CNN: Online churches draw believers and critics

Catholics have a very immediate and personal experience of sacraments.  We know we have to be there.

But there are different kinds of presence, aren’t there.  A person can be present at, say, Holy Mass, and yet have his mind a thousand miles any.  A person might with great longing desire to be present at Holy Mass, and yet physically be a a thousand miles away.  Through technology we are have a kind of presence with events which are taking place live.

We cannot receive Holy Communion unless we are physically present, but can make spiritual communions.  We cannot be confirmed unless we are physically present or receive absolution unless we are physically present where the sacraments are celebrated, but we can beg forgiveness and ask God for strength anywhere.  Not the same thing, but not nothing.  We must be physically present to be ordained or be anointed or be baptized: period.  There are possibilities about marriage at some distance, but this is very rare.

In this week’s issue of the UK’s Catholic Herald I have a piece about the need for dioceses to have a point man for ministry on the internet, a Vicar for Online Ministry. 

Then I read this.

This is from the site of CNN with my emphases and comments.

Online churches draw believers, critics
By Anne Hammock, CNN
November 15, 2009 — Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)

(CNN) — Hjalti á Lava was searching his iPhone for a Bible app when he stumbled across Church Online, a service of Web site Soon he was regularly logging into the Oklahoma-based cyber-church — some 4,100 miles away from á Lava’s home in the Faroe Islands, west of Norway.  [And it wasn’t a Catholic site, was it.]

"It allows me to connect with others and have conversations about the message," says á Lava, who shares his faith with other believers in the site’s live chat room. "Technology allows us today to have fellowship across borders and cultures."

In doing so, á Lava joined growing numbers of Christians worldwide who are migrating from the chapel to the computer. A map on the Church Online site showed users from 22 countries logged into a recent service.  [And let us not deceive ourselves: some of them are Catholic.  Some of them, looking for something, would resonate with a Catholic message.]

Online religious services offer convenience to those who are too isolated or infirm to attend a real-world church. But can worshipping via a computer offer true spiritual fulfillment["Fulfillment"?  It depends on how you define that.  Something, sure.  Everything?  No.]

Internet pastors and parishioners cite their 24-hour access to interactive tools and social-networking platforms to show their online experiences are as meaningful as those that take place with face-to-face congregations[As meaningful?  I wonder.  Different, but "as meaningful"?]

"We were blown away at how people could actually worship along [online]," says Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at "The whole family will gather around the computer, and they’ll sing and they’ll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them."

But critics believe virtual worship separates followers from a trinity of spiritual essentials found in brick-and-mortar Christian churches: community, Communion and connection with Christ.

"Online church is close enough to the real thing to be dangerous," ["dangerous"] says Bob Hyatt, a pastor who leads the brick-and-mortar Evergreen Community Church in Portland, Oregon. In a blog post for, he writes that calling it virtual church "gives people the idea that everything they need is available here."

The debate is an extension of a wider argument over social interaction in virtual environments versus the physical world. But because practices of faith are involved, both sides are deeply invested in the outcome, seeing it as a statement on the nature of the Christian person’s relationship with God.

Supporters of online churches have a common response to their skeptics: Try before you criticize. The virtual experience goes far beyond using live chat rooms to exchange emoticons instead of hugs and handshakes, they say.

Links allow congregants to "raise their hand" and publicly commit to Christ, [So, basically evangelical funamentalists are getting into this.  What are we doing as Catholics?] while prayer requests and one-on-one guidance are a click way. [Okay!] Sermon notes can be shared and discussed. And many online churches are aided by volunteers, allowing them to hold services several times each day.

The Internet campus [!] of the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Florida, pulls in more than 2,000 congregants from around the world during its Sunday services. [!] Pastor Doug Gramling said his three children are part of the Internet generation that will eventually decide the future of worship. They use Web tools to stay in constant connection with friends over vast distances, which Gramling says "gives me confidence that it can happen in online church."

But the disconnect from physical closeness is what Hyatt said he’s "fighting hardest against." His own church offers online extensions such as podcasts and forums. But he believes "the computer screen is a supplement, not a replacement."

Hyatt and other critics are particularly distressed by the online offering of traditional sacraments, such as Communion and baptism. He believes it is "ridiculous" that someone can grab grape juice and a cracker from the fridge and watch a computer screen, thinking they are truly participating in a gathering of the faithful[Yah, and from a Catholic point of view, that is pretty crazy.  But try to explain why that isn’t okay from an evangelical point of view. ]

"Something about the physical presence, breaking the same bread, is what Communion is meant to be," he says.

But Church Online participant Donna Cole disagrees.

"Knowing that others are also celebrating Communion, regardless of location, [note how subjective this is] makes it an especially wonderful time," says Cole, who believes real-world Communion can ring hollow. "When I’ve taken Communion in live surroundings, I often got the sense that it was ritualistic and without meaning."  [Feelings drive a lot of this.]

Matthew Bailey, a parishioner in the Franktown United Methodist Church in Virginia, believes that the meaning of the ritual is what matters.

"If people are willing to go to the trouble of giving their own Communion, then it is quite probably ‘real’ for them," he says. While Bailey chooses to remain at his face-to-face church, he believes any person "faithfully attending an online church service, is being more proactive, and thus probably more attentive, than many longtime churchgoers."

Douglas Estes, lead pastor of Berryessa Valley Church in San Jose, California, and author of "SimChurch," a book about Internet church services, would like to see this debate go away.

"The Bible sees church not as a man-made building but as a people gathered to glorify God with their lives," he says. Estes believes the quality of a community should be judged by the spiritual fellowship it offers.

"There is only one substantive difference between an online church and a brick-and-mortar church: The place where they meet."



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Tne Catholic understanding of sacraments is the “personal encounter” to use a phrase over-used by ‘dingbats’ to mean something else, far from an encounter with Christ.
    I, as a priest, cannot give absolution over the phone. I can’t give absolution to myself (but, oh, how wonderful that would be!!).
    The personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ in His Word and Sacrament must be mediated through the Sacred Liturgy…otherwise, we are Protestants.
    And I left that a LOOOONG time ago…a LOOONG time.

  2. Maltese says:

    “Soon he was regularly logging into the Oklahoma-based cyber-church—some 4,100 miles away from á Lava’s home in the Faroe Islands, west of Norway”

    Faroe is where Ingmar Bergman died recently, one of my favorite directors.

    The concept of an on-line “church” is sacrilideous and ridiculous in the extreme.

    It just shows you how screwed up people are that they would conceive of a concept such as this.

    God didn’t create us to be boxed away from each other. Human contact is essential to the human experience.

    You can’t shy away in front of your computer and be a normal human. If you do, you are missing out.

    And if you are, come out from your computer-hiding, and join a humble little group at your church.

  3. Melody says:

    Reminds me of a Christian discussion board where I discovered bringing coffee into the service is common in some Protestant churches.

    This isn’t sacrilege, it’s complete blindness.

  4. Agapified says:

    The accompanying picture is a fascinating choice. I wonder if someone at CNN was savvy enough to pick an image that could be no further from an online ‘church’.. or if they just picked a stock photo that, to an editor, screamed “churchy”.

    Either way, I held that image in my mind as I read through the article. I asked myself which I would prefer to participate in. Sorry virtual churches, but just in a visceral sense a website is no competition for the smells and bells of the beautiful Eastern liturgy.

    I will say this.. if I lived in the wilds of Alaska I would appreciate the ability to watch liturgical services online (thanks EWTN and OCN). I’d also enjoy conversing with others that share my interest. However, enjoyment and edification are pretty much where an online encounter ends. If I want that head-spinning sensory-overload experience of God, it needs to be in one of his houses.

  5. isabella says:

    I think it has a place. If I’m travelling and can’t find a church, I can log in, pray from my hotel room, and make a spiritual communion. Or if I am sick or stuck at home with flu (God will know if I’m faking). JMHO – an interesting novelty but I hope that’s all it is.

    Especially for Catholics, who believe that a valid consecration by an ordained priest is necessary for that cracker to become anything more than a cracker. It will NOT become the Body and Blood of Christ. Would that not be sacrilegious for somebody to even pretend it would?

  6. The parish priest who brought me into the Church has a webcam
    which transmits the Mass live all over the world on Sunday mornings and afternoons (Pacific Time). Usually, there are several people who log on and participate. He also broadcasts his Adult Catechism classes over the net too and distributes audio files of his sermons. He is using modern technology to bring the Latin Mass to people who otherwise would not have access to it (shut-ins, sick, and so on).

    Of course, nothing beats being actually present. The experience is completely different than watching it on a screen. One has to be physically present in order to really experience the efficacy of the Sacraments. It’s something that I cannot describe. You have to be there in church on a Sunday morning to experience it for yourself.

    As an aside, there used to be a Catholic Church on Second Life for the longest time. They even had an online Mass at some point. Still, though, virtual experiences do not replace being there in the flesh no matter how well done they are.

  7. Maltese says:

    brotherjuniper: your sensibilities are correct: you cannot effectuate a sacrament without a priest….

  8. jlong says:

    If we are not careful, I could imagine aliberal ordained Priest somewhere doing an internet Mass, and sending out consecrated Hosts through the post before hand. Very dangerous ground.

  9. jlong says:


    Depends which Sacrament you are talking about. From what I understand, Baptism does not always require a Priest, for example in an emergency a Christian can Baptise so long as the correct words are used long with water, and also in the case of Marriage, outside of the Catholic Church, a Priest is not required for the Sacrament.

  10. sirlouis says:

    It brought to mind a dear friend who, now many years ago, told me that he and his wife, evangelical protestants who were only temporarily stationed in the city, “went to church on television.” There are two things at work there: One is that the line between worship and entertainment has been blurred, and the other is a profound misunderstanding of what “church” means. I have found it time and time again, what most profoundly divides Catholics from protestants is our understanding of the nature of the church. This phenomenon of online participation just points it up again.

    If the church really is completely spiritual, then there is nothing remarkable about “experiencing” or practicing it in spirit only, individually and on line or by television or radio. But if it has an essential, concrete, communal dimension, then a television or online Mass doesn’t fill the bill. Yes, for shut-ins and those living in a place very remote from a church, it is better than nothing. But it is closer to nothing than it is to genuinely communal worship, which is the only way the true church can truly worship.

  11. rinkevichjm says:

    Christianity is about commitment. Commitment to love God and our neighbor. Only physical communion demonstrates our commitment to God and our neighbor. Spiritual communion over TV/Internet doesn’t demonstrate commitment to our neighbor or God. Spiritual communion at Church shows our lack of commitment to God because we should have been prepared to take physical communion. Who is showing their commitment to God’s command: those who properly take physical communion or those who don’t?
    I haven’t even touched on the physical sacramental benefit of physical communion over spiritual. Which is better to receive the physical and spiritual elements of a physical sacrament or to just partake of the spiritual benefit?

  12. Kerry says:

    Can those without a computer simply pretend virtual participation?

  13. MrsHall says:

    I was a Protestant for 25 years. I attended several kinds of Protestant Churches—Missionary, Congregational, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Non-Denominational, Charismatic, Baptist—and I bet I’m leaving something out. I was devout, I loved Jesus, I read my Bible every day and shared my faith with anyone I could. But let me tell you: we were making it up as we went along. Particularly in the “independent” churches (the kind that would start an online congregation—yeesh) we were reliving the book of Acts, or trying to. We were the first church to get it right, so we couldn’t be wrong. We had the Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide us, so we couldn’t make a mistake. My husband now says we were “freelance” Christians. Just doing our own thing, choosing our own religion.

    All tongue-in-cheek, of course. If it weren’t for those experiences I probably wouldn’t be a Catholic today. There was a point where we thought to ourselves, “Jesus said, ‘I will build My Church.’ Surely He did a better job than this!” So He did.

  14. zgietl says:

    Fr Z.,
    I should order some of them prefilled communion cup and wafer thingys and find myself a nice online church. Then I’d be set right? ;)

  15. kab63 says:

    Our pastor preaches often about the importance of the physical church building. Angels guard the doors from the narthex, just as they guard the door to heaven. Inside the church we are the living saints surrounded by the icons of the saints in heaven. The building is anointed, our prayers “rise up like incense” and the air is thick with it. I’m afraid that to equate an internet church with the actual building would be sacriligious. I agree that Mass over EWTN can only serve as an uplifting entertainment. A church building offers legal “sanctuary,” right? Jesus is there, before us, in the tabernacle. Could the internet ever be a Holy Place? I don’t see how that’s possible.

  16. Seraphic Spouse says:

    We’ve had televised Masses for decades, so I don’t see what is wrong with an internet Mass. I seem to recall stories of saints being miraculously able to see Mass far, far away. Well, that miracle has long since been shared with the rest of us.

    With television, we are not really “there”. The internet is much more interactive than television, and is, in some ways, more akin to a telephone, especially if seeing/hearing something as it unfolds.

    The danger of online life is that it can feed a willful isolation from physical life in a particular physical, geographical community. However, online community is stll itself a community, and conversations and relationships are still conversations and relationships, if not as rich as face-to-face ones. That said, epistolary friendships across thousands of miles have always existed. One thinks of correspondence between Erasmus and Thomas More, between Catherine of Siena and the popes of her day, between St. Paul and his communities!

    Perhaps it is time for online parishes, ESPECIALLY for people (e.g. in rural Canadian communities) who see a priest only once a month or year.

    I know that there are people who get their one weekly enjoyment of liturgical beauty by watching TLM Masses on youtube.

  17. There is much work to be done among Catholics to understand Presence and the fact that while “The Bible sees church not as a man-made building but as a people gathered to glorify God with their lives in the evangelistic sense, Church tradition calls for us to be physically together in a personal encounter just as Christ did with His disciples. It is often thought just being of “presence of mind” is enough, but doing is putting actions to the words and thoughts whether those words are thought, written, read or spoken.

    In an online Catechesis course on Sacraments mainly for PSR and Parish School teachers, there were many who were troubled with the idea that watching Mass on TV and typing online or in a letter or having a phone conversation for confession was not acceptable. They were all tripped up about matter and just fine with symbolic activity.

    This is where Presence comes in and a failing in teaching on Presence and Tradition. Without these, the rest is folly toward remaining Catholic except in name–an all too often problem.

    Sacramentally, lex orandi, lex credendi, as the sacraments were passed to the disciples through personal encounter and handed on to the Apostles to take Christ to the people, our encounter is not of ourselves of our own accord and methodology, but of Christ coming to us personally according to His context as maintained by Tradition.

  18. bookworm says:

    I occasionally participate in Second Life, and have visited a number of religious SL sites (Catholic, Orthodox, and a couple of Protestant sites). I also attended a Catholic Bible study group once in SL, and it was very enjoyable, except for the “griefer” who briefly interrupted the proceedings (but that’s another story). SL also has a “monastery” constructed on a mountain with “cells” that you can rent, habits you can wear, and a chapel, gardens, etc. to pray in.

    If Second Life and other “metaverses” are, as some say, the wave of the future in online interaction, then the Church needs to be there just as it is today with traditional websites and was in the past with television, radio and print media.

    The purpose of Second Life, as I see it, is to allow people to do, see, or experience things they cannot do in real life. In many cases, of course, the experience sought is something evil like cyber sex, occultism, vampirism, etc. But it can just as easily be something morally neutral or good, like visiting a famous art museum, climbing a mountain, sailing, skiing, ballroom dancing, opera, experiencing a particular historical era (Old West, Ancient Rome) or even an un-historical era (e.g., “Steampunk,” based upon the premise of a Jules Verne-like world in which the internal combustion engine was never invented and Victorian styles of dress and manners still prevail).

    The way I see it, Catholic presence in SL should be geared toward people who have an interest in or curiosity about the Church, and want to explore it in a “safe”, non-threatening environment where they can do so anonymously and are not committing to anything (like taking an RCIA class). Someone who is not Catholic or has fallen away from the Church could visit a site to get more information, or to have their questions about certain aspects of the faith answered. Perhaps if they can explore in that way first they will eventually become motivated to do so in real life.

    As for sacraments or Masses being offered in SL, I understand the objections to them, but I would think that demonstration Masses, baptisms, etc. could be done online for the benefit of people who have had no exposure to them and want to know what they are like. Of course it would have to be emphasized that these are NOT ‘real’ Masses and don’t count for your Sunday obligation, but are for educational purposes only. We do already have demonstration Masses (in both NO and TLM forms) on video and to have one in SL wouldn’t really be much different.

    Believe me, I understand the pitfalls of too much online interaction — I’ve already spent too much time at the computer this morning as it is! — but this is part of people’s lives and we need to bring the prescence of Christ and His Church into it wherever we can.

  19. Marius2k4 says:

    Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini, qui fecit caelum et terram.
    Domine, exaudi orationem meam, et clamor meus ad te perveniat, ne avertas faciem tuam a me.
    Domine, adiuva nos.

  20. asperges says:

    There is only one substantive difference between an online church and a brick-and-mortar church: The place where they meet This is a very protestant concept that Church is just a club where like-minded people gather, whereas the Catholic concept is not the meeting up but what essentially happens there – ie Holy Mass.

    Your article, Father, for the Catholic Herald is very good and apt.

    Unfortunately, there are clergy who rejoice in their complete ignorance of computers etc; and to be fair, those who will not have come across them (as the rest of us have had to) in offices, shops etc in the last 20 years, are genuinely at an extreme disadvantage in the modern age, rather like being unable to use a telephone or a typewriter.

    I cannot get across to such parties that the wealth of information and research that is possible, to say nothing of the absolute importance of being on top of what is happening within the Church – documents, news, opinions etc – is very much part of keeping one step ahead. There are plenty of holes to fall into, but it is rather useful not to do so too regularly.

    Look at the SSPX fiasco with Williamson – even cursory research on internet could have avoided the (possibly planned) embarrassment of the Holy Father about known facts. It is wholly unacceptable that he had not been briefed. No one expects the Pope to have a laptop at his side, but his advisers certainly should in the 21st century.

  21. yatzer says:

    VEry good points. I would like to see Catholic people be as welcoming as many Protestants are to new people in the parish. Forget the handholding and the gladhanding if the Peace is passed. Just acknowledge people and talk with them once in a while, even if they are folks you don’t know, or esp. if they are people you don’t know. That sort of friendliness was what hooked me on a Protestant church for about a decade, plus they talked about God instead of sounding embarrassed about him. I finally came to my senses, and realized I truly believe in the Catholic Church, but they can be rather cold places. I guess that for some people the Internet offers a warmer welcome than a brick and mortar church.

  22. RichR says:

    This is a denial of human nature and of the Incarnation, plain and simple. We are embodied souls. Our physical being is willed by God. Christ, Himself, came to earth as a man to sanctify man’s being. In Protestant circles, it is the spirit that matters: no visible Church, no use of matter as necessary in church life (ie, sacraments), people have no hierarchy based on Orders because they don’t believe in an ontological change in the minister or his ability to confect real sacraments, an egalitarianism based on Christ’s holiness not on our own merits done in the Spirit, etc…. In other words, the idea that anything in this material world can be deemed necessary for your salvation is ludicrous.

    Catholics, however, realize that Christ uses matter to save us. In fact, He became matter to save us. Therefore, our physical being is not something ancillary, it is something that is part of who we are. It is something that is in the process of being saved, along with our souls. In fact, our bodies will be reunited with our souls after the Final Judgement because there is a disturbance in our nature with the body and soul separated. We say in the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body….” We see our bodies as part of our being.

    Therefore, being at Mass (or any sacrament) is not a spiritual thing. It is an actual thing that requires our entire being – body and soul.

  23. Lee says:

    When Fr. Pacwa blesses us at the end of his program, are we viewers really blessed or just those present in the studio? How about during reruns? I have always wondered about this.

  24. Blessings are a special matter. The Pope’s apostolic blessing on pilgrims applies to their family at home, also; and when radio came in, the Pope back then announced that as long as you were listening to a live broadcast, the Apostolic Blessing also went to anyone listening (or now watching) as well as those present. The Urbi et Orbi blessing does the same thing, but you also get a plenary indulgence if you listen or watch live.

    You could certainly argue that with a live broadcast, there is a tenuous physical connection all the way from the Pope to us, particles and waves of sound and electricity carried over the airwaves and the electrical wires. But mostly, the power to bind and loose allows all sorts of things.

    It’s my impression that priests can bless people over live broadcasts, but I don’t know for sure. I’m pretty darned sure that they can’t bless sacramentals, etc. However, I’m sure that God doesn’t forget a priest’s prayer at any time, and I’m sure priests like Fr. Pacwa keep all their viewers, rerun or not, in their prayers.

  25. ” . . . Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at”

    Groeschel? Strange coincidence.

  26. wanda says:

    Another (lame) reason to not bother going to Holy Mass. Some polls already tell us that up to 80% of ‘Catholics’ in North America no longer attend Mass on Holy Days or on Sundays. There are some who still go at Christmas and Easter as a minimum and some who wouldn’t dare miss ‘getting’ their ashes on Ash Wednesday.

    Let us be ever more faithful and pray, Lord, help us to help others ‘get to Heaven’.

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