The Greek word for church is 'ekklesia'. In today's English what this means is a "gathering", an "assembly" or a "town-hall meeting" if citizens. If it is an 'ekklesia' of God or Christ that means it is a gathering of people who belong to Jesus Christ. Paul said to the Christians at Corinth, "You are not your own, you are bought with a price". (1 Cor. 6:20). So when people who truly belong to Christ gather together, it is is the church.
I do not believe that there is anything in the New Testament to say that an authentic church is defined in terms of "physical presence". That is not to say our bodies are unimportant in worship. I think our bodies ARE important, because they express our ATTITUDE towards God and they are also TEMPLES of the Holy Spirit which should be reserved FOR GOD. But the physical location of our bodies is not what defines "presence" – neither does it define "belonging".
You can belong to a local church even if you are away for a few weeks.
You can connect meaningfully with people in your local church over the telephone.
As long as there is genuine heart to heart INTERACTION, you can have fellowship.
Paul talked about being absent in body, but present in spirit.
"for I indeed, as being absent as to the body, and present as to the spirit, have already judged, as being present, him who so wrought this thing:" (1 Cor. 5:3 – Youngs Literal Translation)
As long as we really ARE present in spirit, and its not just a cliche, then we really CAN be part of a gathering together in the Lord's name.
The New Testament uses a number of METAPHORS to describe the true nature of the church. Its important that we realise that these are METAPHORS – each pointing to an essential part of the meaning of church without fully defining the meaning of "church" or "ekklesia". The church is described as a BODY, a BRIDE, an ARMY, a HOUSE, a TEMPLE, a FELLOWSHIP and more. Each of these metaphors contribute to our total understanding of what CHURCH means – none of them fully define it.
I would argue that all of these metaphors point to a reality which can be expressed in the online world fully.
Churches need to be planted in the places people live, and today, many people actually LIVE in the online world.
Douglas Estes in his book "SimChurch" says on page 37, "Let's loosely define a virtual church as a virtually localized assembly of the people of God dwelling in meaningful community with the task of building the kingdom." I think thats a useful definition.
Is the Virtual World Real?
It is possible to create "worlds" online which are man-made worlds rather than worlds directly created by God. These worlds are "synthetic" but just because they are synthetic does not mean that they are not "real".
I find that people online are often far more "REAL" and AUTHENTIC and HONEST in their relationships than people who attend social functions or gatherings in a physical place together. Whether people are offline or online, they can wear masks. When people wear masks, true fellowship is diminished.
I can go online and find professing Christians who will easily open up about all kinds of sinful behavior that they are engaged in, and they are dealing with. It would be harder to see this happen in a regular church meeting. So often, regular church meetings are about singing together, hearing a message and then engaging in superficial chit-chat after the meeting, with masks firmly in place. It doesn't have to be that way in meeting where people get together physically, but it often is. But is this "real"? It all depends on your definition of reality. I think the reality that God is interested in is expressed in words like "authenticity", "honesty", "openness" as well as "truthfulness". The online world is a place where if people choose to, they can express all these characteristics sometimes more readily than they can or will in a formal setting.