June 6th, 2015| Topic: RaMbLeS | 16


Last year, Saddleback Church (“One family, many locations”) in Southern California introduced online communion!

Here are their directions.

1. Purchase Grape Juice (quantity depends on size of your group)
2. Purchase Bread or Baked Crackers
3. Be Ready at Home with Your Elements
The teaching pastor will direct you through properly receiving communion. All you need to do is follow along online individually, as a group.
4. Share With Us
After receiving communion online, please fill out a response card or email [us] letting us know how many in your home participated in receiving communion. Snap a quick photo and include it in your email as well.”


Here’s one online comment provided tongue-in-cheek to the notion of online communion.

Awesome idea! I don’t like people anyway. How great that I can be a Christian and get my preaching from the TV, communion from the internet, worship from a iTunes download and serve the less fortunate by making a financial donation online. Who needs other people to be accountable to, or to learn from, or to serve alongside with. I sure hope heaven is this way, cause being in community with people is too troublesome and demanding. Who wants that?”

The church is an embodied organism. Getting virtual in preaching, communion, praise, service, and fellowship seems to violate the notion of bodiness and interpersonal presence, face to face, eye to eye, hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder. Is this, as one scholar suggested, a variation on the ancient heresy of Gnosticism that decided that true spirituality is that of the soul and has nothing to do with the body and humanity’s flesh and blood existence?

What about Jesus Christ who was incarnate as man?

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.
John 1:14

And the many comparisons in the Bible between church and body?

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27

Can there be commitment to one another with being in one another’s presence (of course, there is also the question of whether one can be in another’s presence over cyberspace)?

Can there be discipling without being face to face? (Or for that matter, can there be parenting without presence, parenting online? Discipling, after all, is parenting of a spiritual kind.)

And there is the biblical command to assemble.

Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,
not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some,
but encouraging one another.
Hebrews 10:24–25

Can there be stimulation to love and good deeds, and encouragement, without assembly? Online? Via texting, email, phone call? There is value in these things, of course, but ….

Then again, what is presence? I usually perch on the back pews of my relatively large church on Sunday mornings. What if the church was twice as big and I was still in the back? Or ten times as large—or a hundred times—and I could see nothing at all, except the large screen with the band and preaching projected, and I could hear nothing, unless it were amplified via cables and speakers? Am I “present” in worship in such a situation? Now substitute those cables with ethernet lines, and those speakers with servers, and those big screens with a laptop monitor. Am I still “present”?

Hey, we’ve already changed wine to grape juice and bread to crackers, haven’t we?

Everyone is agreed that there should be interpersonal presence. How exactly that is accomplished is the issue.

I have no answer to these questions, pro or con (after all I am a  theologian). Any ideas? Comments welcome.


  1. a congregant June 7, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Dr K I have enjoyed hearing you preach when you sub at our church. Recently, I found your handout with the reference to this site, stuffed in my Bible and have since enjoyed your stories!

    My comments represent just a speck of the conversation. I have skipped church to watch it on tv or to read my Bible and pray instead because I reasoned that it would be a closer time with God. Sometimes it was – sometimes it was not. That was my free will but what is God’s will for me regarding this issue? That is what I asked myself after reading this. God’s will is that we glorify Him, not for God – He does not need us to glorify Him – but so that we grow closer to God and draw others closer to God and in some instances to God. So if I stay home and do all my worshipping and take communion at home then am I glorifying God and helping to bring others closer to God and at times to God? Not everyone in church has a personal relationship with God and there are people of other faiths that walk in the door to see what goes on in a church building. So if God’s people are not there how can they be salt and light to the world? How can we encourage a believer and a non-believer if we won’t even show up? Additionally, we are to be like Christ – He lived and dwelled among His disciples and apostles. Should we not be among Christ’s people as well?

    We are all on a journey – congregants and pastors – hopefully we can seek to glorify God and transform ourselves to the likeness of Christ and in doing so be salt and light to the world. To do that it seems that we must show up.

  2. Nancy Drew June 7, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    I think that is the conflict that I am currently experiencing. I feel such a strong pull to share Christ with those who are open to the gospel. But I have a limited number of “free hours” to spend. So, do I spend them in outreach, or in fellowship/growth. Every time I’m in church (which I know I need & would never want to give up), I’m not “in the world”. I think it’s a difficult balancing act. My answer is to try to do both without sacrificing quiet time & family. Yeah, right! Thanks for your input & this forum to participate in the discussion.

  3. Nancy Drew June 7, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    I enjoy using podcasts during the week for additional preaching and hearing pastors that I could not hear otherwise (e.g. Allistair Begg). But it should never be a substitute for the “real thing”. You theologians are very good as explaining all the reasons we need the body & I think all of them are valid. But I would love to hear your thoughts on an additional concern that I have. I recently had the opportunity to sit under some excellent teachers through the “Perspectives on Christian Missions” training. One week the focus was on the unchurched/unreached people in America. According to the teacher, if you put all unchurched people in the USA together & labeled them a people group, they would be the 12th largest people group in America. My question is: Are we so busy in church with each other that we don’t have time to reach those who have never had ongoing contact with a Christian? Is it possible that the fields are white unto harvest but the workers are in the barn having a barn dance (or potluck dinner)? Would love to hear some of your thoughts on that.

    • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      Yes, certainly, Christians should be in the world (though not of the world). Whether it be in the workplace, or at school, or in the marketplace, or wherever, we are/should be making contact with unbelievers. And our lives (and words) should influence them slowly, but steadily, towards Christ.

      So it’s a both/and situation. We should be fed and have fruitful fellowship and worship as a body, but we should also be seeking to grow the body by incorporating those who are outside.

  4. Eric Fan June 7, 2015 at 7:11 am

    From personal experience, there are certainly parts in the experience of being physically present that are harder to experience over the Internet.

    Our church started live streaming our services a couple of years ago. I have used it several times while traveling out of town and am thankful for it. I no longer have to wait for a podcast that comes typically a few days later. And it is not that hard to imagine myself sitting in pews with others worshiping together. Besides personal and work-related travels, I can see how it is also good for someone home-bound because of illness. Our senior pastor often uses the opening to remind us that we are worshiping together at two locations on the campus and various parts of the world via live streaming. All in all I would say that while worshiping online is a second best, it serves a good purpose.

    After all, aren’t we all reading Abe’s wonderful blog every week? In this case, it would be his blog or nothing for me as I live in Atlanta. While I am not crazy all that social media, I believe we need to leverage technology for God’s work. Everything is created by Him and should be used for His purpose.

    In the case of Saddleback, it sounds like they still meet in groups at multiple locations. These days growing churches have multiple services anyhow to accommodate the entire congregation. So it is not really that different. The more intimate setting of smaller groups should be more conducive for relationship building as compared with a group with hundreds or thousands sitting in a large sanctuary.

    • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 8:34 am

      As a substitute for physical absence, I think cyberspace works well. So does the phone. Or even a written letter. The issue is whether we can rely exclusively on these non-physical presences for relationships, particularly those in the body of Christ (or, for that matter, parent-child relationships). Why?/Why not?

      • Eric Fan June 7, 2015 at 2:09 pm

        The live streaming at our church covers the entire service. You get the “whole scoop”! 🙂 The only things we left out are names and pictures of missionaries serving in areas hostile to Christianity. It is indeed a good substitute.

        If the question is whether we can rely exclusively on them, then the answer has to be NO. If bodily presence does not mean anything, why would God give us a body?

        Perhaps the body forces us to decide what is truly worth our presence. Worshiping with the body of Christ is definitely one of them.

        • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 3:24 pm

          Yes, of course, there’s more to a worship service than a sermon. And, of course, there’s more to church ministry and discipleship than a worship service. [More to parenting than just feeding or getting together once a week!] The question is, can all of the many ministry interactions in a given week be conducted in cyberspace? Clearly, where joint physical activity is concerned, it cannot (helping a shut-in with housework, for example). Are there other arenas of ministry for which presence is essential? Worship? Accountability? All depends on what “presence” is. And perhaps, also how good technology is. [Perhaps we’ll be able to feel touch online, one of these days.]

  5. Michael Crosswhite June 7, 2015 at 5:54 am

    I hope online church dies a sudden and painful death (chokes on its own spit in the middle of the night or something!). We should strive to communicate the importance of embodied presence in every way imaginable. The pastor shouldn’t be heard and seen through a screen (I’ve got my stink eye on you, “satellite churches”!). How can one be effectively pastored online? This man is in charge or your soul after all! How can you ever formally join, confess Christ, submit to pastoral authority, and serve other members without actually ever seeing or touching any of them? How can you weep with those who weep? Would anyone say that they were present at Princess Diana’s funeral? Super Bowl 45? At some point, to actually claim, “presence,” is to be there physically there in the body.

    • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 8:35 am

      You raise a good point: physical service one to another would be very hard via cyberspace. Then again, how much do we emphasize physically serving one another in our churches? How many actually do? Maybe we should attend more closely to Hebrews 10:24-25 ….

      • Michael Crosswhite June 7, 2015 at 10:14 am

        Sure, fair enough. However, I bet if you did a quick survey of the items that any given church teaches their congregants on a regular basis, they would say 1) Church Membership, 2) Involvement in a Small Group 3) SERVING ONE ANOTHER, and 4) Sharing the gospel with unbelievers. Is it practiced? Much like anything else that’s taught: yes, with some; no, with others. But I think it’s worth noting that by many churches own standards, serving one another in a tangible/physical way is a vital element to growth as a disciple. Further, the other three items on that list are either impossible (1 and 2) or incredibly challenging (4).

        The most disturbing part of this trend (in my opinion) is that the pastors that are doing it, I fear, aren’t taking seriously the charge of Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” I realize the passage is directed toward congregants, encouraging them toward submission, but if we look at it from the pastor’s point of view, we’ll have to give an account for all of these people in our ward! Mercy!

        Shouldn’t this be a charge to us, not only to abandon any perceived benefits of online streaming, in favor of KNOWING the people that are listening and heeding the words of the sermon?

        As always, there are a billion things I could keep adding, but I’ll stop for now. 🙂

        • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 10:27 am

          It’s those who don’t engage in any of those physical-presence-requiring activities that gravitate towards the cyberspace equivalent of church. Unfortunately, these are the majority. For such, it’s all the same: passively attending church activities and distantly viewing/listening to worship services, etc. No difference.

          I would argue for utilizing the benefits of cyberspace (or whatever new technology that comes along, just as we have adopted other technologies for the use of the church: printing, for instance–now I don’t have to listen to Scripture read in community, I can read it for myself, in my closet), but recognizing that there are limits to what it can accomplish and that it cannot be an exclusive mode of operation. Hopefully churches are recognizing that ….

          • Michael Crosswhite June 7, 2015 at 10:46 am

            I guess, at the end we’d probably have to ask what was accomplished by a person merely hearing a sermon outside of the context of a physical presence in a worship service. If anything is deficient, does having the new mediums communicate to the pseudo-congregant that NOTHING is deficient? Is there any word to these people, like, “Hey, we envision this tool to be used for our members that are out of town and shut-in their homes,” or “If you’re watching this online, you’re not really going to church”? It sounds like, in every context I’ve heard of it, it’s viewed as another “campus.”

            • Abe Kuruvilla June 7, 2015 at 11:16 am

              I hate to say this, but to be fair, most of a sermon is content delivery, and it is entirely possible for a guest preacher (the guy on the video) to deliver a decent sermon. And again, there are some churches that have campus pastors deliver a tailor-made application. So a hybrid is possible. And most “campuses” have their own physical gatherings.

              Thanks for the conversation, Michael.

              • Michael Crosswhite June 7, 2015 at 11:24 am

                Sure! But in the simple hearing of a preacher, preaching a sermon, can I say at the end, “I have been to church!” If it is anything more than singing some songs and hearing the word preached, then my fear is we aren’t communicating that by having the service online. Good topic of conversation!


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