Why You Can't Have Church Online
Churches around the world have had to make very difficult decisions in the past week due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Out of love for neighbor (Matt 22:39) and a desire to obey the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7), many churches (ours included) have temporarily suspended their Sunday services, small groups, Bible studies, prayer meetings, and so on. Though difficult, I believe this is wise and loving in these extraordinary circumstances.
But, because of the common grace of technology today, many churches can record or livestream their music and preaching and put them online for their members to still be fed and ministered to. This is a great blessing from God and would have been impossible a mere fifteen years ago.
However, there has been an unfortunate consequence. Many churches have advertised something like:
Church isn't cancelled, we're just moving online!
Or, Join us for church in your pajamas!
Or, We are still gathering together, just virtually!
I believe this is a mistake and would implore other Christian leaders to not speak this way.
I understand (I think) why pastors and ministry leaders have spoken like this. Every church around the world has been dealt a difficult hand and are trying to make the best of it. They don't want to discourage their church members and feed into the feel of "doom and gloom" that is hanging over many right now. "So," they say, "we aren't cancelling church; just changing how it is experienced." It's a keep calm and carry on mentality, one that I deeply sympathize with.
However, leading people to believe that they can still attend "church" at home, by themselves, just by listening to a sermon or music online is mistaken.
"Church” is not something that can be recreated digitally. It is an analog reality. The very word for “church” in the New Testament (ekklesia) literally refers to a public gathering or assembly of people. For example, in Acts 19:39-41 the same word (ekklesia) is used to describe a mob. How can people "assemble" together if they are not with each other physically?
There are so many elements of church that cannot be recreated unless there is physical proximity to one another:
- Sharing in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:17; 14:17-20)
- Celebrating baptism
- Singing to one another (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19)
- Admitting new members into the church or (sadly, if necessary) dismissing members from fellowship (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:4)
- Fellowshipping together and sharing in the contextually appropriate greeting that embodies the command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Thess 5:26)
- Praying corporately as a body (Matt 18:19; Acts 6:4, 6)
- Further, as anyone who has listened to a sermon online knows, hearing God’s Word preached in person is an entirely different experience than listening online. As I am preaching and praying I am looking at the faces of my congregation, thinking specifically about their lives and how God's Word particularly applies to them. That can't be recreated through a computer screen.
The Importance of Presence
My wife and I spent the majority of our dating relationship with her in Seattle and me in the Tri-Cities. We would call each other daily, do Skype dates, and write letters. We wanted to continue to grow our relationship even if there was hundreds of miles separating us. But nothing compared to being physically present with each other. Holding hands, going on walks together, and just having conversations in person was exponentially better. Physical presence is not just an unnecessary "bonus" for relationships--it is vital. And while our modern technology can ameliorate the problem of distance, it will never replace actual physical proximity. Texting someone a "I'm sorry for your loss" is nothing compared to saying the same thing with your arm around them at the hospital.
Our gathering together on Sunday morning is itself a foretaste of the heavenly assembly we will all one day participate in (Heb 12:22-24). The church is, before it is anything else, fundamentally a gathering created by the Gospel--"where two or three are gathered in my name," (Matt 18:20). What if we can't gather? What if we cannot "assemble" (ekklesia)? Well, we have to think creatively about how to still "stir up one another to love and good works" even if we cannot "meet together" (Heb 10:24-25).
But we should not cheapen the uniqueness of what happens in our Sunday gatherings by equating it with someone listening to a sermon online. In short, you (literally) cannot have "church" online.
So, What Should We Do Then?
I hope it doesn't seem like I am trying to kick churches while they are down. I realize that this is an extremely difficult time for many churches, and pastors need to be thinking hard about how to minister to their congregations. Churches also need not feed into people's fears (CHURCH IS CANCELLED! THE SKY IS FALLING!). Like I said earlier, I profoundly sympathize with churches desire to serve their congregations through this season.
I believe there is a better way forward. While the Bible does not tell us that we can recreate "church" online, it does give us examples of what Christians do when they are prohibited from gathering together: they still should strive to encourage one another with prayer and with the Word.
Paul often longed to visit various churches in person but was unable to—so, instead he wrote them letters to encourage, exhort, inform, and pray for these different churches (ex. 1 Thess 2:17-18; Rom 15:22). Paul can even speak of having a form of fellowship with churches he was not physically present with through his letter correspondence (Col 2:5; 1 Cor 5:3). In many of his letters, Paul talks about being eager to hear reports from the churches and will often send delegates to go deliver and receive updates (1 Thess 3:6-7) and he always goes out of his way to send personal greetings to people he is separated from (Rom 16:1-23).
Churches today should seek to emulate this model. We are temporarily separated from one another. And, like Paul, we eagerly long to see one another "face to face" (1 Thess 3:10). But, as Paul used the common grace of letter-writing to still minister to churches, we can use the common grace of technology to minister to our churches (recordings, blog posts, livestreams, texts, emails, phone calls, FaceTime, etc.). We can encourage our members to still do "the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ," (Eph 4:12) as best as they can with the technology given them. Further, if practiced wisely in accordance with social distancing policies, pastors can recover the lost art of pastoral/home visitations (Acts 20:20).
However, we sadly cannot (nor should we make it seem like we can) still have "church" without gathering.
Despite being biblically unwarranted, there is also a pastoral/discipleship problem lurking here. If churches continue to advertise that people can just "go to church online" I fear that many less mature Christians may think: Hey, this is convenient. Why don't we just do this all the time? What will happen to these people after the restrictions for gathering are lifted? If they have been told they can "go to church online," what is the point of getting changed out of their pajamas and driving to the building down the street? How will they obey Hebrews 3:12-14 or Hebrews 10:24-25? How will they partake in the sacraments? What message will be communicated to them about the nature of the church, Christian discipleship, Christian fellowship, and church membership? How will churches work to not reinforce the common "consumer" mentality already prevalent in many American churches?
These are questions that pastors need to be asking themselves as we strive to love, serve, shepherd, and feed our flocks in these extraordinary days. Perhaps our language should center more on "discipling," "family worship," or "exhortation" via the internet rather than having "church online."
My prayer is that, through this hiatus of gathering, our churches would come to see the remarkable privilege and joy it is to gather on the Lord's Day for corporate worship. One pastor, writing in the New York Times, explained: "Recently, I came home from a trip out of state and my son ran to the door to greet me shouting, “Daddy, daddy!” He jumped into my arms and gave me a hug with all the strength his 5-year-old body could muster. The absence had made the return home that much sweeter...I do not know when I will be able to take the bread and wine without hesitancy with the members of my church, but when I do I hope that I match my son’s joy."
May it be so for us all.
"But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,"
- 1 Thess 2:17 -