Liminal Links
Church in a Digital Age
A. Trevor Sutton

The Didache, an influential first century Christian text, offers practical instructions for performing baptism: “Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water, ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm.” (Richardson, 174).

While the New Testament is rich in baptismal theology, it does not delve deeply into the praxis of baptism. The Didache filled this void by addressing the practical baptism questions that arose within the early church: What is said in baptism? How much water should be used? What kind of water? This ancient text gives modern theologians a glimpse into the ordinary baptismal practices of the early Christian church.

Though it addresses many topics, the Didache says nothing about virtual reality baptisms. Since it predates the invention of virtual reality (VR) by nearly two millennia, it should come as no surprise that this ancient church manual is silent on the matter of an online church using virtual water to perform a baptism on an avatar. The Didache offers no guidance in the way of virtual baptisms, pixelated preachers, and online church. 

This has not stopped some online churches from performing virtual reality baptisms. Syrmor, a popular YouTuber, has documented a virtual reality baptism for viewers to watch. The YouTube video, which Patricia Hernandez wrote about in an article for Polygon earlier this year, shows an online pastor performing the virtual baptism of an anime girl. The purpose of this video is neither satire nor sacrilege; rather, it shows viewers how this particular online pastor performs VR baptisms.

While the human participants wear Oculus Go headsets in their respective locations, the virtual baptism takes place in an online baptistry with an avatar pastor standing in digital water alongside the catechumen. The initiate—an anime girl avatar—has a floating name icon overhead with the handle “Drumsy,” indicating the username chosen by the person operating the VR headset.

The avatar pastor explains the theological significance of what will take place as other avatars—Tigger and Winnie the Pooh—stand alongside and listen. When it is time for the virtual baptism, the pastor instructs the human person with the VR headset to squat down so that the avatar goes under the digital water. While the avatar is immersed in virtual water, the pastor says, “Drumsy, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The rite concludes with clapping as one of the onlookers—a banana avatar—does a celebratory leap into the baptistry and a SpongeBob SquarePants avatar appears to soak up all the water.  

Virtual reality baptisms, as well as online church in general, present many questions for Christian theologians and communities: Are virtual rites efficacious? Can an online church have meaningful community? Which Christian practices should or should not be done via the internet? How does technology shape the theology and practices of an online church?

Many people would consider a VR baptism to be an extreme manifestation of online church. In his 2017 book Creating Church Online, Tim Hutchings reports that this rite is not widely practiced among the majority of churches online. Even Christian traditions that disagree on many other matters would readily agree that a virtual baptism without actual water is a misguided, if not heretical, practice. The practice of celebrating communion online is likewise problematic. The United Methodist Church has twice—once in 2010 and again in 2013—rejected the practice; the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations has also raised serious concerns about consecrating the elements of Holy Communion via digital media.

Less extreme manifestations of online church—a congregation livestreaming a worship service, for example, or a pastor devoting a portion of time to online engagement—raise subtler yet still challenging questions: Is it efficacious to pray with someone via Skype? How is the internet different from other technologies as a way to proclaim the gospel? Can a livestream worship service suffice for individuals who are disabled, sick, or otherwise cannot physically attend a worship service?  Is it necessary for the online church to lead people to the local church? (While the term “local” church is not ideal, it does help us compare these two types of communities; the online church is geographically unconstrained, whereas the local church is geographically located.) These questions are harder to answer, less likely to generate consensus, and, frankly, more important at this time for church leaders and other dedicated Christians to consider as local churches navigate the liminal space between online church and local church. 

Exploring the history of the online church movement and looking at one specific example of an actual church engaging in worship and pastoral care online can provide insight into where churches find themselves today. Distinguishing what separates the local church from the online church has become increasingly difficult.

Blurred Boundaries: Online Church History

Churches have always been networked. The apostle Paul, in the middle of the first century, actively linked Christian communities together into a regional web of relations:

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)

While Christianity has a long history of being linked in a common mission and ministry, the digital hyperlinking of churches is a far more recent phenomenon. The ephemeral nature of the internet makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact beginning for the online church. However, scholars have marked a particular moment as one of the earliest occurrences of this phenomenon. Heidi Campbell, in her book When Religion Meets New Media, cites a definitive event in the origin of the online church: 

[I]n 1986 a memorial service was conducted online in remembrance of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after takeoff. Organized on the Unison network BBS, the memorial involved a liturgy of Christian prayers, scripture, and meditations followed by an online ‘coffee hour’ designed to allow individuals to post reactions to the tragedy (Campbell, 35).

Tim Hutchings documents several other early forms of online church: an unnamed online church mentioned in a Church of England publication in 1985; a virtual church known as “The Order of the Holy Walnut” in the multiplayer computer game Habitat (1986-1988); and a “Cyber Church” that existed on a bulletin board software system in 1989 (Hutchings, 10-11). Relatively little is known about the origins and practices of these earliest online churches.

The invention of the World Wide Web in 1990 led to more online churches. The First Church of Cyberspace, launched in 1994 by a Presbyterian minister named Charles Henderson, is among the earliest of these web-based churches (Hutchings, 12). This online congregation offered discussion forums, chatrooms, online worship services, images, music, and a multimedia online Bible.

The early online church was not strictly a North American phenomenon. In the mid-1990s, Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea began using the internet to broadcast live services. The German-language journal Praktische Theologie (Practical Theology) published special issues in 1990 and 1996 about the internet and Christian churches. The 1996 issue included an interview with Melanie Graffam-Minkus, Germany’s first Online-Pfarrerin (online pastor). In the interview, Graffam-Minkus describes her role as being an initial pastoral contact for people with the ultimate goal being to connect people to a local pastor (Hutchings, 12-13).

In the 2000s, online churches grew in both number and notoriety. Arne Fjeldstad, as an extension of his Doctor of Ministry dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, compiled a website with links to thirty-four “cyberchurches” that were active in March of 2000. Fjeldstad described these early cyberchurches as being either an online extension of a local congregation or an exclusively internet-based community: “a cyberchurch can be a ministry of a ‘real’ local church or denomination, or a personal and/or independent initiative with no formal connection whatsoever to an established church or denomination.”

A pivotal moment for the online church came in 2004, when two noteworthy online churches—Church of Fools and I-church—were launched in the United Kingdom. These online churches, funded by the Methodist Council of Great Britain and the Church of England’s Oxford Diocese respectively, garnered extensive media coverage. This media coverage drove the number of daily website visitors into the tens of thousands (Hutchings, 18). Also during 2004, online churches were planted in the virtual world of Second Life. Within this virtual world, Second Life players can socialize with others in virtual homes, stores, restaurants, and outdoor spaces. As Second Life grew in popularity, virtual churches began to form and offer worship services and Bible studies. In their 2014 research on Second Life published in the Nordic Journal of Religion and Society, Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings identified 114 sims (areas of virtual land) “advertising some form of gathered worship, representing a wide range of ideologies.” Some of the earliest Second Life churches—such as The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life, which was formed by an Anglican priest in 2006—remain open today.  

The steady increase in the number of online churches prompted several notable reports and research projects. The Barna Group released an ominous report in 1998 titled “The Cyberchurch Is Coming,” which predicted that by 2010 “we will probably have 10 percent to 20 percent of the population relying primarily or exclusively upon the internet for religious input.” Barna released a similar report in 2001 claiming that millions of people would “drop out of the physical church in favor of the cyberchurch.” In 2002, the Vatican report The Church and Internet explored the possible ways in which the internet could augment religious life; however, it unequivocally declared that the internet cannot be a substitute for offline community, sacraments, preaching, and embodied experience.

Along with these reports, scholars of sociology, religious studies, communications, theology, and other disciplines have researched and written about online churches. Scholarly discourse has tended to focus on the relationship between online and offline church, the legitimacy of online community, the practice of online ritual, and sacred space on the internet.

From the mid-2000s to the present, the practice of a local church having an “internet campus” has become widespread. An internet campus often involves a local congregation livestreaming a worship service so that individuals can watch, discuss, and interact with the content online. According to Hutchings, this has resulted in “shifting online churches from a niche curiosity to something much closer to becoming a mainstream religious practice” (Hutchings, 20).

The history of the online church reveals a persistent uncertainty about the relationship between the online church and the local church. Even this brief sketch of the history of the online church reveals how the online church and local church are deeply intertwined: Pastors of local churches have ended up doing ministry in virtual churches, and pastors doing ministry with an online church have encouraged people to meet with a local pastor. Religious institutions with an extensive brick-and-mortar presence have funded entirely web-based endeavors. Local congregations gather in a building but also livestream worship services so that people in other countries can watch, pray, sing, and comment. History does not reveal clear boundaries delineating the local church from the online church.

Online church scholars are equally unsettled on this topic. Some see the online church as competing with the local church; that is to say, the online church will slowly replace the local church because of its more capacious affordances. Other scholars argue that the online church supplements the local church; rather than replacing the local church, the online church can be a way to augment or expand the work of the local church. Some scholars have seen the online church as a way to attract new people who might be unreached by the local church; the online church is a form of evangelism that can extend the Christian mission (Campbell, 138-139). Lastly, some scholars have suggested that the online church will radically reorder traditional beliefs and ultimately result in a new form of religion. These competing views, like the multifaceted history of the online church, suggest that the lines separating the local church and the online church are anything but clear.

St. John Lutheran Church: An Ethnographic Study of Online Church 

Ethnography offers a way to humanize the study of online churches. While historical overviews and scholarly discourse may provide context and concepts, ethnography provides real people, places, and practices. In their book Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics, Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen argue that the discipline of theology has increasingly turned to ethnography as a tool for meaning-making. Historical and theoretical discourse tend toward broad views and sweeping claims; ethnography, on the other hand, prioritizes the particular: “Ethnography is a way to take particularity seriously—to discover truth revealed through embodied habits, relations, practices, narratives, and struggles” (Scharen and Vigen, XXI). A thorough exploration of online churches, therefore, requires some ethnographic research.

The following abbreviated ethnographic study of an online church is necessarily limited, but it provides texture and flesh-and-blood examples. It also illustrates the blurred boundaries between the local church and the online church. (As is common in ethnographies, the names—of this congregation, pastors, people—have been changed.)

At St. John Lutheran Church, they do not wear Oculus Go headsets or perform virtual baptisms. Rather, they eat sticky buns and drink coffee before worship begins.

At 10:45 on a Sunday morning, just before the worship service starts, people are still logging on. Pastor Mike, the online pastor at St. John, types a question into a chat box on the webpage: “Do you enjoy a special breakfast food while attending Church Online? I have a sticky bun this morning! ”

Online church participants “enter” the church by going to St. John’s website. The home page displays “Church Online” at the top of the webpage. This top banner also includes the church logo, links to various social media platforms, and hyperlinks to other pages. One of the links leads to an “About Us” page with information about St. John’s beliefs, history, ministries, and a way to “Plan Your Visit.” The content in this section of the website pertains to the local congregation located in a suburb of Denver.

Online participants click on the “Church Online” page. The top of this page has specific options related to church online functions: links to sign up for text messages, fill out a digital connect card, join the Facebook group, or seek assistance with technical issues. Below this is text that reads, “Connecting the Church Locally and Around the World.” While the online church page is always accessible, the format changes when St. John has a local worship service. At those times, a chat feature and live video feed of the worship service appear on the webpage.

Participants enter the online church and create a username: @Kay, @Rileyfam, @SNF, @deloresjean. Pastor Mike has a special identifier next to his username which indicates that he is the “Online Pastor.” He begins by personally welcoming each person on the chat (“Welcome @fred and @Barry07”). Some, but not all, of the participants reciprocate Pastor Mike’s personal greeting. Some individuals in the chatroom indicate where they are or what they doing: “Driving from Fort Collins.” All of this is happening as the opening worship songs are being sung on the video screen adjacent to the chat box. 

As the service begins, Pastor Mike makes some announcements about upcoming Easter services and encourages the congregants to invite someone to service. He does not specifically tell people which service—the local worship service or the online church service—they should invite people to attend. His request covers both options.

Individuals continue to enter the chatroom. Pastor Mike welcomes each person by their username as someone comments about recent church events:

@Otto: Thankful for a beautiful day yesterday for the Men’s Event

@PastorMike: It sure was @Otto. Praise God for the wonderful day!

The comment by @Otto refers to a men’s ministry event that was held at St. John’s local campus the previous day. Although Otto and Pastor Mike are conversing with one another through the online church platform, they were face-to-face the day before at this men’s ministry event.

After a time of pleasantries and announcements, the conversation within the chatroom shifts to what is happening in the local worship service. As the Scripture reading is happening on the worship video, Pastor Mike types a summary of the reading: “@PastorMike: The reckless love of God, that even while I’m still a sinner, Christ died for me. Romans 5:8.” Participants make frequent use of emojis.

During the announcements portion of the local church service, Pastor Mike invites people to attend an upcoming event: “@PastorMike: If you’re in the Denver area, I’d love to see you at this event.” This invitation reveals how some St. John’s online church attendees also attend worship and special events at the church’s local campus.  

During the sermon, as with other parts of the worship service, the conversation in the chatroom focuses on the content of the preaching. St. John’s senior pastor preaches the sermon while online church participants quote or expound on the content of the sermon:

@PastorMike: It sure is easy to fall into worry about things we can’t do anything about.

@Curtis: Don’t think about what happened yesterday, or worry about tomorrow, live each day. Each day is a blessing from God!

@PastorMike: It sure is, @Curtis

Finally, as the sermon concludes and the service draws to a close, the individuals in the chatroom offer up general comments and pleasantries. People say goodbye to one another, offer blessings on the week ahead, and share reflections on the service and message. Pastor Mike concludes with a very brief summation of the sermon and offers a link to more information about upcoming Easter services as people begin to exit the church by logging off.

Pastor Mike, Online Pastor

Mike never set out to be an online church pastor. In fact, he had not originally even set out to be a pastor. Mike majored in psychology and marketing in college, but he began to consider attending seminary in 2015: “People were continuously telling me that I would make a good pastor one day,” he said during a 2019 interview.

While he was considering seminary, the pastor at St. John Lutheran Church contacted Mike to see if he might be interested in serving on the church’s staff. The church was working on a new project—planting an online church—and they needed someone with technical knowledge to make it work. This invitation interested Mike but he did not really know what online church planting entailed. To further complicate the matter, Mike saw more barriers than opportunities: “It [online church] wasn’t something that I would have dreamed of or thought about…I thought there were so many impossibilities with church online.”

Three years later, Mike has a very different view of online churches. Where he once saw impossibilities, he now sees possibilities: “I see God doing some amazing stuff with how people are connecting and the intentionality of ministering online.” He is now Pastor Mike, the online pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church. As online campus pastor, Mike is expected to lead and develop the online presence of St. John Lutheran Church; this includes managing the information, resources, and online community of St. John’s Online Campus.

According to the online campus pastor job description, Mike’s work is to be both local and non-local:

“OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES: You’re not only a pastor to the internet, you’re a pastor. This includes being able to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, care for the sick, perform funerals, officiate weddings, provide counseling as needed, etc.”

Despite being an online church pastor, Mike has many responsibilities within the local parish. He divides his time and energy between online pastoral ministry (a quarter of his time) and serving as the congregation’s communications coordinator (three-quarters of his time): “Being an online pastor tends to be more like a part-time job while being a communications coordinator is my full time job here. So it’s kind of like being bi-vocational.” As communications coordinator, Mike manages web communication and social media, distributes sermon messages, and assists with printed communication.

Many of the interactions that Mike has as a pastor are digitally mediated. However, these interactions can have an impact on the local church. For example, one young man who attends St. John’s online church was previously active in his local congregation. During his teens, however, he stopped attending worship. He came across the online church and began to worship on a regular basis. “He started connecting with us online and really started to enjoy it and he was starting to get invested in church again,” Mike said. As this young man began to engage in the online church, it influenced his relationship with the local church: “He loved it so much that he started attending his dad’s congregation and helping out,” Mike said, noting that the online church led this young man back to the local church. Pastor Mike understands this story as indicative of how the online church relates to the local church: “This is a guy who was falling away from the church…God is moving in his heart and I don’t know if that would have happened without that initial first step online.”

Pastor Mike—a pastor shepherding an online church—interacts with people through unseen wireless radio waves. He splits his time between a local church and an online church. He takes a sermon preached in a brick-and-mortar sanctuary, posts it online, and engages in digital discussions with people as they sit in brick-and-mortar living rooms, coffee shops, and libraries. It is hard to separate which parts of his work are local or non-local, online or offline.    

The differences between a virtual reality baptism and a baptism at a local church are obvious. It is not difficult to find the ways in which these practices differ. The liminal space between the online church and the local church, however, is much harder to differentiate.

The space between online church and local church is fraught with questions: Has a local church changed into something different when it begins to broadcast its worship services on Facebook Live? Does posting teaching videos to a website turn a local church into an online church? Is a pastor an online pastor through the daily use of email, social media messaging, and internet-based preaching resources? The questions can also flow the other way as well: Does an online church become a local church if it meets offline for worship? What if an individual divides time between a church’s online campus and local campus? Is one more important or more “real” than the other?

These questions reveal how a sharp delineation between online church and local church is no longer tenable. Peter Fischer-Nielsen and Stefan Gelfgren, in the concluding chapter of Digital Religion, Social Media, and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, and Futures, argue that the conversation should be framed in a new way: “Instead of treating church and digital media as an isolated field, the research must move in the direction of doing broader research on church in a digital age” (Cheong, Fischer-Nielsen, Gelfgren, and Ess,  294). While there may have been a time when the online church and the local church were very different entities, the spread of the internet into every nook and cranny of life is making this distinction hard to maintain: “Even if the digital religious opportunities continue to be nothing but a supplement to the Sunday service and social life of the local community, they will have an influence that must be observed” (Cheong, Fischer-Nielsen, Gelfgren, and Ess,  299).

When a church has an ethernet cord running in its building, it is part of the church in a digital age. When worshippers carry internet-connected devices into the sanctuary, then that congregation is part of the church in a digital age. When a church creates a Facebook page, it is part of the church in a digital age. While countless questions about online church practices and theology surely remain, one question that we can answer with confidence is that the vast majority of our local churches have indeed passed through the liminal space and officially belong to the church in the digital age.


A. Trevor Sutton is a Lutheran pastor, author, and PhD student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. His latest book is Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in this Age of Confusion (Concordia Publishing House, 2018). Visit www.atrevorsutton.com to learn more.


Works Cited

Barna Research Group. “The cyberchurch is coming: National survey of teenagers shows expectation of substituting Internet for corner church.” Barna Research Online Home Page (1998).

Barna Research Group. “More Americans are seeking net-based faith experiences.” Barna Research Online Home Page 21 (2001).

Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Cheong, Pauline Hope, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren, and Charles Ess. Digital Religion, Social Media, and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, and Futures. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2012.

Fjeldstad, Arne H. 2000. “Cyberchurches.” Communicating Christ on the Information Superhighway. https://web.archive.org/web/20010801144133/http://www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/1541/cybchur.html.

Gelfgren, Stefan, and Tim Hutchings. “The Virtual Construction of the Sacred: Representation and Fantasy in the Architecture of Second Life Churches.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society. Vol. 27, No. 1 (2014) 59-73.

Hernandez, Patricia. “Watch in Awe as a Real Pastor Baptizes an Anime Girl in a Video Game.” Polygon, May 20, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/2019/5/20/18632723/vr-chat-baptism-anime-girl-dj-soto.

Hutchings, Tim. Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community, and New Media. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “The Church and Internet.” February 22, 2002. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20020228_church-internet_en.html.

Richardson, Cyril C., ed. The Library of Christian Classics: Early Christian Fathers Vol. 1., Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.

Scharen, Christian, and Aana Marie Vigen, eds. Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics. New York: Continuum, 2011.

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