It'll be obvious that community itself can not be church. 1 Thessalonians 1:1, points this out for us, the church "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Separating it from normal gatherings, from religious gathering and from Jewish gatherings. This is Christian. This is not just a gathering of people, but a gathering of people with a purpose.
I am borrowing from two sources to get a minimalist idea of church, Calvin and Yoder. Calvin’s Institutes sets out 2 marks of the church:
- Ministry of the word
- Administration of the sacraments
Yoder takes a more thorough approach to what constitutes church and therefore Christian community. In Body Politics: Five practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, he focuses on 5 areas:
- Binding and loosing (discipline and reconciliation)
- Breaking bread together
- The fullness of Christ (ministry)
- Congregational dialogue/decision making
Yoder sees these acts within the context of the church as making social statements outside the Christian world. In the Gospels (and continuing into Acts), for example, the disciples left friends, family and job in order to participate in the new community, this included sharing a common meal as a way of providing for those who had little.
Dialogue is of great importance to Yoder’s idea of church, "conflict is socially useful because by dealing with it, we grow in our relationships to each other." The reputation of the church is not the concern, but the quality of the koinonia (Fellowship).
Paul, Calvin and Yoder need to be seriously considered. Of Yoder’s five practices of Christian community, none of them can be done (effectively) over the internet! Neither could the sacraments that lay at the heart of Calvin’s definition. And Paul’s imagery of the Body and the local church is done a great injustice by the concept of internet church.
Any definition of church that is chosen makes internet church at the very least inappropriate and at worst it is, according to Calvin, a desertion "of the truth and of the household of God" and a violation "of the mystical marriage."