In this short talk, Jonathan Leeman—9Marks editorial director and co-author of Rediscover Church—argues that virtual church isn’t really church. At best, it’s a brief fix for emergency situations (like pandemics), but it’s not good for your spiritual health. Physical church gatherings are the ideal, he argues.
Gathering as churches is crucial for your evangelistic witness, growth, discipleship, and perseverance in the faith. And gathered churches are “embassies of heaven—like time machines from the future” that anticipate the final assembly in heaven.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Jonathan Leeman: Not gathering with the church hurts you spiritually. Virtual church is not good for you. Or to put this positively. The gathered church is where heaven comes to Earth. It’s crucial for your own discipleship and growth, and it’s crucial for the churches of evangelistic witness. So a pandemic weary Christian or some other Christians somewhere in the future, who is having a hard time gathering with a church, I’m encouraging you to do what it takes to work hard to gather with your local church. Now I’m saying these things, what we think is probably the end of the covid 19, Pan Dimmick. But even as this moment passes, we all want to make sure that we do not let the lessons of this moment go to waste.
Admittedly, I don’t know your situation. I don’t know what laws you’re under, or what health risks you personally have. And I want to leave room for different circumstances. providential hindrances are real. The Lord shows mercy to the shut in the stranded the soldier the the high risk, senior State St. If you flew, you don’t go to work. You don’t go to church and you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Nonetheless, at this particular moment, I want to leave a little pebble in your shoe. If you find that you’re getting too comfortable with not gathering with the church, I want that pebble to bother you. Because if it’s not bothering you Something is wrong. Now, why do I feel the need to leave this little pebble in your shoe? Well, for at least a couple of reasons. First, some folks have succumb to short term thinking about their own growth. I think I’ve just been tuning in every week, things seem to be going okay for me spiritually, I have nothing to worry about.
And I admit I’ve been hearing stories like this for years, even before the pandemic a friend, I can think of several who decided to forsake the assembling together with the saints. And little by little in ways they weren’t aware of that showed itself in their faith, and in some cases, they’re eventually abandoning the faith. That’s why Hebrews 1024 says, Let us consider how to serve one another up to love and good works. Not neglecting to meet together is the habit of some but encouraging one another. The author knew that it would be the habit of some to neglect meeting together. Is that your habit? The author also knew that being a Christian means helping others stir them up to love and good works.
And being stirred up to love and good works. So how are you doing it that stirring up others to love and good works and putting yourself in a place where you are stirred up to love and good works? Following Jesus means helping others follow Jesus by stirring them up. And being stirred up to love and good works.
A second reason why I want to leave this little pebble in your shoe is that folks adopt the same short short term ism. When it comes to thinking about the evangelists stick strings of the so called Virtual church. They say non Christians are more likely to tune in then to turn up. And in some respects that’s true, I get it. But again, I feel that this is short term thinking. Did you know that the Bible actually says the church gathering is evangelistically powerful.
That’s why Paul says in First Corinthians 1224, if all prophesy and a unbeliever outsider enters, he is convicted by all he is called to account by all the secrets of his heart are disclosed. And so falling on his face, he will worship God and declare God is really among you. I think of my friend Ryan who grew up in Houston, Texas hearing about Christianity from Christian friends. But it wasn’t until he moved to Washington DC and started attending a church. That not He not only did he hear gospel words, he watched the church, love each other. Worship God love him. And it was through that churches witness he repented and believed and follows Christ to this very day.
You see, non Christians need not just a picture of you sharing the gospel with them. They need not just a picture of your own personal life. They need a picture of a people a new people a new culture, a new nation, a heavenly city, loving each other, worshiping God following after him. Heavenly ambitions have really heavenly care in their life together. Christianity is Not just about you and Jesus, that’s not a individualistic thing. It’s a people thing, a family thing, a temple thing, a flock thing, a body thing with different parts.
And it’s in that assembly we begin to practice being the different parts of the body, the different members of the family, the different sheep in the flock, a virtual church individualizes, Christian discipleship, it individualizes, our evangelistic witness. It shows the world a picture of Christianity through words more than words and deeds and lives together. It also makes us re risks making us feeling our Christianity and selfish or self centered terms. Or again, to put it positively. Jesus designed Christianity and the progress of our discipleship to center around gatherings. And that way, we would dwell with one another and practice dwelling with one another, until that day comes and we dwell with him and one another perfectly.
The math friend is therefore simple. Not gathering with a church hurts you spiritually. Gathering with the church encourages and grows you spiritually. I wonder if you’re not yet convinced. Let me try to unpack this briefly in three more points. Number one, gatherings are powerful. You might think of how news or political protests in America in the last few years in the headlines featured so often these different gatherings of people focus on the political light left protesting police brutality, folks on the political right protesting stolen elections. When 1000s gather, the public pays attention. news reporters show up cameras click politicians give interviews People at home, stare at their phones clicking link after link and little by little a nation’s conscience is changed. groups of people gathered together are powerful. And not just for what happens when they gather but for what the group becomes in the gathering.
They become a movement, a force a changed world, for better or worse. Why are gatherings powerful? Well, people show up with their desires or their grievances. They they hear a charismatic speaker, they look around they they hear other people affirming that speaker they think to themselves I’m not the only one thinking this way, I’m not alone in these desires and these desires in his he grievances grow. gatherings are powerful, because we are immersed in them physically. We feel we here we see. God made us soul and body and somehow soul and body are intertwined. So that what affects one affects the others and our fears and beliefs and loves and hates, as we look around and see hear people believing, fearing hating, loving the same things ours to are grown or strengthened or weekend, whatever the case may be.
But of course, gatherings aren’t just people powerful for people on the inside of them. They’re powerful to the people on the outside. I wonder if you’ve ever been watching walking along and maybe a park and you saw a crowd over there, people gathered around something and so you crane, your neck, what’s going on. You don’t want to miss out on what’s exciting or something happening. gatherings change lives. They change cultures, they change worlds, for better or worse. Like a political protest. A church also shapes of people. That’s my second point.
Church gatherings are powerful. Yeah, these gatherings are different in that they are around the Word of God, and people reflecting and being changed by the word of God. Think about it, you show up. The man opens his book. He preaches the book, he preaches from it. People sing and pray in response to the words of that book. You’re looking around participating feeling experiencing the words of the book, and the people responding to that book. And then you get together afterwards. And maybe you talk about the things that you heard from that book, and you talk about how your
lives are changed or being changed by that book. And that pro like like with the protests, that’s powerful, not just for the people on the inside. But the world is looking and saying what are you guys talking about there? Oh, that’s offensive. Oh, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s attractive. What does that mean? Help me understand. the preaching of God’s word was instrumental in my own life and experience. I grew up attending churches, I’d heard the Bible Priest I sent it in some respect. But it wasn’t until I went to church in my early to mid 20s that I heard again, the Bible powerfully preached, I watched the congregation of people being changed by that word. And little by little my own desires change my own ambitions and hopes changed as I heard from him, but as I watched them, and God drew me to conviction, and repentance and faith, I wanted to hear from God and be with his people.
What goes missing when your church experience is nothing more than a live stream? Download? Oh, well, for starters, you think less about your fellow members, they don’t come to mind you don’t bump into them. You pull yourself out of the pathway of encouragement and accountability and love. And I praise God that we can download spiritual truths biblical truths virtually. But Christian life is more than just an information transfer. When our church is only online, we can’t feel and experience and witness those trues becoming enfleshed in the family of God, which both fortifies our faith and creates cords of love with other people. Think about it for a second.
Maybe you’re struggling with hidden hatred toward a brother all week. But then his presence at the Lord’s table brings you to conviction and confession. you struggle with sister a suspicion toward a sister all week. But then you see her singing the same songs of praise as you and your heart warms toward her. you struggle with what’s going on politically in the nation. And then you show up, you hear the preacher preaching about Christ, certain victory and vindication. You hear the amens around you. And you realize that you’re united together in a heavenly citizenry. you’re tempted to keep that little secret in the dark. But then the older couples pressing and tender question over lunch.
What’s going on with you really draws you into the light. None of this friend can be experienced, virtually. God made us physical and relational creatures. And it’s in the life of his word being preached in in that physicality and that relationship in the being together, that we are by God’s Holy Spirit and word changed. But were to gather with the church not just because the gathering is powerful. That’s my second point. We gather with the church because in the gathering, we become what we are the church. And that’s my third point the gathering is the church. Sometimes people say that the church is a people not a place. It’s slightly more accurate to say that the church is a people assembled in a place.
The Greek word for church literally means assembly, which is why the phrase virtual church is actually an oxymoron, kind of like saying, unrelated family. Regularly assembling together is what makes a church a church. Now, this doesn’t mean that you stop being a church when you’re not gathered together any more than a soccer team is no longer a team when it’s not together. It is to say by gathering together is how we become a church, just like a soccer team becomes a team by gathering and playing together.
Jesus organized Christianity this way, he means for Christians to come together regularly together, see one another, encourage one another. Speak love and good didn’t do good deeds together, encourage one another correct one another. spiritual things happen when Christians get together, physically. And God himself has always meant for his people to be gathered together in this way to dwell with him. Think of him walking with Adam and Eve in the garden. Think of I’m calling Israel to himself and gathering together in the temple thing supreme Lee of Jesus Christ, the Son of God becoming flesh, so that he could dwell with us. And of course, Jesus Christ promised to build his church a word that again means assembly. And Once assembled, local churches represent God, His presence with man where heaven comes to earth, where we bind and loose on earth, what’s bound and loosed in heaven.
And Jesus therefore says, When two or three are gathered in my name, there Am I among them, this doesn’t happen in the internet or in our heads. Listen to this, the gathered church anticipates the final assembly where God will dwell with his people once more Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man he will dwell with them, you see our churches, our embassies of heaven, they’re like time machines from the future where we will anticipate what it will be like to be with God in the end. Okay, let’s put these three points together. And what’s the lesson? Well negatively stated is that virtual Church isn’t really a church at best. It’s a prefix for emergency situations like a pandemic. But as a general practice, it’s not good for you spiritually, positively stated, gathering as churches is crucial for your evangelistic witness, and it’s crucial for your own growth. discipleship and perseverance and faith are gathered churches are where heaven come to Earth.