The COVID-19 pandemic was challenging for churches around the world precisely because, in so many places, the saints had difficulty gathering and learning to cherish the Word of God together. After a few months of not gathering during the early days of COVID-19, I felt as if I were losing track of my church. Friends would ask, “How is your church doing?” I had a hard time answering. I was making regular phone calls and sending text messages to individual members, but I couldn’t get my mind around the whole body. The church felt like rainwater on a parking lot after a storm—spread thin, with puddles here and there.
The elders worried most about spiritually weak members who were struggling in their faith or facing particular temptations. We worried about those who already seemed to be drifting spiritually, those with one foot out the door months before the pandemic forced them out altogether.
Yet not gathering affected everyone—the spiritually mature and immature alike. Each one of us needs to see and to hear our fellow saints regularly. Otherwise, it’s only colleagues at work, friends at school, or TV characters whose patterns we observe.
What Are We Missing?
Once the pandemic began, many churches livestreamed their services, and many voices extolled the enduring value of “virtual church.” Pastors who had previously decried the idea now opened up “virtual campuses” and staffed them with full-time pastors, promising that the campuses would continue indefinitely. This was an exciting development in the history of fulfilling the Great Commission, some said.
And yet we wonder: What goes missing when your “church” experience is nothing more than a weekly livestream? For starters, you think less about your fellow members. They don’t come to mind. You don’t bump into them and have the quick conversations that lead to longer conversations over dinner. Beyond that, you remove yourself from the path of encouragement, accountability, and love.
Praise God that we can download biblical truths. But let’s praise God that the Christian life is more than just an information transfer. When church is only online, we can’t feel, experience, and witness those truths becoming enfleshed in the family of God, which both fortifies our faith and creates cords of love between brothers and sisters. Virtual church is an oxymoron.
Think about it. Maybe you struggle with hidden hatred toward a brother all week. But then his presence at the Lord’s Table draws you to conviction and confession. You struggle with suspicion toward a sister. But then you see her singing the same songs of praise, and your heart warms. You struggle with anxiety over what’s happening politically in your nation. But then the preacher declares Christ’s coming in victory and vindication, you hear shouts of “Amen!” all around you, and you recall that you belong to a heavenly citizenry allied in hope. You’re tempted to keep your struggle in the dark. But then the older couple’s tender but pressing question over lunch—“How are you really?”—draws you into the light.
None of this can be experienced virtually. God made us physical and relational creatures. Christian life and church life cannot finally be downloaded. They must be observed, heard, stepped into, and followed. Timothy needed to watch his life and doctrine, since both would be crucial to saving himself and his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).
Christian life and church life cannot finally be downloaded. They must be watched, heard, stepped into, and followed.
It’s no surprise that virtual, or internet, church is growing in popularity. It’s convenient and—honestly—it allows you to avoid messy relationships. We get it; that’s a strong temptation.
When I was still single, I moved to another city. I didn’t have a church or know anyone. A few days after arriving, the thought flashed through my mind, I can go out and do whatever I want. Nobody is here to see, hear, or ask. That’s kind of nice. I’m thankful the Spirit immediately rebuked me: “You know where that thought comes from. No, that’s not an impulse to follow.”
What grace! I am grateful the Spirit checked my heart that day. Yet don’t miss the lesson: ordinarily he means to use brothers and sisters in the church to help us fight folly and temptation.
Yes, gathering with the church can be inconvenient, but so is love. Relationships are messy, but so is love. Vulnerable conversations are scary, but so is love.
We Are Not Autonomous
The push toward the virtual church, we fear, is a push to individual Christianity. We can debate the wisdom of using such a tool for a limited time in an emergency situation, such as a pandemic. Coastal cities in the United States couldn’t meet Sunday evenings during World War II due to government-imposed blackouts. Fair enough.
Yet to offer or encourage (even with good intentions) virtual church as a permanent option, hurts Christian discipleship. It trains Christians to think of their faith as autonomous. It teaches them they can follow Jesus as a member of the “family of God,” in some abstract sense, without teaching them what it means to be a part of a family and to make sacrifices for a family.
The push toward the virtual church, we fear, is a push to individual Christianity.
In that regard, pastors should encourage people away from virtual “attendance” as much as they are able. We need to find a gentle way to remind our members that the livestream option is not good for them. It’s not good for their discipleship, and it’s not good for their faith. We want this to be clear to them, lest they become complacent and not work hard at gathering with us, if they can.
The Bible’s command to gather is not meant to be burdensome (see Heb. 10:25; 1 John 5:3) but is given for the good of our faith, our love, and our joy.