Should we make online church permanent?

It is a question some people will be asking

Many churches have used Wi-Fi access for worship during lockdown. Now that things seem to be on the brink of opening up again shouldn’t we just keep the online element going alongside the in-person service in the church building?

Online services are simply so much more convenient. In a ‘time poor’ society this means such a lot to people. There is no need to get the car out to drive to church. There is no need to worry about finding a parking space. And at the close of the service you are ‘back home’ at the touch of a button. And isn’t it true that many churches had more people tuning in online to a morning service than usually turned up in the building on a Sunday? There are seemingly plenty of positives.

Lax attitudes

But there are plenty of negatives too. Some people have spoken about the fact that online church can easily become ‘pyjama church.’ If church is going to take place on screen in the sitting room then why not get a cup of coffee and lounge around in the same way that you might watch a TV show? But that doesn’t sit too well with the NT instruction to ‘worship God acceptably with reverence and awe’ (Heb. 13.28).

Online also tends towards reduced commitment. Because an online service is accessible more or less anywhere, it means that church easily slips away from being the main event of Sunday, to something that can be simply accommodated into what is perceived as a more important schedule. We can take more holidays and not miss church because we can tune in from the hotel or even the tent. We can catch up on the preaching on the way back from the match. Parents can decide it’s much easier to both be involved in putting the children to bed on a Sunday night, rather than one attending church. ‘We can have church on in the background and not miss anything.’ 

Even before lockdown many churches had a high absentee rate on Sundays as members rather too frequently prioritized other things at the weekend. Online church exacerbates this. Also of course, online services make ‘church hopping’ extremely easy. ‘Which church shall we attend tonight?’ ‘Which preacher would you like to listen to this Sunday?’ In fact it may well be that some of the ‘extra’ people who have swelled the numbers at our online services have simply been those shopping around from other churches.

What is church?

Although there may be some things we have learned lockdown which we may be able to utilize in the long term, ‘doing church’ online is not one of them. This is true whether we are thinking of church totally online or a hybrid service where some are gathered and others are tuning in.

The reason for this is that church in the New Testament sense is intrinsically about gathering together. According to the Lord Jesus, church happens when ‘two or three come together in my name’ (Matt. 18.17-20). Church is not just the preaching, which is simple to broadcast. It is the people of God who gather under the Lordship of Christ, in love and agreement, to hear from God and worship him, and act as his witnesses to the world by their words and deeds.

Let me borrow an illustration from Jonathan Leeman which might be helpful here[1]. Yes, we are still part of the church when we are apart—just as a footballer is still a member of the team when he is at home and not playing on the pitch. But, here is the thing to understand: if for some reason he never gets on the pitch and plays together with his colleagues, he can hardly be called a member of the team. Just so, if we never get together in-person at church, then (unless due to infirmity) we are not part of the church. Referring to the game and the team, it is worth noting how Jonathan Leeman summarizes: ‘The function creates the thing, without which there is no thing.’

Church entails us being together, whereas online actually facilitates us being apart.

Unity in the church

During lockdown I was involved in a rather fragile church restart in a nearby town. We tried the hybrid experiment on a number of occasions, but, although we did our best to make folk feel included, we soon found that those watching on Zoom at home felt somewhat left out. It was causing a sense of division in the small group. So we decided to back away from the hybrid set up. 

Unity in the church is to be highly prized (Jn 17.20-21), and we are foolish if we do anything that might loosen ties or encourage division. The apostles might well have taken a dim view of adopting methods and technology in the church which break the congregation in two (Titus 3.10). Rather Paul tells us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit…’ (Eph. 4.3-4).

Making it too easy

We are in danger of sacrificing our NT convictions about the nature of the church on the altar of convenience. Online church loses too much of the essence of what a church must be for us to buy into it permanently. It loosens the bonds between God’s people too much.

Surrounded by an aggressive secular society the churches can be too desperate to make an impact. They can be too keen to make the world sit up and take notice and can be willing to bend over backwards to make that happen. But the danger is that we become people pleasers rather than God pleasers. Permanent online church is in this category it seems to me. And it is a common experience that those who are prepared to let go of their convictions in order to please others, soon become despised by the very people they have been trying to please. Those people see through the game that is being played—‘success’ at any price.

Pastoral Care

The idea of putting church online might well appeal to introverted preachers. They love the time they spend alone in their libraries and the time they spend in the pulpit—delivering sermons. They don’t even mind too much if they have to preach with a screen in front of them rather than a congregation. They are shy of people. They do not particularly enjoy engaging face to face with people. To put church online would hardly be a problem to them.

But can a pastor really handle his congregation and deliver pastoral care from behind a computer? The answer is surely ‘No’. Consistently throughout Scripture, God himself delivers pastoral care of his people by promising to be ‘with’ his people,[2] not simply by watching them from heaven and communicating with them from a distance. David, famously writes, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…’ (Ps. 23.4). 

Bottom line

What I have written here is a condensed form of a longer consideration of the subject of online church, which can be found here. There I consider some of the things we can legitimately take on board from digital technology from the lessons we have had to learn during lockdown.

But the bottom line is this: church is not a spectator sport. Church is God’s family which requires in person involvement. What is convenient to us is rarely the best way to serve God.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models (Crossway, 2020), 44.

[2] For example, see Genesis 28.20; Genesis 39.20-21; Exodus 25.8; Joshua 1.9; Isaiah 43.2; John 14.16, etc.