Is “virtual ministry” an oxymoron?

We are living in a world of “virtual reality.” I never liked that term; it seems self-contradictory – if it is ‘virtual,’ it’s somehow not ‘real.’ It strikes me as an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp,” “open secret” or “liquid gas.”

Google’s definitions of “virtual” are: almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition; not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so; carried out, accessed, or stored by means of a computer, especially over a network. It is this third definition that applies to virtual worship, virtual classrooms, virtual meetings, etc.

Virtual worship has been a tonic for Believers during these days of isolation at home. But folk like me miss what cannot be replicated in our living rooms: congregational singing, gathering, sharing the receiving of music and the spoken word with fellow believers (only my wife hears my “Amens” now), etc.

So the question: is “virtual ministry” an oxymoron? First, let me say that there are forms of personal ministry regaining frequency of use during these days that are not “virtual.” Phone calls, cards and notes weren’t used much when we saw each other every week. Now they are being used by Corps Officers to minister to the faithful. This is real ministry; such personal contact should never be viewed as merely perfunctory.

Second, let me acknowledge that there are occasions for which there is no substitute for “the ministry of presence.” Hospital visitation and funeral vigils are the most notable examples. I mourn for the loved ones of those in nursing homes and hospitals who are not permitted to be present when the beloved one passes into eternity … and for the Corps Officers who are also denied that precious privilege!

But I applaud those on the front lines of ministry who use technology creatively to minister to their flock by live-streaming worship and Bible Study; by setting up virtual interactions among members of the flock; by utilizing video calls to visit those who cannot otherwise be contacted; etc.

Personal contact is, of course, preferable when circumstance permit. And there are Corps Officers like ours who have made a special effort to visit their soldiers while following all the precautions to ensure safety. (Of course, climate and housing have permitted, which is not true for all!) Even those, like ARC officers, who are blessed to have ongoing personal contact with their flock operate under the constraints of social distancing and mask-wearing. The tactile dimension of touch has been removed from the communication toolbox.

Effective ministry requires frequent, personal, intentional interaction. Can that be done adequately through the medium of technology? Not as a substitute for the intimacy of person-to-person contact. Unless, of course, person-to-person contact is not possible. And then, the compassionate minister uses the means available to minister. So we praise God for the technology that makes it possible, and for those who use it effectively.

No. Virtual ministry is NOT an oxymoron.

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