Is online-only church the answer?
With so many advantages to online church, is it really that important to go back?
Due to global circumstances, we are all developing new habits. Everyone’s comfort zones are adjusting. Shopping without ever leaving your front door is an exploding frontier. Today, virtually anything can be delivered to your front door. No longer do the boxes on your porch only contain gifts from a loved one. Now, your entire supermarket, your favorite restaurants, and even your auto dealership across town can be brought to your front door.
However not only are we rethinking our personal lives, but our church experience has also changed dramatically . . . and these changes are not unnoticed by our spiritual adversary.
Consider this: Is online church the answer? Is it a long-term solution, or do we miss something with this format?
Many of us, are enjoying the benefits of having church online. In some cases the audience has increased. People can more easily attend or quickly catch up if they have missed a service. In some ways, online ministry has even made it easier for people to share their faith and invite others to church. Many ministers have increased how much ministering they do, adding online Bible studies, prayer groups, outreaches, etc. With so much good, it can be difficult to remember why it is important to come together physically in the same place and at the same time.
Why do we go to church?
In my travels even before the pandemic, I began to notice something rather shocking among God’s people—something that I knew would lead to serious issues in the body of Christ. Multitudes of God’s people don’t truly know why we go to church. Nor do they fully understand the pastor’s role and kingdom purpose. This was even true among some pastors themselves.
While the world doesn’t understand this, we as Christians should be able to readily give an answer when someone asks, “Why do you go to church?” or “Why do I need church?” And our answers must be beyond “I go because I’m a Christian” or even worse, “Because we are supposed to.” Even before COVID-19, people had a difficult time explaining the benefits of church or of having a pastor. In truth, there was a time I couldn’t either. In part, the problem comes from church history.
It used to be that people thought of church as a building only and not as a people. They held the building sacred, and as long as you didn’t desecrate the church building itself, you were fine. Even if you were ungodly all week, you just made sure you honored Jesus and his building on Sunday morning. In truth, Sunday morning piety is certainly a human trait. Acting virtuous at church, yet forgetting such behavior during the week is common to the nature of man.
We, the people, are the church. Even if not in the building, we must still live a Christ-like, Christ-centered life. This too can be taken to an extreme. Some have adopted the perspective that, “I don’t need to go to the church building because I am the church.”
Look at what Paul explains in 1 Timothy 3:15: “But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (NKJV). Paul is referring to a physical building that God is expecting his people to go to. And why are God’s people going there? Because that gathering where Jesus’s church assembles is the pillar and ground of the truth, the place where you learn to stand on truth (ground) and hold on to truth (pillar). From Matthew 9:36, we also learn that Jesus’s solution to keep people from being wearied and scattered is to give them a pastor (or a shepherd). It is completely understandable that pastors would be responsible for God’s pillar and ground of the truth and for personal care of the flock. The Greek word translated “shepherd” in Matthew 9:36 is the same Greek word translated “pastors” in Ephesians 4:11–12 “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
The spiritual importance of being face-to-face
But does the local church need to gather in a building? Can’t it just be online?
Paul says, “For what thanks can we render to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face and perfect what is lacking in your faith?” (1 Thess. 3:9–10). Let’s note that letters like Paul’s to the Thessalonians were the mass media of the day, much like how we use the internet, social media, and television today. These letters were meant to be read out loud to the church or churches in the region. But were letters were enough? Paul says no.
Paul is seeking the Lord day and night to find a way to see the people face-to-face. Why does Paul feel so strongly the need to see the people in person? Without physically being together, there will be things lacking in their faith. Something will doubtlessly be missing if their encounter is not face-to-face in the same room. Mass communication will not be enough. Without assembling together, the growth of your faith will not achieve the same level of genuine relationship and personal connection—thus limiting your spiritual maturity. These truths should excite us about gathering together in the same place, at the same time—offline.
Through our pastor’s grace, rather than being wearied and scattered, we will be rooted and grounded in truth. And being face-to-face, we will have perfected that which is lacking in our faith. Not to mention the other benefits we haven’t talked about—the added strength of corporately worshiping and praying as well as each of us putting our own gifts to work, as a body fitly joined together in loving devotion to our kind, our church family, and our community.
Isn’t this exciting?
Thank God for online church, but as soon as possible, let’s assemble ourselves together once again!