Are you bored with your local church? Are you sick of the same four walls, talking with the same people, and sitting under the same pastor week after week?
If you’ve succumbed to the sinful misconception that church is intended to satisfy your ever-changing desires—that the church is meant to appeal to personal tastes and to follow the whims of the world—I’ve got good news for you.
Oasis Church VR is a church that solely exists in the metaverse, which Facebook describes as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”
“We curate creative church experiences in virtual reality for people who feel excited about digital spaces’ & fresh opportunities. Oasis is for people who are bored with the way their forefathers did church,” the church states on its website. “These can be creatives that are Metaverse explorers and people who would not be comfortable going into a building. Oasis will reach persecuted people in other countries. We will have a strong missional outreach component giving Oculus devices to those in need and supporting persecuted believers worldwide.”
At a recent Sunday service, Oasis Church VR leaders unveiled their new futuristic build that came complete with an immersive study of the book of Ruth in the Bible. Scenes from the four-chapter book were visually brought to life in 3D as the audience read through the story, teleporting from scene to scene with engaging discussion.
That quote comes from an article published on The Christian Post this past summer, titled “How the digital revolution is disrupting the Church and forcing it out of buildings.” It’s one of at least a half dozen articles featured on the site in recent months touting the viability and innovations of digital “churches.”
Here’s how the article’s author describes the trend:
As online Christian engagement continues to expand rapidly through the use of digital technologies, it has coincided with a staggering disruption in physical church membership, which some technology experts say will continue to displace physical churches that refuse to adapt to the digital revolution. And the ongoing displacement is becoming more apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea of disruption and disrupters is a frequent theme throughout these articles—usually without any of the negative connotations of disorder and destruction that the words normally carry. Often, it sounds downright complimentary. Frankly, it’s jarring to see anyone encourage the disruption of the church, regardless of the context.
What you come to realize is that this notion of disruption as a positive is borrowed from the parlance of the tech world, where sudden, radical change is commonly encouraged and even sought after. It’s a world marked by the endless pursuit of innovation, along the instantaneous obsolescence and disposability of all current systems and platforms. What’s clear is that the authors have adopted more than just the vernacular.
In fact, that’s precisely the mindset promoted by the so-called virtual-church experts cited in the articles. As one of them, a man named Chestly Lunday, puts it, “Jesus understood disruption and He was a disrupter Himself. And His advice to all of us disruptors are to go with the goers, don’t try to save the past, that can’t be done. And by trying to mix your new thing with the old thing, you’ll actually lose both in the process.”
Lunday is described in the article as “an expert in innovative leadership who has helped churches and companies lead in the digital age,” although it’s difficult to find evidence of his expertise or influence outside of his own website. Nevertheless, he goes on to lay out his new design for the church, and explains why he believes the old model is obsolete.
“Church of the future is a network. And it’s going to be digitally based. It’s not going to be geographically based. It’s going to be built on relationships and purpose,” he said. . . .
The main need for physical church buildings, Lunday said, was to provide content and community. The ability to access both content and community online has made traditional church buildings irrelevant. . . .
“If I can help churches . . . start thinking about what it’ll look like to actually create community on an asynchronous digital space that is not predicated on everybody watching the same content at the same time, but it being on demand—and it’s still having events and get-togethers, whether it be virtually, whether it be physically—those are the things that I would like to see the church do,” Lunday explained. “I think they (traditional church leaders) are threatened by it because that’s not what they know. That’s not what they feel comfortable with. That’s not what they like.”
Even if many traditional churches decide to retool their ministries today, said Lunday, there is no guarantee that they will survive.
Yes, you read that correctly. These virtual-church experts want to reduce the fellowship of the saints down to a social media group you visit when it suits your fancy, and the preaching of God’s Word to content that you view at your leisure. This isn’t merely a new technology-based model for the church. It’s an attempt to euthanize the body of Christ.
Caution for the Consumer-Driven Church
The trend of reimagining the church to suit consumer-driven tastes is nothing new—John MacArthur has warned against it for decades. First published in the early 90s, his book Ashamed of the Gospel describes the church’s flawed and faulty attempts to attract the world by mimicking its style and chasing its fleeting whims. Here’s how John describes the futile pursuit:
Recently I spent some time reading a dozen or so of the latest books on ministry and church growth. Most of those books had long sections devoted to defining a philosophy of ministry. Not one of them referred to the instructions Paul outlined so carefully for Timothy. In fact, none of them drew any element of their ministry philosophy from the New Testament pastoral epistles! Most drew principles from modern business, marketing techniques, management theory, psychology, and other similar sources. Some tried to illustrate their principles using biblical anecdotes. But not one of them drew their philosophy from Scripture—although much of the New Testament was explicitly written to instruct churches and pastors in these matters!
Unfortunately, the market-driven ministry philosophy appeals to the very worst mood of our age. It caters to people whose first love is themselves and who care not for God—unless they can have Him without disrupting their selfish lifestyles. Promise such people a religion that will allow them to be comfortable in their materialism and self-love, and they will respond in droves.
Paul foresaw such a time. Near the end of his second epistle to Timothy, after outlining the principles we have listed above, Paul abridged his advice to Timothy in this well-known verse: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Then the apostle added this prophetic warning: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (4:3, 4). The King James Version translates the passage like this: “After their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth.”
Clearly there was no room in Paul’s philosophy of ministry for the give-people-what-they-want theory that is so prevalent today.John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, (1993; reis., Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2010), 40–41.
Reading the articles from The Christian Post, you get the sense that the virtual-church experts have likewise given no thought whatsoever to God’s design for His church, or Paul’s exhortations to avoid tickling ears and tailoring the church to fit the world’s style. Rather, they seem to be embracing the very ministry motivations that Scripture warns against.
Is Streaming Sinful?
It’s worth saying up front that we are not arguing against harnessing technological advancements for the work of God’s kingdom. There’s a reason Grace to You isn’t still promoting John MacArthur’s sermons on cassette tapes—we understand the importance of innovation, and we thank God for the means to reach the world through mass media.
But we don’t chase innovation for the sake of impressing the world, and we’re wary of how quickly the medium can overwhelm and even corrupt the message. Those concerns are illustrated by another quote from The Christian Post, as the author summarizes the thoughts of Jeff Reed, a virtual-church advocate. “Reed explained that the trends he has seen emerging amid the digital disruption of the Church show that digital churches are reaching a different type of person than what the traditional church building is reaching. Church is no longer a one size fits all and messages need to be tailored to a specific audience” (emphasis added). The push for virtual church is just the latest exercise in contextualization, which assaults the perpetual relevance and applicability of God’s Word while subdividing and disconnecting His people.
So is streaming a church service sinful? Of course not. But we cannot allow the ease of streaming to overshadow the need for fellowship, corporate worship, accountability, and all the other irreplaceable features of consistently gathering together with God’s people.
In 2010, Ashamed of the Gospel was revised and updated for republication. By then, Grace Community Church had begun streaming their Sunday services. Here’s how John MacArthur described the benefits of such technology, while warning against its misuse:
In many churches today, you’ll never see a live pastor who can look you in the eye. Services are streamed from a remote location to a giant video screen—or if you choose, to your home computer. You even can partake in the worship in your pajamas, without even getting out of bed. Amazingly, some churches actually advertise their Internet webcasts in a way that seems to suggest those are benefits their viewers are welcome to enjoy. (“You can literally worship with us anywhere. It’s a different kind of church community and another way to stay connected.”)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with webcasting or telecasting a church worship service, of course. Internet live-streaming or televised worship services can be a great benefit for people who physically cannot be there (such as a sick person or someone who is on a business trip and thus away from home for the weekend). We stream our church services for the benefit of shut-in foreign missionaries who want to keep up with what’s happening at home. Plus we have broadcast our recorded sermons by radio for many years and now broadcast on television as well. So I am by no means criticizing mass media or Internet streaming as means of getting the message out to more people.
But the ease of those kinds of communication means that pastors must begin to stress more than ever the importance of fellowship, accountability, and participation in the body of Christ at the local level. A streaming Internet worship service is not an adequate way “to get connected” with Christ’s body. People who are inclined to duck personal involvement in the church now have a smorgasbord of online alternatives. They can salve their consciences with the impression of church participation but not the reality.MacArthur, 62–63.
Put simply, the “virtual church” isn’t an option for men and women who truly love the Lord, His Word, or His people. In the days ahead we will consider God’s design for His church, and how these digital counterfeits actually corrupt and forfeit many of its key features and greatest blessings.