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Online communion?

August 4th, 2010

428501_63909002I was reading recently about a minister who was tweeting a communion service. His idea was to take the church out into the world that knows nothing of church. This idea interests me on two fronts because I’m interested in web things and in taking Jesus (this may include the church) out into a world that knows very little of Jesus. There is a big part of me that is excited about this idea and that wants to support it  – and possibly a year or so ago I would have done – but now I think it’s just plain wrong.

Communion (aka Eucharist, Lord’s supper, etc) is a physical act

I think web people are often so caught up in the excitement and possibilities of the web that they miss the point that it does not include a physical presence. What I mean is that the web just does not provide a means for people to meet physically and never will (even if we ever manage to create an imitation of physical presence). As a Christian I am forced to accept the simple truth that God created a physical world. God didn’t need to do this, we could all have simply been spiritual beings, but God did. This must mean that there is a purpose to being physical. It also means that the physical world is not something we should be trying to avoid or escape from. This is a big subject but hopefully this gives the gist of what I’m trying to say.

Taking communion is a physical thing. Jesus didn’t need to make communion this way, he could simply have said pray to remember me or talk about my sacrifice and remember me but instead he took something that was a physical act and said do this to remember me.

No matter how much we would rather this was different it isn’t.

Of course, we might argue that people on the other end of twitter (or whatever) are physically present and so is the bread and wine that they use to share in the experience but I think this misses the point that although the physical is present in this way it isn’t the same thing – and so on to my next point.

Communion is about people who are physically together

The church has always pressed the point that one person can’t have communion on their own. You have to share that experience with someone else. I’ve already made the point that communion is a physical thing and now I want to make the point that it is not just the bread and wine that are physical but also it is the physical presence of people that is important. When sharing communion physical presence is part of the deal – you can’t remove this from it. If there is no physical presence then you can’t have communion. In exactly the same way I wouldn’t be having communion with my local church if I was at home and took some bread and wine when my local congregation was taking it.

Being on the other end of twitter (or whatever) doesn’t give you this physical presence.

Communion is also about being together and this is just not possible online. We are present with each other in some ways but not in a physical sense – we just can’t be – and we shouldn’t diminish this truth just for the sake of desire.

Communion is a sacrament

A sacrament, of course, is a physical act for making a spiritual truth real that has been given by Jesus for the church to use (to put it very simply).

My last point is that communion is a sacrament and as such is one of the ways that the church expresses itself. Being connected in some form with others on the web is not the same as being a church. There are things about church that you simply can’t replicate online (the physical presence being one of them of course).  We miss the point if we think that simply meeting together (especially virtually) makes a church. I’ve been to plenty of so-called churches that meet physically together and yet are not really a church but that is not an argument for meeting together online and calling ourselves a church.

I also want to make the point that taking communion out in to the world is not really possible. Communion is something that the church does it is not something that we can use to reach out to people who are not Christian. Yes, they can be part of it within a church and it can help to convince people of Christian truth but this is very different from believing we are taking anything out to anyone just because we use modern media to do it.

I suggest anyone who believes that different media is nothing more than a different way to deliver the message explores how media changes a message. An excellent book to read on this is Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps.

You cannot deliver communion through the web any more than you could give people a book with a communion service in it and say they are taking communion if they read it. There is so much more to this sacrament.

Conclusion

I hate to say it but my deliberations must lead me to the conclusion that online communion is wrong. Far from being a great way to reach out to those outside the church it makes the act of communion too simplistic and removes the elements of mystery and commitment that the act of taking communion involves. We just can’t get around the fact that the web is not a physical place and we never will.

I watched a Bruce Willis film a while back called “Surrogates” where someone invented robots that could replace us in the ‘real world’. The point of the film (whether you like the film or not) was well made in that the surrogates were simply not the same as actually being in the physical world yourself (even if it meant growing old and not looking perfect). We are in danger of going down the route of believing that somehow our web presence is better than our real presence. Christians are well placed to challenge this idea – not to collude with it.

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