Last year, the Georgetown University athletic department tweeted:
With the world trending toward Virtual Reality (VR), we ask you to take a step back and experience the @GeorgetownHoops Actual Reality (AR) Seating Section!
Those who purchased tickets in the “Actual Reality” seating section were asked to leave their phones at home or drop them off at a phone check-in station. Phoneless fans were encouraged to “actually talk face to face” and—get this—watch the game.
Just as attending a basketball game has changed in our hyperconnected age, so has attending church. With increasing frequency, churches are encouraging folks to “attend” church virtually through an online livestream. Although a livestream can be a great tool to serve people unable to attend, it can’t replace the experience of actually going to church.
Blessings of a Livestream
My church has a livestream, and it helps many people. I think of one church member whose health legitimately prevents her from coming to worship with the church family. Every Sunday she has her iPad locked and loaded with the livestream, and for her, it’s a great blessing to remain somewhat connected to her church family. In other instances, people traveling overseas have been able to listen online, and EMTs have been able to tune in when work has prevented their attendance. For such scenarios, and probably a thousand others, the livestream is truly a gift.
But don’t be mistaken: Church isn’t something you can get solely online.
Blessings of Attending Church
In the Bible, “church” doesn’t refer to an event, but a people. The church is a family that you belong to by faith in Jesus Christ. When you trust him, you get his family, the church (for better or worse!). The event of Sunday morning worship with preaching, prayer, singing, and fellowship is what the church does when it gathers, but family is what the church is.
As a family, the New Testament authors call believers to love one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, and more than 50 additional “one another” commands. The author of Hebrews writes to Christians: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24–25). When we neglect to meet together—now easier than ever before with livestreaming—we’re missing out on the “one anothering” that occurs when the church gathers as family.
Virtual attendance also fosters a consumer mentality. Yes, you can consume a sermon and stay “in the know” via livestream, but you won’t be able to fully participate in the joys, sorrows, and God-intended discomforts of family life. Church shouldn’t be something we consume but something we participate in. To some degree, church is supposed to be uncomfortable, since the church body is called to love fellow sinner-saints, exercise patience, gentleness, and sacrificial service, and walk together through the messiness of family life in a fallen world. Like physical exercise, discomfort is part of the plan to grow us.
Don’t Trade Actual Church for Virtual Church
To put it bluntly, virtual church isn’t church. When church members livestream Sunday worship because it’s their only option, it’s still the church family’s responsibility and privilege to visit, pray with, and care for them so that they can stay as connected as possible.
For everyone who can attend, however, it’s my hope that you’ll find a local church family to join, and after experiencing the goodness of church family, you won’t want to trade it for virtual reality. The next time you’re tempted to stay in your house slippers and sweatpants on Sunday morning and tune in via the livestream, go ahead and wear your sweats and slippers to church. Choose the actual reality.