When the COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect across the world in March 2020, pastors and church leaders pivoted quickly to live streaming and video as a way of keeping the lines of communication and connection open. Twenty-two percent of churches did a live stream before the pandemic; within weeks, the number had jumped to 66 percent, with 92 percent of Protestant pastors providing some kind of video sermon or worship service during the stay-at-home season.

On the other side of the pandemic, the number of churches live streaming their worship services has grown, and even though there have been some thoughtful calls to stop doing so, I suspect the practice is here to stay. (A new Pew Research survey offers an interesting look at churchgoer perspectives on live streaming.)

Larger churches have gotten especially good at presenting a cohesive and engaging broadcast of their services, rivaling the shiny Sunday morning television broadcasts from a generation ago. As any church with a television or radio ministry will tell you, a professionally packaged experience can extend the reach of a local congregation and the influence of Bible preachers and teachers.

The Supplement Is Not a Substitute

But there’s a downside to this boom in online worship services. We’re vulnerable to a cultural malady ailing Americans today: “substitutism.” That’s a term from Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening. It’s a label that describes our perpetual quest for easy alternatives and shortcuts. It refers to our tendency to make a supplement a substitute.

In his book, Mitchell never discusses online church or live streaming worship services. He sees “substitutism” at work in other areas, such as social media and friendship. Take a look at his diagnosis of substitutism in these areas, and then I’ll apply these insights to worship.

At its best, social media enhances real-life relationships. Mitchell writes,

Social media can supplement our existing friendships; it can be a stimulant, which helps us keep in touch with old friends when we are not able to confirm through a handshake, a pat on the back, or an embrace, that we are indeed friends. We feel the presence of our friends through this supplement; but the supplement by itself, without the preexisting competence of friendship, cannot produce the feeling of presence. (xxiii)

In other words, friendship is the real thing. Social media is a supplement. The only reason social media gives you the feeling of friendship is because you already know what real friendship is. (And that’s why we recognize something has gone awry when someone’s “friends” are online only.)

Vitamins can supplement our diet, Mitchell says, providing essential nutrients that go alongside regular meals. But people don’t live on vitamins alone. The supplements enhance the meal, but it’s the meal that matters most. The meal makes up the core; the vitamins assist.

Imagine the skilled warrior filled with courage. Give him some weapons, and they’ll enhance his fighting capacity and increase his passion for victory. But weapons don’t make the man a warrior. They don’t give him courage. Give the same weapons to someone untrained, or someone cowardly, and they won’t make a difference at all.

Shortcuts That Shrink Our Capabilities

This is the problem. Over time, the more we substitute supplements for the real thing, the more likely we are to lose the “competencies” that gave us something genuinely good in the first place. And so, Mitchell cautions us,

What appears before us today is a vast and seemingly unrelated set of temptations whose danger lies in their undeliverable promise of a shortcut that bypasses life’s difficult labors. (xxv)

When the vitamin becomes a substitute for the meal, over time we lose our competency in cooking great food and spreading out a feast. When social media becomes a substitute for real-life friendships instead of merely a supplement, we eventually lose the ability to cultivate close friendships in person.

Ever wonder why the rates of loneliness have increased in the age of social media, in a time when people are “connected” to more “friends” on social media than ever? Because of substitutism. We’re so enthralled by the supplement that we’ve lost sight of the meal. As time goes on, we’re no longer able to cultivate rich and deep friendships based in virtue and love. We don’t even know what those look like anymore.

This is why we must never think an online worship service or watching a sermon on television is a genuine substitute for the physical gathering of believers in covenantal community. Yes, we can be grateful for the supplement of online worship—when we’re sick and can’t attend or if we’re out of town—but we draw benefit only because we know the real thing. Tuning in online gives us a taste of the genuine experience. It’s a supplement to the meal.

Allure of Shortcuts

The allure of shortcuts is an ever-present temptation, in matters of faith just as in other spheres of life. Friendship is hard. Church life is difficult. To cultivate a rich and meaningful life with God takes time and effort. We won’t grow in holiness and righteousness by racing to supplements designed to help us bypass the difficult labors of church life. It’s precisely in and through those labors that spiritual growth takes place.

So let me offer a hearty commendation to churches engaged in the good work of providing an excellent online experience for worshipers. But let’s remember this is a supplement. Only a supplement. If we fall for substitutism in church life, we’ll leave the next generation spiritually impoverished. And over time, no one will know how to “do church” anymore.

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