There is a danger coming down the road that most of us in the Church are unprepared for. With the evolution of technology, society faces the temptation to move beyond the physical organized church. The Pandemic has hit a lot of churches hard and has revealed how much value the church actually has to people. In a recent interview with DJ Soto and Nona Jones with Cary Nieuwhof, Nona Jones made a revealing statement. According to her, only 40% of church goers before the Pandemic are returning to church and taking into account that only 20% of American's are regular church attenders around 92% of "Americans are not going to a weekend worship service." The Pandemic has revealed how important most Americans think the physical gathering of the church actually is.
In this same interview, Bishop DJ Soto and Nona Jones advocated for churches to explore the metaverse and what it can offer for the church. In light of statistics such as the one above and the advent of new technology, it might be tempting to jump on board and abandon the physical church for a virtual or meta church. Let me say from the beginning, I am not opposed to using the metaverse for outreach and supplemental ministry, but it cannot replace the physical local gathering of the believers. I have previously made the argument that the church needs to rediscover what it was called to be if we are going to survive in the face of evolving technology. This article is intended to advocate for the benefits of a physical gathering of believers.
Beware of Gnostic Thinking in the Church
Paul and the early church had to fight many forms of false teaching that was trying to enter the early church. One of these movements was Gnosticism which according to David Davidson was a mixture of Christianity, Platonic thought and Zoroastrian mysticism. Gnostics claimed to seek salvation through secret hidden knowledge. While there were many forms of gnosticism, the mainline central concept that united them was a belief that the material world was evil and the metaphysical world was good. This cosmic dualism believed that the true Supreme diety was called the Pleroma, a spirit world. The Pleroma emanates different Aeons which are personified attributes of the Pleroma. From these emanated the Demiurge a mixture of the physical and the spirit world. The Demiurge was viewed as darkness and Malevolence and created the physical world. Jehovah of the Old Testament is considered to be the Demiurge and thus a false God. Christ is viewed as the Supreme Aeon who comes into this fallen world to save the Spirits trapped in their evil physical bodies. This salvation would allow their spirits to join with the Pleroma again. Obviously, this is a simplified explanation of Gnosticism, but it will give us a working framework to build off of here.
This dualistic thinking can sometimes permeate the church so that the physical is viewed as evil and the intellectual, emotional, or metaphysical is viewed as godly. We can see this in the early church expressed through Monasticism which sought to abuse the "flesh" so the spirit could soar. In Christianity today, there is a smaller group of people who would also deny any pleasure in life unless it is directly ministry oriented. This is again a return to gnostic thinking in Christianity.
Now how does this apply to our discussion about the Metachurch? With the virtual world of the metaverse, Christianity becomes separated from the physical world and becomes a world we experience with our minds. True physical connection is lost. Social media has for years touted that people are more connected through Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and yet, studies have found that 61% of young people struggle with loneliness in spite of being the most digitally connected generation of all time. With the metachurch, there is the opportunity to make new connections with people who might be across the world, suffering from social disorders, or practically unchurch and yet we can lose something in that connection. As we form a view of church and worship it is important for us to ground ourselves in a proper understanding of the physical nature of worship.
Understand the Physical Nature of Worship
It is important to understand at the beginning that God has called us to glorify him with both our body and our soul. 1Corinthians 6:20 "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s." Both the body and the spirit belong to God and both have the ability to glorify God. There is no cosmic dualism. When God created mankind in the garden, He created them good: both body and spirit.
Within the bible there are multiple words used for worship. In the OT, the most common word for worship is חןה (hawah) which literally means to bow down. Other forms carry the idea of work, giving homage and copying the thing worshipped. All of these OT usages carry a physical expression to worship.
Within the NT, the most common word for worship is προσκυνεω (proskenuo) which talks about bending over at the waist. From this Greek word, we get the idea of prorating oneself. Again a physical expression of worship. Worship is not just something we feel or think about. Worship is expressed physically in our bodies.
The Psalms are literally the worship handbook for the bible. Throughout the 150 Psalms of worship, we find many physical expressions of worship such as singing, clapping, bowing, kneeling, lifting our hands in praise, dancing, shouting and even merely staring in awe of God.
Worship is intended to be a whole being exercise and expression. Psalm 16:9 says
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: My flesh also shall rest in hope.
The phrase "my glory" is an awkward expression and does not easily conveigh the meaning behind this verse. Literally. it refers to heaviness, honor or presence. A better gloss of the phrase could be my "whole being." God doesn't just want to be worshiped with our heart and mind, but with everything that we are: our whole being.
Understand the Psychological benefits of Physical Connection
While Psychology does not determine our faith and practice, sometimes it can speak to what the Bible is trying to show us. According to an article on psychologicalscience.org in 2018, physical touch can aid in memory. Touch can create longer lasting durable memories. This is my opinion here, but I feel like much of the experiences in the metaverse will be transient because the mind will interpret them more as a dream than a physical reality. Have you ever had the experience where something looked so real but it wasn't. Our natural response is to reach out and try to touch it to confirm its reality. We explore the real world not just with out minds, but with our bodies. We confirm reality with them and we make lasting connections with them.
Physical presence aids in building relationships. Just being next to someone you love fosters a deeper relationship with them. That "nearness" is not accomplished merely by talking. Ask any dating couple if they would rather talk on the phone with their significant other or be physically together talking. Just being in the same room with people we are connected to adds to the connection.
One of the biggest issues with digital communication has been the lack of physical expression in our communication. How often do we enter disagreements because the words in a text or facebook post did not accurately convey how we felt. Raise eyebrows, the twinkle in our eyes, our smile and even our hand motions add layers of meaning to our communication that is lost in digital communication. The metaverse is advancing technology that will seek to fix this problem through haptic suits, but the average person will not be able to afford such technology. The avatars we use will not convey these layers of meaning as easily if at all.
I am not trying to say that we should avoid using the metaverse. My argument is that the metaverse should be viewed as an added layer and not a replacement for the physical gathering of the believers. It would also be a mistake to assume that the metaverse does not have a physical nature to is at all. We will interact with the metaverse through our eyes and our ears which are both physical, but we are losing that "whole being" experience. Many do not value the physical expression of the church because church has devolved to just an entertainment or a group listening to a lecture. We all know that we can do that at home. Just watch Netflix or load sermon audio. There must be more to church than watching a service for people to value the physical gathering of the believers. There needs to be connection, edification, group worship and relationship. When we come to a service at the last minute and then leave right after the service, we are falling into the trap of an entertainment style worship.
“Touch Can Produce Detailed, Lasting Memories.” Association for Psychological Science - APS, 27 Nov. 2018, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/touch-can-produce-detailed-lasting-memories.html.
Hendel, Steven. “The Psychology of Human Touch: Why Physically Connecting with Others Improves Well-Being.” The Emotion Machine, 8 Dec. 2020, https://www.theemotionmachine.com/the-psychology-of-human-touch-why-physically-connecting-with-others-improves-well-being/.
Nieuwhof, Cary. CNLP 470 –with Nona-Jones-and-DJ-Soto (Completed 01/12/22 ... https://careynieuwhof.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/CNLP_470-%E2%80%93With_Nona-Jones-and-DJ-Soto.pdf.
Cashin, Ali. “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness.” Making Caring Common, Making Caring Common, 13 Dec. 2021, https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america.
Davidson, David. “What Did Ancient Heresy Mean for the Early Church?” The Logos Blog, 28 May 2021, https://blog.logos.com/gnosticism-gnostics-christianity-church/.