Over the last month or so we have seen the Church globally transition from in person gatherings to some kind of online presence. Live stream services, prayer gatherings over Zoom, small group bible studies via Facetime or Skype. Although this was a struggle at first, many ministries and Christians find themselves getting the hang of “Digital Church”. This is a good thing. I am very thankful to have these mediums when social gathering is unsafe and not possible.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: Why do we need to go back to gathering in person after COVID-19? After all, sermons are being preached. People are listening. We are still gathering in some sense. Do we really need to go back? Does Hebrews 10:24-25 still apply today, or does COVID-19 change the validity of that passage?
Let me put all pastors at ease. Do we need to return to gathering personally? Absolutely we do. To be clear, I haven’t heard anyone suggest that we remain digital after quarantine lifts. I am simply writing from observations that I have made, as well as following the data that I have read in recent months regarding church attendance. According to the Barna Group, the average committed church goer attends church twice a month. The frequency of church attendance in younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z) is even less than twice a month. Although things could change after the world has faced pandemic, it could also prove to reinforce the idea that attendance isn’t all that important. I believe that not only should we go back to in-person gatherings, but, it is crucial that we do. Here is why:
Watching a Sermon Isn’t Church
Watching a sermon online or attending a bible study online isn’t church. Or maybe a better way of stating it is that the church is more than just content and programs. It is vitally important that biblically faithful messages are preached, that congregations hear the Word of God, and are called to prayer. But those are simply things the Church does to pursue God, not who the Church is.
When Church is simply seen as hearing a sermon, listening to worship, or giving some money to a good cause, then it is easily replaced. In our world, there is no shortage of sermons, music, and organizations to give towards. Plus, they are all accessible online from the privacy of our homes and the comfort of our couch. No need to go anywhere, we can get all we need online! And on top of that, we get our Sunday back!
If, however, the Church is more than content and programs, then it cannot be replaced with online presence. The Church isn’t a building, and it isn’t a service. The Church is called to be the incarnate people of God, called to community and mission. I like the way Michael Bird defines “church”:
“[The Church] is the people of God in the new age who are bonded together by their faith in God the Father, their union with Jesus Christ, and their partaking of the Holy Spirit, and they live according to the teachings, story, and symbols of Israel’s Messiah…It is the people of God called by God into covenant with Himself.”Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology
Digital Community Isn’t Real Community
Real and deep community can’t be built through social media and technology. The Church is the incarnate body of Christ, not the disincarnate body of Christ. The danger of our “all online” Church is that we are able to feed our preferences of when we engage, what we listen to, and who we hear it with. If we don’t like the sermon, we can just change it to something else. If we don’t like the worship, we can just choose to skip it. This is a danger because community is not about “me”, it’s about “us”. Digital Community can be helpful, but it is also dangerous because we tailor our community experience to the exact specifications we want without any hinderance, sacrifice, or inconvenience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks to this danger:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
However, when we are part of the real, incarnate body of Christ we don’t get to choose who we go to church with. We don’t get to choose what sermons we hear that day. We can’t just show up whenever we want. Real community calls us to actual sacrifice that looks to the needs of our brothers and sisters. Real community takes our eyes off of us. Real community shows us our need of grace, humility, and mercy. Real community ultimately points us to Jesus.
As We Wait
For now, online services and digital discipleship is a reality that the church has to face and utilize. This is a good thing because it has shown many ministries the weaknesses and shortcomings that they had, especially in the areas of social media and technology. It has also put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of Christian messages online for people to hear. Although the Church is certainly more than content, it is necessary for people to hear.
But this is a temporary change, and it cannot be a permanent one. One of the strongest symbols of the relationship between God and the Church is marriage. Technology can help a marriage stay alive and even help strengthen for a while. It cannot be the permanent solution. It can destroy a marriage. In order for a marriage to last it must be incarnate, real, and the two must be committed to one another. If the couple doesn’t want to resume their life together, then there is something that has gone terribly wrong in their marriage. We need each other, and as the poet John Donne said:
John Donne, No Man is an Island
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
The present circumstances don’t allow us to meet, and I am not suggesting that we do at this time. The credibility and witness of the Church depends that we operate in love, wisdom, and obedience to the current restrictions that we currently find ourselves in. To love our neighbor well is to stay home and limit social interaction. So, by all means stay home, be safe, and think of your neighbors.
As we wait, let’s be a people who resolve to not only engage with our church communities that find themselves in dispersion, but to also seek God personally. Let’s dive into the Word of God. Let’s pray daily for the lift of this virus. Let’s give freely of our possessions to those who are in greater need than us.
Most of all, let’s resolve that when it is finally safe to gather and the doors of our church’s are open, we will commit to be part of our communities like never before. Let’s be the incarnate people of God who prefer presence over content, sacrifice over preference, and the needs of others over our own. May God dwell with all us in dispersion and lead us all back to the incarnate Church.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”Ephesians 2:19-22