Though the church I serve in Shanghai still rents a physical space for worship, for many weeks it seemed useless. As much of the world—and many of the churches in it—moved on from strict pandemic protocols, a viral uptick here kept many Chinese Christians in an extended lockdown.
In my own neighborhood, I joined a volunteer team to help with basic tasks that became much more difficult when many residents were restricted to their homes. One of my duties was collecting the trash from the doorways of dozens of apartments in my building each day. Serving others during the lockdown helped build a sense of community, but I still missed gathering in-person with my local church.
Even with the strictest measures winding down for now, some Chinese pastors wonder: Is this our future?
In some cases, pastors have fully committed to Zoom and livestreaming, convinced in-person services won’t fully resume soon or that a pattern of restrictions and interruptions will continue. Others have rejected virtual services, saying the internet is an insufficient substitute for the church’s gathering. Others have compared adopting virtual services to the reformers adopting the printing press to spread the gospel message.
In a region where both pandemics and persecutions can make gathering a challenge for churches, pastors here face a unique pressure to grapple with a question many Christians in other countries have already left behind: Over the long term, how should we think about virtual services?
As I wrestle with this question in my own setting, I find myself realizing virtual services are sometimes necessary. But I also believe we shouldn’t settle for them as a substitute for the true meaning and beauty of the church we long to gather with again.
Virtual Services Are Not Biblical ‘Gatherings’
The church is not a place, but a group of people. Though synagogues existed in the New Testament era, Jesus and his disciples never used the word “synagogue” to describe Christian gatherings. Instead, they used a new word, ekklēsia, meaning “gathering.” The gathering place could change, but the emphasis is on the people gathered.
The gathering place could change, but the emphasis is on the people gathered.
Does that mean the church doesn’t exist when they don’t gather from Monday to Saturday? Of course not. The church is a body, not just in the activity of gathering. But if they don’t meet regularly over time, can they still call themselves a church? I’d argue no. Without regular gatherings, a group of people is not a church, even if they have a WeChat group.
It’s something like your high school graduating class: the class no longer exists because you’re not studying in the school together anymore, even if you keep interacting in a Facebook group with high school friends.
In making a case against virtual gatherings as a long-term substitute for the church, I’d offer three biblical reasons.
1. God dwelt physically with his people.
Though God could meet with his people through the Spirit, he also continually came down among his people. We see this in God’s meeting with Jacob in the wilderness of Bethel, the theophany in the burning bush, his presence with Moses on Mount Sinai, his design of the tabernacle and the temple, and how he came to live among us through the Son’s incarnation.
God could use other methods to meet us, even without the need to create us as physical beings. God’s effort to be with us in the material sphere shows that our encounter with God as his gathered church ought to be temporal and physical.
2. Virtual services lack fellowship and communication.
These meetings often become a time of mere spiritual downloading rather than fellowship. We cannot hold in-depth conversions online. That makes it a challenge to encourage each other, confess sins to each other, or rebuke each other. It also makes it difficult to resolve conflicts or other differences.
It’s true that virtual services are convenient, but convenience often simply allows us to escape complex social relations and make little effort.
3. Virtual services only engage our partial senses, not the whole.
In Martin Luther’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, the reformer stated, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.” As one writer points out,
Online worship services come to us by way of sights and sounds through a screen. This means online worship ruptures our common sense: our eyes (sight) and ears (auditory) are in the sanctuary while our bodies (tactile) and our noses and mouths (chemical) are in our living rooms. You see and hear one place while touching and smelling another place. Some of your bodily senses are engaged by the place of worship while your other bodily senses are at home, petting the cat or eating pancakes. This creates discord among the senses.
While I do think these reasons are valid for showing a biblical emphasis on in-person gatherings, does that mean Christians ought to completely abandon virtual services at all times? As a pastor facing that question, and as one longing to worship in person, I would not reject virtual services altogether.
Virtual Services Are a Valuable Supplement
If virtual services are not Christian gatherings, what should we do? How should we think about them during times of restrictions?
First, it’s not inherently sinful to not gather or to cancel church services in every circumstance. This principle is common sense. For example, believers who are hospitalized or suffering from dementia usually can’t gather. Christians confined to their homes during a dangerous war in eastern Ukraine often can’t gather. To require Christians to gather for worship without considering their situations irresponsibly puts lives in danger.
That means church leaders should closely consider whether a church’s hindrance to gathering is caused by unusual situations like pandemics, wars, or natural disasters—or if it’s the kind of church-directed persecution that Chinese churches were experiencing before the pandemic began. If it’s the former, we ought to obey God’s divine providence. If it’s the latter, we ought to bravely obey God, not men.
Second, pastors need to use various means to meet the spiritual hunger caused by separation when in-person meetings aren’t allowed or possible. While virtual services may not be full Christian gatherings, they’re useful tools for church leaders to effectively teach, minister, and evangelize.
Third, we need to remember that virtual gatherings can help us maintain the habit of regularly meeting, even when it’s not possible in person. This habit helps us maintain the spiritual rhythms of shaping our week around Sunday as a holy day and also remembering the needs and lives of others and seeking to serve those needs in fellowship.
Modern-Day Printing Press?
What about the earlier argument that adopting virtual technology is similar to the reformers adopting the printing press to spread the truth of the gospel to many more people?
We should remember that the reformers used books to strengthen the church, not as a substitute for church.
While it’s right to compare the capabilities of the internet with the usefulness of printing presses in the Reformation era, we should remember that the reformers used books to strengthen the church, not as a substitute for church. Modern-day church leaders should anticipate and plan for physical gathering when the conditions permit, even in a country where the government and culture are hostile to Christianity.
Given this country’s political climate and the ongoing dilemma of the pandemic, churches in China must think about how to prepare for frequent interruptions and increasing dangers.
We must also remember the Scripture’s promise that one day we will gather in the new heavens and the new earth—in person with our Savior and with each other forever.