As churches stop meeting face-to-face, it will be best if pastors keep preaching and teaching their own congregations themselves rather than simply referring them to online resources. They alone know their people, and are best placed to minister to them. We have enough trouble already with people inhabiting cyberspace as their primary Christian environment rather than the actual embodied body of Christ. Indeed, we should be clear that ‘online church’ is not church in its true form. We need to be eyeballed by the preacher face-to-face as God speaks to us through him, and we need to share bread and wine together for our spiritual nourishment. We need to stand together as a congregation to sing and pray. We can’t think that preaching and the Lord’s supper are marks of the church (with the Reformers) and think that this is church. The church continues and cannot be stopped as an organism, dispersed throughout the world, but so long as it cannot meet face-to-face its institutional form is impaired. We need to keep the scare quotes around ‘online church’.The temptations of a docetic ecclesiology are all too strong.
The fact that we cannot meet for now is therefore a problem, a spiritual disadvantage. It is a last resort to meet online when we cannot gather together, either as a whole during this kind of global emergency, or at other times because of our individual health circumstances. As much as we want to enthuse about meeting together online and streaming preaching (I’ve spent most of my day going through my diary and scheduling different online meetings), and as much as we want to think hard about how best to do it (see John Benton’s thoughtful post ‘Pastoring People You Can’t See’) we need to pepper our enthusiasm with lament. Anyone who has through ill health or other debility been removed from the church’s gatherings will testify to the fact that it is a cause of sadness and comes with a sense acute loss, not gain.
Having said all of that, in the Lord’s providence and with his evil-to-good turning power, he will use our online efforts, and this can also be a chance for us to use our extra time at home fruitfully. A wonderful online resource is the body of material that Ligonier has made available free of charge until June, much of it doctrinal in character. They announce the free access here. You can find a page that introduces their different material here. I am wondering about regular family viewings of R. C. Sproul’s ‘Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology’ course – Sproul is warm and wonderfully clear and he speaks at a steady pace that would allow an interested secondary school child to follow (with occasional pauses to check they are keeping up!). The course is here.
Even as we can be confident that the Lord will hallow his name, advance his kingdom, and protect his people in a global crisis, so we can, as long as he spares us, lament the way it impairs the church and yet seek to make the most of the opportunities it presents.