Larger churches have been live-streaming services on the Internet for years. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that even the smallest bodies put their sermons online. Out of necessity, churches pivoted so they could stay connected with congregants.
Now that we’ve passed the heart of the pandemic, many of those churches continue to stream. But are their people coming back to the building? And do they really need to if they can catch the service on the couch?
The Purpose of the Local Church
Before we move forward, it’s imperative to understand the purpose of the local church and God’s passion for the gathering of believers.
The word church is a translation of the Greek word ekklēsia, which describes an assembly of people who have been “called out” for a shared reason. While most immediately picture a building upon hearing the word church, it is more accurate to envision a group of people together for one purpose.
In other words, church is not about the building; it’s about the people. We don’t “go to church;” rather, “the church goes into a building,” as writer Sam Allberry puts it in his book Why Bother with Church? Thus, if you aren’t convening with people, you aren’t really at church.
Much can be said about the power of an online community. It’s true that online relationships can be strong and healthy, and they are certainly necessary when troubling health issues arise. But we should strive for in-person gathering because it is this embodied community that we see so illuminated in the Bible.
In perhaps the most quoted verse about the Church, Acts 2:42, Luke reminds us that the Christians of that day “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Two verses later, we see that “all the believers were together and had everything in common.”
Fellowship happens when we gather. Vulnerability happens when our spaces overlap. The Holy Spirit moves when we pray together. To touch someone’s cold hands, to see their tears, to hear them worship — these things are diminished or even impossible across a screen.
It’s no surprise that the technological age has wrought more depression and anxiety across all demographic spectrums. Today’s generations, especially the younger ones, are digitally connected and personally disengaged. This results in less empathy, and it exacerbates the chronic mental health conditions that are so pervasive today.
When we forgo in-person church attendance, similar results will emerge. When you aren’t seen, you aren’t missed. When you aren’t spoken to, you aren’t held accountable. When no one asks how you are, you may never tell them.
God intentionally created us to thrive within a faith community. All people need supportive social networks, and for the Christian, the most powerful one will be within the local church. It is there that God loves to show up in a big way, where He stirs up hearts and helps iron sharpen iron.
As A. W. Tozer writes in The Pursuit of God:
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”
We see God afresh when we meet with fellow believers. And the Bible repeatedly speaks of God’s call to do so. Hebrews instructs us not to give up “meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25), and Romans notes that “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5).
As members of the Church, we are accountable to one another. Our Christian lives were never meant to be lived with God alone. When we cross “church” off our weekly to-do list after watching a sermon online, we mock the beautiful community God intends for us to have within it.
If being part of a church doesn’t cost you something, doesn’t allow your authentic self to be seen, or doesn’t inconvenience you in any way, you’re doing it wrong.
Living in a Digital Age
Online access to churches is helpful at times. It’s good for trying out a new church, checking out someone else’s sermon, or tuning in when you are sick or traveling. But online church should never replace in-person attendance if possible.
The screen is not a substitute for a handshake, and Facebook comments don’t replace actual conversation. It’s time to return to the building and gather with the church family God made just for you.