You can now be part of a church service without leaving your sofa, putting down your glass of sherry, or even pausing from eating you Sunday lunch.
Christmas 2002 is now a fading memory, but it was then that the virtual church was brought forcibly to my attention.
For the first time I discovered that Christmas, with all its shopping, decorating, parties, building snowmen and even church services, can now be brought into your living room – virtually, that is.
Christmas really was ‘on-line’. With the compliments of the internet, a bemusing and confusing variety of seasonal goodies were available in cyber-space.
You could even go on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, see the sights and interact with a service of celebration. Indeed, there were (and are) a wide variety of church services available on-line, catering for every taste and style.
There was an invitation to attend a Christmas concert or even to indulge in a bit of karaoke carol singing. It was also possible to decorate a cyber fir tree and build a virtual snowman – without getting your hands wet.
And those who don’t like people – or spending money – could click on to a virtual Christmas party and socialise without having to meet a human being. With all this, even Scrooge, or the Grinch, would have to give a slight smile.
As for Christmas presents, 17% of all the seasonal shopping is now done on-line.
The range of products and gifts available is almost beyond belief – and many of these are themselves offers of yet more virtual experiences.
Perhaps the most bizarre was the new £2000 treadmills, which are equipped with video screens showing outdoor images that move as the user walks.
Of course, you could go outside and get the same effect for free.
And this virtual extravaganza may go farther yet.
There have been reports that scientists may one day be able to transplant memories into our brains – and these could interface with our computers.
If that were ever true, we wouldn’t even have to buy a treadmill to go for a pretend walk – we could just lean back and download the latest ‘walk file’ from the internet.
It makes you think, though. Perhaps one day we could download someone else’s whole life into our craniums, or ‘cut and paste’ a ‘lifetime’ of our choice from various ‘memory files’.
Great! We wouldn’t actually need to live. Living may one day become virtually redundant.
In all seriousness though, forgetting the technological pipe-dreams and science fiction fantasies, this present virtual explosion in our society raises some pretty profound questions.
Although shopping from the keyboard may be convenient, it hardly substitutes for the dynamic social interaction of walking up the high street and actually meeting real people.
There is a danger that our 21st century lives may become more and more isolated, as technology separates us from our environment and from one another.
Many sit in front of one computer screen at home (used for leisure), and then travel by car, in isolated and air conditioned comfort to another computer-screen at work.
What is a church?
And although watching a church service on the internet may be helpful for the infirm and elderly, it is a poor substitute for the rest of us. It all depends, of course, on how you view the ‘church’.
Some elements of the experience of attending a church service may well be conveyed through a TV screen or PC monitor, but a multitude of others can not.
The original word ‘church’ in the Bible does not mean a building, or even an organisation, but simply conveys the idea of a ‘gathering’, or ‘assembly’.
It is a ‘coming together’ of human beings to be part of a dynamic, living and interactive community. I might add that we can lose this sense of community even without the help of the internet!
That is, we can treat the church as a place we attend at certain fixed times on certain fixed days. But outside of that, we live our own lives without any thought of (or interaction with) the local Christian ‘family’ to which we belong.
It is rather like a family member who always turns up for meals but never joins in any other family activities (like washing the dishes!).
Giving and receiving
One of the images that the Bible uses to depict this ‘gathering’ – the local church – is that of a body. It sees this community as a living entity made up of many parts, rather like our own bodies.
So, a proper experience of a ‘real church’ is being a functioning part of this family, or body, or community.
It involves giving and receiving; serving and sharing; worshipping and participating; learning and doing.
Fundamentally, it is about what we call ‘relationships’, with all the opportunities and difficulties these provide. We have relationships with others because we first have a relationship with God himself, through faith in Jesus Christ.
More than this, the Bible is clear that God works supernaturally in and among his people in this special community.
Putting all this together, ‘real church’ involves a rich, diverse and multifaceted experience.
We need to be there; we need to be part of it, and not merely a passive spectator at the end of an internet connection.
Just like the rest of life, it is not to be observed, but lived. Life involves encountering reality.
In particular, church involves encountering a community and, beyond that, encountering the ultimate reality – God.