Making Our Home in a Virtual World

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In the Hebrew flood story, God instructs Noah to build an ark because rain will descend upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights to destroy everything. What we may not remember is that Noah and his family were on the ark for a year.

The biblical narrative does not describe what transpired during that period of unparalleled precipitation and waiting. Only that Noah boarded the boat with a promise from God and a singular task: keep his family and the animals alive.

The flood story serves as a kind of metaphor for the global pandemic from which we, more than a year later, are only now beginning to emerge. Like Noah, we have been in survival mode for a long time. We are waiting for the waters to recede.

As churches, seminaries, and other Christian organizations have begun resuming physical gatherings, one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will likely be the normative occurrence of online worship and learning. Zoom, the virtual communication platform, has become a verb and nearly as ubiquitous as “Google it.” Zoom has managed to perform a miracle by ushering even the most digitally resistant churches into the 21st century.

For the church to question a virtual future is an ark that many would argue has already sailed. But the question remains: To what end? How does virtual gathering form or malform us as persons and Christian communities? What are the real and potential gains and losses of online formation, learning, and worship?

The biggest gain from online spaces, and probably the most obvious, is accessibility. Aside from the occasional inconvenience of differing time zones, online opportunities expand the capacity to connect with others beyond geographical limitations. Fuller Chapel, church services, spiritual direction, contemplative practices, and mental health resources have, for many participants, been surprisingly engaging and intimate online.

The meaning of virtual accessibility also extends beyond geophysical limitations to include persons for whom physical spaces can elicit certain challenges. For instance, those inclined to social anxiety, introversion, or who are more reticent to verbal sharing may find their “voices” through online chat features that are unavailable in person. As one colleague reminded me, even in physical spaces a person can feel unseen. Virtual platforms have a way of equalizing personal space by assigning each a square, with everyone’s face visible, and handy name tags. Former Fuller Chaplain Inés Velásquez-McBryde has pointed out, “As opposed to in-person church services, when online, you are not looking at the back of someone’s head.” While the loss of physical touch in online spaces can be immense, Fuller Apprenticeship Director Megan Kirk has noted that connection and a sense of what is “real” can be different for different people: “Some people are more comfortable connecting through ideas (head) rather than physical touch or presence (body), making online learning a good option.”

On the flip side, there are good reasons why most of us would rather dine with our friends around a table or hug our grandchildren in person rather than wave to them on a tablet. Since the first century, the church has been known as a community of people who gather physically, rooted in a particular place and time. When Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” this promise can be extended to online meetings, but do we miss something in virtual space? What we cannot do is climb through our screens to be present in the same way that our bodies can. If Martin Buber is correct in asserting that “I-Thou” encounters between one another and God are the material of spiritual transformation, how do we understand those encounters if they are mediated through pixelated light?

It can be argued that the advantage of online education is that the learner is not removed from their ministry context. But that also assumes the student participates in a context capable of providing the “action-reflection” required of praxis learning. Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us that the Benedictine tradition of shoulder-to-shoulder “prayer and work” greatly enhances the power to think and to bend one’s being around truths otherwise not accessible to us. This is difficult to reproduce online.

If we’re honest, we must also acknowledge the loss of serendipitous formation that occurs because informal, impromptu conversations are possible through in-person interaction: coming in and out of classrooms, bumping into colleagues on campus, processing the day’s lecture with classmates over coffee. At this juncture, nothing in the online world effectively replicates this. With the convenience and increased demand for online options, it is safe to assume that virtual spaces created for spiritual resources and interpersonal connection are here to stay. But we can genuinely ask, “Does our spiritual development really need more convenience? Do we really need less committed people?”

Even so, the primary question may not be whether we prefer online spaces more than physical ones or vice versa, but how we make our home in both. As Julie Tai, Fuller’s director of chapel, has keenly noted, “In this we have much to learn from immigrant and migrant communities who continue to evolve amid shifting circumstances in creating a sense of place and home.” My chaplain colleague Brenda Bertrand has said, “Here the Benedictines’ vow of stability can help us frame the conversation: Wherever I am, there is never a better place or better community for me than here. Thus, I become more rooted in the unknowing and change. Spiritual space in cyber space leads us to accept the unknown and uncertain.” 

Someday soon, the dove will be sent out and return no more. On that day, like Noah and his family, we will step back out into a world that is much different than the one we left. At the very least, we will be different. How different exactly, who can say? But this is certain: As people of the covenant, we are invited by God to join the Spirit in (re)creating the earth anew—a world more accessible to everyone, and where our capacities for flourishing are as at-home in cyberspace as they are on land.

kevin doi

Kevin Doi (MDiv ’94) is a seminary chaplain and adjunct professor teaching Asian American pastoral ministry at Fuller Seminary. Prior to his time at Fuller, Kevin was founder and senior pastor of Epic Church in Fullerton, California, for 20 years. He earned his MDiv from Fuller and his DMin from Northern Seminary. He is also cofounder of JOYA Scholars, a nonprofit organization preparing first-generation students toward higher education.

In the Hebrew flood story, God instructs Noah to build an ark because rain will descend upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights to destroy everything. What we may not remember is that Noah and his family were on the ark for a year.

The biblical narrative does not describe what transpired during that period of unparalleled precipitation and waiting. Only that Noah boarded the boat with a promise from God and a singular task: keep his family and the animals alive.

The flood story serves as a kind of metaphor for the global pandemic from which we, more than a year later, are only now beginning to emerge. Like Noah, we have been in survival mode for a long time. We are waiting for the waters to recede.

As churches, seminaries, and other Christian organizations have begun resuming physical gatherings, one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will likely be the normative occurrence of online worship and learning. Zoom, the virtual communication platform, has become a verb and nearly as ubiquitous as “Google it.” Zoom has managed to perform a miracle by ushering even the most digitally resistant churches into the 21st century.

For the church to question a virtual future is an ark that many would argue has already sailed. But the question remains: To what end? How does virtual gathering form or malform us as persons and Christian communities? What are the real and potential gains and losses of online formation, learning, and worship?

The biggest gain from online spaces, and probably the most obvious, is accessibility. Aside from the occasional inconvenience of differing time zones, online opportunities expand the capacity to connect with others beyond geographical limitations. Fuller Chapel, church services, spiritual direction, contemplative practices, and mental health resources have, for many participants, been surprisingly engaging and intimate online.

The meaning of virtual accessibility also extends beyond geophysical limitations to include persons for whom physical spaces can elicit certain challenges. For instance, those inclined to social anxiety, introversion, or who are more reticent to verbal sharing may find their “voices” through online chat features that are unavailable in person. As one colleague reminded me, even in physical spaces a person can feel unseen. Virtual platforms have a way of equalizing personal space by assigning each a square, with everyone’s face visible, and handy name tags. Former Fuller Chaplain Inés Velásquez-McBryde has pointed out, “As opposed to in-person church services, when online, you are not looking at the back of someone’s head.” While the loss of physical touch in online spaces can be immense, Fuller Apprenticeship Director Megan Kirk has noted that connection and a sense of what is “real” can be different for different people: “Some people are more comfortable connecting through ideas (head) rather than physical touch or presence (body), making online learning a good option.”

On the flip side, there are good reasons why most of us would rather dine with our friends around a table or hug our grandchildren in person rather than wave to them on a tablet. Since the first century, the church has been known as a community of people who gather physically, rooted in a particular place and time. When Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” this promise can be extended to online meetings, but do we miss something in virtual space? What we cannot do is climb through our screens to be present in the same way that our bodies can. If Martin Buber is correct in asserting that “I-Thou” encounters between one another and God are the material of spiritual transformation, how do we understand those encounters if they are mediated through pixelated light?

It can be argued that the advantage of online education is that the learner is not removed from their ministry context. But that also assumes the student participates in a context capable of providing the “action-reflection” required of praxis learning. Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us that the Benedictine tradition of shoulder-to-shoulder “prayer and work” greatly enhances the power to think and to bend one’s being around truths otherwise not accessible to us. This is difficult to reproduce online.

If we’re honest, we must also acknowledge the loss of serendipitous formation that occurs because informal, impromptu conversations are possible through in-person interaction: coming in and out of classrooms, bumping into colleagues on campus, processing the day’s lecture with classmates over coffee. At this juncture, nothing in the online world effectively replicates this. With the convenience and increased demand for online options, it is safe to assume that virtual spaces created for spiritual resources and interpersonal connection are here to stay. But we can genuinely ask, “Does our spiritual development really need more convenience? Do we really need less committed people?”

Even so, the primary question may not be whether we prefer online spaces more than physical ones or vice versa, but how we make our home in both. As Julie Tai, Fuller’s director of chapel, has keenly noted, “In this we have much to learn from immigrant and migrant communities who continue to evolve amid shifting circumstances in creating a sense of place and home.” My chaplain colleague Brenda Bertrand has said, “Here the Benedictines’ vow of stability can help us frame the conversation: Wherever I am, there is never a better place or better community for me than here. Thus, I become more rooted in the unknowing and change. Spiritual space in cyber space leads us to accept the unknown and uncertain.” 

Someday soon, the dove will be sent out and return no more. On that day, like Noah and his family, we will step back out into a world that is much different than the one we left. At the very least, we will be different. How different exactly, who can say? But this is certain: As people of the covenant, we are invited by God to join the Spirit in (re)creating the earth anew—a world more accessible to everyone, and where our capacities for flourishing are as at-home in cyberspace as they are on land.

Written By

Kevin Doi (MDiv ’94) is a seminary chaplain and adjunct professor teaching Asian American pastoral ministry at Fuller Seminary. Prior to his time at Fuller, Kevin was founder and senior pastor of Epic Church in Fullerton, California, for 20 years. He earned his MDiv from Fuller and his DMin from Northern Seminary. He is also cofounder of JOYA Scholars, a nonprofit organization preparing first-generation students toward higher education.

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