(Also posted at Sacred Space in Cyberspace)
Technology changes things. But technology is a part of God’s Creation, and a gift: We can use it for good, twist it to evil, or ignore it. The last option, while always popular, has rarely been successful. Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Because it made possible the Reformation, it also brought drastic changes to the church, changing almost every visible aspect of Christian worship and theology in just a few generations. In our generation, the internet and digital communication have already brought about drastic changes, and will continue to transform the church in sweeping and dramatic ways in a short span of time.
In the past few decades, church participation in our culture has been in steep decline. And yet, as millions of people leave behind behind their communities of faith, millions more are finding community online, in places that a few years ago wouldn’t have even qualified as places. Worshiping communities of Christians are also beginning to appear online, especially taking root in 3-dimensional synthetic interfaces known as Virtual Realities, or Virtual Worlds. The writers of this confession are among them.
We are not “virtual” churches. We are not “virtual” people. We are very real people forming very real relationships and communities that happen to gather in virtual locations. Like the churches of the early Reformation, we have been met with interest and acclaim, with bitter criticism and rejection, as well as casual disregard. But we aren’t disappearing, and right now we are faced with some critical questions: Can we forge into the future without losing sight of our past? Can we successfully articulate our faith to churches that have little understanding of virtual worlds, who see our endeavors as nothing more than game-playing? Conversely, can we successfully articulate our faith to the millions of people already engaged in virtual worlds, but who have little understanding of the church, who see it as irrelevant to contemporary life?
Like many confessions, this one springs from a time of great upheaval, and a strong desire to preserve the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church in the face of new situations and challenges.
We trust in one God, who alone is the creator and sustainer of all worlds and all realities, whether labeled virtual, physical, spiritual or otherwise. God reigns over all. God loves all.
But we rejected God’s reign, and scorned God’s love. From the beginning, we attempted to create our own worlds, with our own rules, where we loved our own selves above all. Virtual realities are nothing new. As a consequence, we are a broken and messed-up people, still wandering through dysfunctional worlds of our own making, longing for a better one.
God, however, didn’t sit around idly, waiting for us to come back. Instead, God came to us where we were, taking on the flesh, blood, molecules and matter that would best communicate to us in the medium most familiar to us at the time: We know this manifestation of God’s love by name: Jesus.
II. JESUS CHRIST
And so we trust in Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, who entered into an existence fundamentally different in substance and structure than the one he knew before his time on earth. He came as a child into a strange world where he had to learn to sit, stand, walk, and communicate with others. He did this with the help of two in-world natives, Mary and Joseph, who showed him gracious hospitality, welcoming him into the world and teaching its customs.
We take note of Jesus’ ministry, as he gathered both crowds and small groups to himself, effectively using the technology, language, and familiar images of his day to convey God’s love and reign to all. He particularly embraced those outside the mainstream—the ones labeled by society as outcasts, deviants, and unbelievers. He visited the sick and comforted the suffering. He challenged powerful institutions, calling them out on oppressive bureaucracy and legalism, and calling them back to the heart of the best traditions of their ancestors.
Ultimately, he gave up his life for this cause and was subjected to cruel betrayal, torture, and execution at the hands of those he came to save. He willingly accepted a fate he did not deserve on behalf of those who did, so that we might know mercy and grace, and through this act be once and for all awakened to God’s love, saved and redeemed.
We believe that God raised Jesus up from death into yet another new form and context, giving us hope and reassurance that, following his example, we need not fear new forms and new contexts—in the life to come, or in the life we live today: We are a resurrection people.
III. THE HOLY SPIRIT
Before his death, Jesus promised that his presence would remain among us, even when his physical form did not. Because of this, we trust in the Holy Spirit, who comforts us, guides us, and binds us together with all God’s people in all places. We believe there is no place, whether made of molecules and matter or bits and bytes, that God’s Spirit does not permeate.
Further, God’s Spirit provides us both example and inspiration for presence that transcends geographical boundaries, as we strive to be present with and for one another across our own geographical locations in a deep and meaningful way.
We trust that God calls together faithful believers in every age to be the church, to worship and pray together, to fellowship and study together, serving one another and the world. Historically, the church has been recognized in two forms: The universal church, and the local church. As professing Christians, we stand together with our sisters and brothers as members of the universal Church, which is not limited by time or place.
We celebrate the remarkable diversity and adaptability of the local church through the centuries. Christian communities have gathered in homes, cathedrals, mountaintops, prisons, airports, in prosperity and in adversity, liturgically and spontaneously, and wherever two or more have been gathered together by the leading of God’s spirit.
Until recently local churches have almost always been associated with a geographical region, and this has served the church well. However, churches transcending geography are not without precedent. The Apostle Paul considered himself a participant and leader of many churches dispersed across the Mediterranean. He even writes that his “virtual” presence by means of his letters should be viewed as no different than his physical presence (2 Cor. 10:11). Paul used the information superhighway of his day—letters, roads, and messengers—to be actively present and engaged with his faith communities.
We believe it is time to acknowledge that the idea of “locale” extends beyond mere physical location. Most people today are part of one or more thriving communities that are geographically dispersed. We reject the notion that communities mediated through technology are inferior to ones mediated by physical space, or that they are acceptable only as a substitute when physically based community is not possible. Rather, each type of community is different, each with its own strengths to be celebrated and weaknesses to be addressed. Some people will entirely prefer one to the other, and many will seek a mixture of the two. We believe that God’s presence, true fellowship and community, as well the human propensity for sin, can be found to their fullest extent in any of the above.
We recognize that ever since the invention of the auditorium, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and pulpit microphones, our worship experiences have already been increasingly mediated through the medium of technology, and we are thankful for the enhancements and inclusion these things have represented for the church.
Accordingly, we recognize the full legitimacy and divine calling of churches that gather partially, primarily, or solely in virtual worlds, and call upon our sisters and brothers in the universal body of Christ to join us in welcoming them into conversation, fellowship, and shared ministry. This recognition is to be tempered with the caution that all churches—in any medium—are ultimately flawed and human institutions, and not all who self-identify as churches live up to the high ideals to which we are called.
Because of the wonderful diversity of local churches through the ages, and especially the new and unique ways in which churches in virtual worlds are evolving, we find it useful to affirm three historic marks by which Christian churches, and Reformed Churches in particular, have often been recognized: We believe that the church exists where the Word of God is truly proclaimed and taught; where the sacraments are rightly administered, and where church discipline is effectively practiced.
Our intention in affirming these marks of the church is not to define precisely how each one ought to function, or what “rightly” consists of, but rather to elevate the importance and seriousness which we ascribe to each of them. We trust that churches who ascribe to these ideals and approach them with reverence, prayer and thoughtful discernment will be led by God’s Spirit to creative and appropriate decisions.
We recognize Jesus Christ as God’s living word, the good news sent to live among us in the dynamic and interactive medium of a human being. We recognize the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s written word, passed down to us from generation to generation, the story of God and God’s people, translated into countless languages, formats, and mediums. In all its forms, God’s Word is incarnational.
Therefore, our proclamation of God’s word ought to be no less incarnational. If churches in virtual worlds do nothing else, let us at least follow the sacred charge of Christ to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel. We see the groundbreaking changes in technology that allow us to do this, and affirm them as a great opportunity that must not be squandered. As people spend increasing amounts of time in online communities, we are committed to following the example of Christ and interfacing with them where they are. We heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “How are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? So faith comes from hearing and hearing comes by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14, 17).
We affirm that there are many ways in which God’s word has been proclaimed, but the best and most hallowed are those solidly rooted in God’s living word, Jesus, and God’s written word as found in scripture.
2. Administration of Sacraments: At different times in the life of the church, various sacraments have been recognized, and in virtual worlds new expressions of the sacred continue to be explored. However, there are two sacraments instituted in scripture by Christ that are recognized by most professing Christians: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We affirm the historic importance of these two sacraments, and their significance as signs and seals of our faith.
We believe that these recognizable sacraments are a central element in the continuity of the church throughout history as well as a unifying practice between the churches in virtual worlds and their geographically-based counterparts. Finally, we believe that the church just isn’t the church without the sacraments, and we are deeply committed to being the church in the virtual world.
We believe that leaders should be chosen by the community, in prayer and Spirit-led discernment. We believe that leaders, in consultation with the community, should put into place written policies and practices available to all that protect the voice, dignity, and humanity of everyone who comes into contact with the church. We commit ourselves to transparency in leadership and discipline, and to using the technological resources at our disposal in a manner that reflects our Christian values.
While we value transparency, we also recognize the unique opportunity that virtual worlds offer for real people to explore their identity, their calling, and their relationships in the safety of anonymous participation. We respect the privacy of our anonymous friends, and acknowledge that even those who claim to be open with their identity often wear masks and choose boundaries within relationships, both in virtual and non-virtual worlds.
Inevitably, a leader will fall short, a member will act badly, or an anonymous visitor will abuse the privilege anonymity affords. We believe it is the responsibility of the community to gather around the fallen one, gently admonishing where necessary, excluding only when necessary for the safety and sanctity of the larger community, but even then actively seeking reconciliation, and remembering that we, too, are broken people in need of grace.
We believe that all of these marks of the church are not just profitable, but indispensable to the life and witness of the church in any time or place. For this reason, no church should ever be prevented from observing them publicly and visibly in some fashion within its normal context.
Some people prefer to spend their time engaged in virtual worlds, some in physical worlds, and most in some mixture of the two. But as passionately as people defend each of these preferences, the division between physical and virtual realities seems contrived and artificial in light of the reality of God’s Kingdom, which transcends all reality and all worlds.
In fact, it is our hope that wherever we spend our time, as we work and pray and reach out to others in pursuit of God’s Kingdom, this unity of purpose draws us together as the church and erases all that divides us. This is not to say that we forsake our distinctiveness, which is a gift from God that allows a diverse church to minister to a diversity of people. There is as much room and need in the Kingdom for churches that are distinctively attached to physical locations as there is for those that are distinctively called carry the gospel into the digital frontier.
Nevertheless, the Kingdom that unites us is far greater than those that would divide us, and with this confession we affirm, elevate, and even celebrate our commitment to the historic faith of the church, and to its future. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.