How Do You Define a Church?

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

A professor/blogger alerted me to a recent court decision denying tax-exempt status to a group called The Foundation for Human Understanding who did not meet the IRS definition of a church.

The judge’s decision makes an argument that FHU members listening to a radio program together does not mean they associate together and gather for communal worship.  I don’t know enough about FHU or tax law to take a stand on whether or not this is a good ruling, but it does raise some interesting questions for me.

First of all, it makes sense that the IRS would have a definition of a church, because the IRS treats churches differently from other kinds of organizations. But it’s also kind of surprising. It got me wondering, if I was a bureaucrat making guidelines for what a church is, for tax purposes, what would I include?

It also got me thinking, aside from tax law, do I think there could be a real church online? Obviously, an online church would have big differences from the church I experience, but many of the functions could happen in new ways. You could be accountable for your attendance either way, either from your physical presence or your appearance as “online.” You can build relationships through conversation and discussion online much like you can in a brick and mortar church. You could lead prayers and declare God’s word online. We’ve talked before about how putting church services online can be a real blessing to people who cannot get to a physical church, for a number of reasons.

On the other hand, there are some things you just can’t do at a distance. You can broadcast a group singing together, but it doesn’t sound fuller if everyone joins in from a distance. Maybe in the future we can find the technology for that. In many communion services the minister says “we who are many are one body, for we all share the same loaf.”  Does the sacrament work the same way if you do not share in the same loaf? There are other aspects of physical church that I would definitely miss. Hugs, handshakes, a spontaneous conversation with someone new over a cup of coffee, the ability to look in someone’s eyes when you ask how they are, and follow up if they look like the answer is not good.

So do I believe an online worship service or an online community would be significantly different from church as I know it? Absolutely. Do I think it’s so different it isn’t a church anymore? I’m still on the fence. I am not sure if online community can have the kind of sacramental body dedicated to service that I think a true church is. But those are pretty tough criteria for brick and mortar churches to meet too, so I’m open to the possibility that it can happen through technology; I just don’t see how yet.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Media