When lockdown is over will we be brave enough to stop the online service?
It’s Sunday morning. It’s 11am. It’s time for the morning service and we are still in lockdown because of the coronavirus epidemic.
So we sit on the sofa, switch on the laptop, log in to YouTube (or whatever) and participate in the online service from our church. We are getting used to it and the sofa is much more comfortable than the chairs at church. After the service there is opportunity to join a Zoom breakout room and chat with friends from church. We are missing being in the physical presence of one another but the digital service is comfortable and convenient.
Not only is it comfortable and convenient (no problem finding somewhere to park) but it also appears to be bringing in more people to hear the word of God. As the pandemic has confronted the population with matters of life and death, folk who would never come out to a service in the church building are happy to tune in from their living rooms to see what the church has to say concerning Christ and eternal issues. The gospel is reaching new people. We cannot but rejoice in all this. Sofa – so good!
But what are we going to do when lockdown is (eventually) over?
The answer and the question
Surely the answer is obvious. We must keep the ‘open to everyone’ online service going alongside whatever gathering we are allowed to have on our premises. This will be argued with a good heart and from sincere motives. ‘We are reaching more people with the gospel so we must continue with it.’
Such reasoning will be thought by many to trump any other considerations. But maybe we should think carefully before proceeding. The measures we have to take during a crisis do not usually make for the best once things return to normality. Wearing a plaster cast when you have broken your leg makes sense and might even draw sympathy from other people, but it does not mean that it is good for you to walk with it forever. The point is this. How would permanently adopting open online services change the nature of church?
The question about whether or not to stop the live-stream or recorded service is likely to be made more difficult by the fact that lockdown will not suddenly to come to an end. Social distancing may be with us for a long time. So what are we going to do?
It’s church Jim, but not as we know it
Gathering in the name of Jesus, in agreement about who he is and what that means for us, is of the essence of the NT idea of a church (Matthew 18.15-20). To depart from that concept as the norm is to produce a mutant church.
In our rush for church growth, the widely accepted practices of multisite and multiservice, the church meeting in fragments or in installments, has already taken us some way down this path.1 The possibility is that the pragmatic ‘evangelistic imperative’ tied up with online services will push us over the edge of the cliff. We will call what we end up with ‘church’, but it will have very little to do with what the NT teaches. The three marks of the church that are classically enumerated as the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments and church discipline would be reduced to one – just the first. The other two marks could well be left behind altogether because we prioritize preaching and because technology has given us a way of broadening the preaching of the gospel beyond the gathered congregation.
It will be a U-turn. Years ago, we rightly rejected the ‘virtual church’ as unbiblical. But the lure of ‘success’ is very big for today’s evangelicals.
For some time many churches have had restricted online services to enable elderly or sick church members who can’t get out to tune in at home and so benefit from worship and ministry. This is sensible and helpful. But in the current crisis we have had to go beyond that and make the online service available to everyone. That is fine in the crisis.
But what is likely to happen if we do not have the courage to pull the plug on this at some point? I think the comfort of the sofa may well prove irresistible.
- Some church members will feel tired on a Sunday morning (or evening) and realize that rather than making the effort to get to church, they could just watch online. A text to the pastor saying ‘Sorry I wasn’t there on Sunday, I had a difficult week,’ will be enough to fix it.
- Some parents will decide that rather than battling to get their fractious youngsters or teenagers to church, they can pick the service up online and just let the kids have a Sunday morning in their rooms. ‘Who needs the hassle?’
- Some mums and dads will realize that they can get the children to bed much easier on a Sunday evening by doing it together and just have the service on a screen in the background as they snuggle everyone down. ‘Neither of us needs to be at church. We can know what was said at church.’
- Some will even realize that they could watch or listen in to the service on the way to the match and stay linked into church like that while following the team.
- And some will conclude that all they need to be a Christian is their weekly spiritual ‘fix’ from the songs of the music group and the pastor’s exposition and they can get that online. Who needs communion and the potential ‘abusiveness’ of a church that expects discipleship and discipline from its members?
You may even witness the occurrence of the problems I have heard of from some online evangelistic ministries where people actually do seem to have become ‘Christians’ through online contact but see no necessity of ever going to or joining a church.
I am already aware of one church where during ‘normal’ times, the eldership estimate that on any one Sunday between 20% and 30% of the church are absent for various reasons. The perpetuating of the online service will push that percentage up even further.
The congregations will be less than they used to be. The pastor will miss having quite so many faces in front of him as he preaches in the building, but he will think to himself ‘That’s okay, because of all those extra people I’m reaching online.’
It is a difficult decision to make. But in order to be faithful to Scripture and for the health of the church there will have to come a time when we switch off the service on the sofa.
 See Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models (Crossway, 2020) for a thorough investigation of this issue.