Gregory E. Reynolds
No, you won't find the word "discarnation" in an ordinary dictionary. I can still remember my dismay in 1998, as I was doing research for a book on preaching and its relationship to the electronic media, when I discovered the First Church of Cyberspace. In 1994, the PCUSA founded this unusual "church" (at godweb.org). Despite its bold assertions of the virtues of the "virtual church," the reality is that the Internet is the perfect medium to transcend the nasty imperfections encountered in the real church. This "church" offers the complete escape from space and time. The site audaciously announces: "We are the first to organize within cyberspace itself ... making connections, building relationships, supporting people who are interested in growing in faith and understanding." One church website designer makes the extravagant claim that "all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet."1 This is precisely what McLuhan meant by "discarnate." This danger represents a modern version of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a syncretistic religion of self-illumination that viewed the material world as evil and thus something to be transcended.
Equally serious is the arrogant "trendier than thou" attitude that getting one's church on the Internet is keeping pace with the so-called real world. The First Church of Cyberspace announces its presumptuous motto: "Building a Church for the New Millennium Now." C. S. Lewis's "chronological snobbery" sums up this pervasive mentality nicely. We live in a world that falls in love with the latest thing, while disdaining everything else. The "Minister of Technology" of a Presbyterian megachurch opined that a failure to come up to speed technologically will render the church "completely irrelevant."2 The irony here is that the church that is addicted to novelty and relevance tends to make itself irrelevant because it conforms itself to the very world it is called to transform.
By consecrating opc.org to the service of the church's Lord, we hope not only to avoid the Internet's tendency toward "discarnation" and naïve optimism, but also to communicate the great heritage with which we have been entrusted. The Website Subcommittee seeks to assist the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to be a good steward of the Internet through its website. Our ecological approach to the medium constrains us to be thoughtful in assessing its benefits and liabilities and in appreciating the message(s) and tendencies built into it.
In doing so, we always need to be asking how this particular medium enhances or diminishes our humanity in relation to God and others. Our church's approach to being on the Web has, from the inception of opc.org, been precisely that. We have proceeded slowly on the assumption that something may be new without necessarily being improved. We are daily learning to ask the difficult questions in order to implement an approach that we believe glorifies God by helping build the visible church of his incarnate Son.
The visible church is called to be the body of Christ, his embassy on earth, the community of believers. Our Confession says that "the visible church" consists of "all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (WCF, 25.2). This implies something that was assumed by all generations until the invention of the telegraphthat face-to-face, space-time relationships are the fabric of human life, conceived as covenantal. Even as the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, so the church, as the people of God, is the steward of the mystery of this Incarnation.
Thus, visible is not synonymous with visual, but rather with historical, space-time reality. Even when pen and ink were the only means of long-distance communication, John understood that nothing replaces face-to-face communion with others. "I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name" (3 John 13-14 nkjv). The very word communication, which means "communion or fellowship among persons," alerts us to the biblical importance of personal presence. So we wrestle with the electronic challenge to face-to-face communications and relationships.
Let's look briefly at two important features of opc.orgone a good deal more interactive than the other.
The challenge of being good stewards by asking the difficult questions is never more obvious than in the "Questions and Answers" feature at opc.org. It provides a way to answer basic biblical and theological questions. When questioners seek, wittingly or unwittingly, to undermine church authority or supplant the benefit of face-to-face personal ministry, we direct the questioner to a local church and its pastor. We view matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates to be beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that questioners present their concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatories of the visible church. In most cases, this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace, but rather to enhance, personal involvement in, and commitment to, the local church. We are aware of several people who have become members of local OP churches as a result of the Q&A feature.
Here is an example of how one of our responders recently answered a troubled person who had a very serious problem to deal with:
_______, you are obviously struggling with a very painful situation. I want you to speak with your pastor about this matter. If you do not have a church home, would you tell me what city you live in? I could then give you the name of a local pastor who can provide you with godly counsel.
I was grateful for the opportunity to pray for you today. Please, if you do not have a church home, let me know. I will do my best to help you find a strong local church.
The Website Subcommittee has also developed responses to other questions that go beyond the scope of the Q&A mission or transgress the ethical boundaries of godly communication.
The Q&A page (the third button down on the home page menu bar) is well organized, so that the visitor may view the question of the "previous week" and the question "coming up next week." Two comprehensive indexes are provided: chronological and topic. Only a small number of all the questions are posted for public consumption. These are edited to remove all personal references and to make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.
Beyond helping random inquirers and Web surfers find out more about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Q&A page is an excellent resource for the local church. Leaders and members should use it often as a resource for inquirers and as a resource for well-articulated answers to difficult questions. Ideally, one could read and digest the answer to a particular question and then give it in one's own words to an inquirer, since face-to-face communication always represents our incarnate Lord best.
The Trinity Hymnal Concordance page (reached by the fifth button from the bottom on the home page menu bar) provides a powerful resource to aid the church in its most important activity: public worship. Choosing psalms and hymns that reinforce the theme of the sermon is a major weekly task for the minister of the Word, for he understands that congregational singing is an important extension of that ministry. The concordance offers a powerful search engine to help locate hymn texts (in the original edition of Trinity Hymnal) by word, phrase, or hymn number. One may also listen to the tunes provided in midi files. This is an enormous help for learning the rich and vast heritage available in our hymnal. The committee, along with its administrative and technical staff, is working on getting the revised edition of Trinity Hymnal online.
No website can in any way replace the visible church. However, with a biblical doctrine of the church it may be used as an invaluable informational resource in building the body of Jesus Christ. If you have not explored opc.org, please do so today.
1. Darryl Hart, "No Assembly Required," Nicotine Theological Journal 3, no. 3 (July 1999): 1.
2. Ibid. I owe the apt phrase "trendier than thou" to the late Charles Dennison, historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The author is the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, N.H., and a member of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2005