With the rise of digitalization, the world is more connected than ever. This offers many opportunities, such as studying abroad from the comfort of home or expanding global business prospects with just a few clicks. Digital technology also allows families separated by distance to connect instantly through video calls. However, digital connectivity does not necessarily equate to community.
As the pandemic has shown us, we thrive in a community when we are able to hold a healthy tension between in-person gatherings and virtual space. A recent article I read gave me a new perspective on how in-person and virtual connection has biblical precedence and can complement each other to foster an authentic community of faith.
The Value of In-person Ministry
From what we read in New Testament accounts, Jesus conducted His ministry in person – teaching, discipling, and fellowshipping with His disciples. The obvious benefit is that the disciples were able to see their Rabbi live out His faith authentically through their life-on-life interactions. They saw His devotion to God through His baptism (Matt 3:13-17); His frequent time away with God in prayer (Luke 5:16). They even witnessed His struggle and subsequent submission to God’s will at the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). They observed and learned; and after being empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, went on to carry out Jesus’ ministry faithfully.
The Case for Virtual Ministry
However, there is biblical precedent for virtual connection. While Paul made 3 missionary trips and impacted numerous people in person, he also used the media of his time to stay connected with the churches when he was unable to be physically present. He wrote letters to the churches to teach and equip them in matters of worship practices, discipleship and church discipline. In addition, he discipled individuals (i.e. Timothy and Titus). Paul was actively involved in church life even though he was separated from them geographically. However, we must note that Paul still expressed his longing to be (physically) present with them (Phil 1:8). This yearning is one that we too have experienced over the past couple of years.
Building an Authentic Community of Faith
In-person or virtual, the end goal is to build an authentic community of faith – a group of people who are in a relationship with Christ and with one another. It is almost impossible to have an authentic community without life-on-life interactions. When we meet irregularly, or only through online platforms, it is easy to hide behind a façade or to avoid tough questions. Life-on-life allows us to be transparent and accountable. It allows disciples to imitate their disciple-makers just as they imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
Without virtual means, we miss out on many opportunities to gather and be equipped. We praise God for the 213 who benefited from virtual equipping events (Essentials for Survival: 25, Christianity Explored: 29, Berean Webinar – “Heaven is a Wonderful Place”: 159). In terms of discipleship, digital technology allows us to keep in touch with one another throughout the week.
We cannot grow as an authentic community of faith without relational frequency. If we only meet twice a month in person as a Small Group Church, and do not make the additional effort to meet in person or virtually, we may find it difficult to become the kind of authentic community that we wish to be. It takes time, effort and sacrifice on our part, but let us grow to be comfortable in the tension of utilising the digital realm for growth and edification while making every effort to participate in an authentic in-person community.
By Asst. Pastor Samuel Lin