Carefully weigh your motivation for staying away from your local church service. Whenever the time finally comes that we find our primary motivation for remaining home is simply convenience, I encourage you to reconsider in light of these criteria. In meeting together, we embrace a long tradition of togetherness, we answer a call to connectedness, we witness, and we respond to the divine mandate of joining together in worship.
Wednesday March 12th. That was the day our church leadership decided to cancel the upcoming Sunday service in response to the appearance of COVID 19 in our county. The virus, whose impact to that point had been largely minimal in surrounding states, was now at our doorstep, threatening to dismantle church life as we knew it. I must admit, however, despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead and the disruption caused to our usual Sunday service, the move to online church that Sunday brought some unexpected benefits as a leader in the church. Namely, getting up as a family and having breakfast together as well as actually being together for the service. It all served to bring about a Sunday morning ease in our household that Lionel Richie would have been proud of.
We were not isolated in our experience. Indeed, for many, what once was a crazy dash to get everyone out the door in time for a church service has now become a somewhat leisurely paced journey all the way to our favorite armchair or sofa. (After all, church is only two clicks away!) Not to mention bedheads, pajamas and pop tarts being entirely permissible and welcome!
While online church is new for many of us, this kind of platform has actually been around for a while. Life Church in Oklahoma City introduced an “internet campus” back in 2006 (with much scrutiny I might add). The unprecedented impact of COVID-19, though, has caused a seismic shift in terms of in-person/online church attendance. Church leadership in almost every ecclesial setting is now responding to what could be a permanent shift of church attendees to an online format. No longer a minor supplementary ministry to the homebound, online church could very well become the dominant norm for people’s church service experience.
It is cost-effective. It is scalable. It is slick. But is it best?
The question for church leader and layperson alike must be this; is this forced cultural shift one that we should endorse and encourage in the long term? Simply put, is church online a healthy alternative to the in-person experience?
Scripture is clear that the “church” isn’t so much an event or location (in some ways we’ve adopted the word to mean as such) but rather a body of people. I’ve seen this rightly affirmed in some churches adopting the tag line: The building may be closed but the church is open. Just because we can’t meet as the church in the church building doesn’t mean that the church can’t continue to exist and thrive in the meantime. The innovation of online services ensures a measure of church life that continues despite restrictions on gathering. I’ve never been more grateful for the technology to maintain a sense of connection and provide a channel of ministry than at a time like this.
Yet in saying this, I believe when the time comes that each of us can safely choose between virtual or physical gatherings, we should prioritize in-person services. In-person is harder but better. Let me briefly outline a few reasons why.
A Tradition of Togetherness
First, much of the activity of the early church centered around a gathered people. Luke highlights some of this in Acts 2 stating that they:
“… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NIV)
In gathering together, we stand in the long tradition of church history. Coming together to worship, pray, listen and take communion are a large part of our heritage, and, while tradition shouldn’t always be continued for tradition’s sake, Acts seems to present a God-ordained model that we should follow. To oversimplify, the basic rule of the New Testament is this: if the church is doing it in the book of Acts, consider that it’s likely a good idea (though there are some limits to that). On the other hand, if the church is doing it in the Epistles – especially Corinthians – then consider that it’s probably a bad idea.
In the Old Testament and the New, the emphasis appears to be on God’s people gathered together rather than intentionally scattered. Often occurring in the context of persecution, the dispersing of the Israelites and the early church was never something that was deemed a positive movement. Yes, God was able to redeem those movements for the benefit of His kingdom (e.g.: the spread of the gospel – Acts 8:4, 11:19) but broadly speaking, it is the coming together of God’s people that we see most celebrated in Scripture.
I hear some ask “can we not just be together digitally?” Well, yes and no. We are fundamentally embodied spirits and Zoom fatigues us precisely because we see the person without the fullness of him or her being embodied. Though online church can duplicate a lot, it cannot duplicate everything of the church gathered. Our tradition of physical togetherness is core to the church gathered.
A Call to Connection & Witness
Second, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the early church wasn’t the buildings in which they met, nor the number of people attending, but the coming together of a people across diverse cultural, economic and social backgrounds under the common call to follow Christ. Further still, the early church’s treatment of one another had an evangelistic impact within the broader community (true to Jesus’ statement that their love for one another would be their most distinguishing feature).
The witness of the church to the broader community takes many forms, but one aspect of our witness is in our gathering. Our meeting together is a visible sign of a hidden connection, a supernatural bond centered around the person of Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. If we cease to gather, we miss out on part of our witness to our local neighborhood.Simply put, is church online a healthy alternative to the in-person experience?