Had a parking lot conversation recently about virtual church. A friend asked me what I thought about the prospects of community via social media and the like. I told him if you were on a deserted island, then yeah, community through computer screen, whether "attending" a worship service, fellowship through ichat, or communing via e-mail or Facebook is better than nothing. But how many of us are really in those circumstances? My fear is that this option becomes the convenient choice to the more difficult but ultimately more rewarding and essential task of actual relating.
To state the obvious, virtual community has its limitations. For one, it seems to me that much of the New Testament cannot be lived out without a real physical community that you literally bump into. Though it is admittedly possible to experience aspects of connection virtually, it is ultimately a challenge to break bread together, to forgive one another, comfort one another, speak truth, and encourage one another short of actual presence with one another. There is something to be said that the Son of God became human in Jesus and came to dwell among us. At precisely this point, Christian spiritually is enfleshed, it is embodied. Godliness looks human, not digital. God becoming flesh and walking in this world was in direct opposition to gnostic abstraction of the day. Arguably, both the Old and New Testaments describe God's people always as a very real people who gather together. Location and physicality are inherent in the expression of authentic faith.
Which leads to the related, and possibly bigger issue: Without a real, particular community that assumes a specific context, it is impossible for a church community to bear witness to the particularities of Christ in its midst. In other words, church is always socially located. If (and I assume it is) the church is the apologetic for faith, then that church is a real people who paint the outlines of the kingdom via their mutual life together, a life that can be seen, touched, and heard as a gathered reality, not just an abstract or idealistic one. For Christ to be made believable (trustworthy, verifiable), there must be a real visible community that gathers, worships, serves, and celebrates the Lord's Supper together - not just a virtual one. This goes directly to the issue of mission. Without a gathered body, bearing witness to Jesus in its very life as the people of God, in a particular social context, the church can barely be called missional. Virtually, the church at best is a mere shadow of itself.
This is the limitation of an on-line community. I am not saying there are not vestiges of community made possible through virtual means, certainly there are. But at the same time it must be said that it falls short of mitigating the tendencies of modernity to mimic true relating where physicality is necessity, not ancillary to true spirituality. The I-thou encounter of the first humans in Genesis 1 suggest that we are always ensouled bodies and enbodied souls, and that this flesh-to-flesh encounter with one another is partly what it means to be fully human and fully alive to God.