” is often used as a synonym for broadcast or online, I find it helpful to use virtual exclusively to describe church experiences in virtual environments like Second Life, Roblox, and AltSpaceVR. Rather that broadcasting an existing church’s services, a virtual church creates something entirely new where visitors can move around in and be a part of the service. One other key factor is that participants are almost always anonymized through avatars and screen names rather than video and real names. This anonymity presents both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the level of intimacy and security individuals have.
  • Online Church – church services that use two-way interactive mediums and smaller group gatherings throughout the week.
    One of the key factors that distinguishes the internet from previous technologies is that it allows two-way or multi-way interaction. So, in contrast to a one-way broadcast church service, online church refers to gatherings of Christians in more interactive mediums. This could be as simple as a comment stream on a Facebook moderated by church staff. But it can also refer to individuals in a faith community connecting in chatrooms or using video conferencing software like Zoom to have a small group meet. To some extent, this has been happening long before the coronavirus pandemic, where churchgoers meet in person on Sunday, but then use calls, texts, FaceTime, and other online technology to connect throughout the week. It’s the church as a group of believers, connecting in community through online technologies. 
  • Local Church – a regular assembly of Christians centered around a geographic location.
    Rather than get caught up on the question of whether an online church is a real church, it can be helpful to simply distinguish a group of Christians that tends to meet in some local physical space from a group of Christians that meets in an online environment. A local church might have a broadcast, virtual, or online offering as an extension of its physical gathering, but rarely would a church that began as a virtual or online church also be a local church.

The term “digital church” is also used to describe the move to internet-based churches, and perhaps it can serve as a more generic, catch all term for any of the above uses.

These terms allow us to say things like “a local church is now offering broadcast church to supplement what is already happening with their community’s online church” or “a local church has decided to forgo offering broadcast church and instead only offer Zoom-based online church small groups of 10 or fewer.”

These terms also allow us to describe specific practices like communion. For example, the Church of England and the Methodist church allow for broadcast communion (where a livestream shows clergy consuming the elements), but they forbid online communion (where congregants take communion simultaneously).

More generally, a church focusing on broadcast for the first few weeks of the pandemic might start adding more online elements, or a church that started with online elements might consider adding an Easter broadcast.

All of these would be valid, helpful expressions of the digital church.

Additional Theological Distinctions of Church

In the New Testament, the word “church” is a translation of the Greek work ekklesia. Originally, ekklesia simply meant any “assembly” of people, which can be seeing in the civic assembly of citizens in Ephesus in Acts 19:32-41. But the New Testament writers also use ekklesia in at least two other ways. First, ekklesia can mean a “a church” (1 Cor 1:2; 4:17; 2 Cor 11:8; 1 Thess 1:1) or a group of “churches” (Rom 16:4-5), which refers to a regular gathering of Christians in a home or other location. Second, “the church” can be used describe all believers across geographic locations (Acts 8:3; 9:31; Eph 1:22; 5:24-25; Col 1:24) which could be synonymous with term like “the saints” or the “body of Christ.”

These multiple uses in scripture have led Christians throughout church history to use other terms and modifiers to distinguish between different meanings of “church” similar to what we’ve done above. Being aware of some of these terms can be helpful when thinking through how the idea of church is changed or modified when it goes digital.

  • Local Church and Universal Church – This is perhaps the simplest, least controversial distinction between a particular gathering (local) and all Christians (universal). In the New Testament, “The church that is in their house” (Rom 16:4) would be a “local church,” while “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church” (Eph 3:10) would refer to the “universal church.”
  • The catholic church vs. Roman Catholic Church – The final lines of the Nicene Creed includes the words: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Here, the word “catholic” means “broad” or “far-reaching” and, when used with the word church, it means the ancient, undivided church, similar to the “universal church.” The Roman Catholic church, in contrast, is a narrower branch of Christianity with a specific set of doctrines, practices, and authority structures developed over time.
  • Visible Church and Invisible Church – The visible church refers to the institutions we can see, while the invisible church is all Christians much like the universal or catholic church. The difference here is that those who use these terms emphasize that the visible church contains has both true believers and unbelievers, while the invisible church is only true believers (or the elect or saved), and they are only known to God. These terms are sometimes attributed to Augustine, but they were emphasized in the Reformation, particularly by John Calvin, to distinguish between the visible Roman Catholic Church, which the Reformers saw as problematic, and the invisible church of believers across all time.
  • Local Church vs. Parachurch Ministry – These are more recent terms, sometimes traced back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century. If a local church is organized around a regular, physical gathering of people in a location, a parachurch ministry is an organization created to meet the needs of a specific group of people. For example, YoungLife ministers to teenagers across the US, the Navigators to those in the US Military around the world, and WorldVision to underprivileged kids in developing countries. These are important and necessary works of the “universal” or “catholic” church. They may do things that the church does (worship, preach, pray, and disciple), but they do not consider themselves a local church.

There are other theological and practical ways of defining what is and isn’t a church (Does it have a leadership structure of some kind? Does it practice church discipline? Does it administer the sacraments? Is it limited to fellowship or is it on mission for Christ?), but these terms give us some tools to better understand and describe what is happening online.

The Universal Church, the Church Online, and the Parachurch

In the early discussions of church on the internet, the concepts of a catholic, universal, or invisible church were often used to argue that the church can be the church online. Though some would argue that an online church is not a church because it doesn’t gather physically, online and virtual church advocates argued that if “church” can mean something bigger than just a local gathering in the New Testament (i.e., the universal church), then an online and virtual church is like a local church, the only difference being it assembles on the internet.

One problem in these debates is that those arguing against online church being a real church sometimes inadvertently devalue the ministry being done. Most of the researching into digital church shows that they reach two groups: (1) those who cannot attend a local church due to health or distanced, (2) those who also attend a local church, but are looking for something to supplement similar to books, podcasts, and radios.

With this in mind, it might be helpful to think of an exclusively online or virtual church, not connected to a local church, as more of a parachurch ministry, one that meets the needs of a specific group of people. This means a Minecraft Church is just as important in reaching Minecraft players as YoungLife is for reaching kids or FCA is for ministering to athletes, each of which are expressions of the universal, catholic church. And yet the parachurch moniker distinguishes it from the what happens when a local church comes together based on where they live rather than a specific interest or ministry need.

Of course, these terms are not hard and fast distinctions, and there will always be some overlap and ambiguity, but I hope there is enough of a heuristic here to deepen our conversations and to help us value the multiple important ways the Spirit is guiding and working through the body of Christ.

5 thoughts on “What is an (Online, Virtual, Broadcast, Local) Church? Some Helpful Distinctions

  1. In your section on “local church vs parachurch ministry,” another set of academic terms can be helpful. Dr Ralph Winter of US Center for World Mission introduced terms which I’ve found helpful: “sodality” for the task-oriented form (parachurch) and “modality” for the local church.

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