Our culture has drastically changed since March 2020. Social distancing is now a common phrase that was unheard of at the beginning of the year. Shutdowns and quarantines are the hot topics on everyone’s lips, and face masks are not only accepted now by some as normal, but they’re actually becoming fashionable. Businesses, schools, and restaurants have been closed and forced to rethink how they will conduct business moving forward, and the church is experiencing a shock to its system.
Most churches across the country have been completely closed down for months with their members having no personal or direct interaction at all. And just like businesses, schools, and restaurants, churches also have had to recreate themselves and rethink how they might continue to function during this very unusual time. For most churches, these challenges have led to some type of implementation of online streaming for some portion of their teaching and worship.
I, for one, have a new-found gratitude for the incredible virtual possibilities that technology affords. Online meetings, which I’ve never had with regularity until recently, have allowed me to stay connected in ways that otherwise would have been impossible, and it has even created space to build new relationships that would never have come about without a virtual platform.
Is Online the Same As In-Person?
Indisputably, God has used (and continues to use) streaming platforms for his own purposes in specific ways and at specific times. This has resulted in great blessings for his body around the world. However, as these cutting-edge capabilities become embedded into our culture and increasingly become accepted as a normal part of life, the church must ask the question, “Can online participation and virtual gatherings of the body of Christ serve God’s purposes in the same way as physical, in-person worship gatherings?”
To answer this crucial question, we must turn our attention to God’s word because ultimately this is a theological issue and not merely a pragmatic one. So, how does the word of God shed light on this very contemporary issue?
The Biblical Church
Luke, in his report to Theophilus, describes the culture of the early church by saying that “all those who had believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Together the believers were “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Though these texts say nothing specifically about the cyber dilemma facing the church today, the broader context of Acts clearly highlights the value the early church placed on “togetherness.”
Roughly 15 times, the book of Acts the Bible speaks of believers coming together for the purpose of worship or prayer. And Paul says the church should “admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Life in the body which includes public, corporate worship is about participation in the body. The church has increasingly become more and more oriented to those who prefer to remain spectators, and if church leaders are not careful, online streaming will only reinforce this false perception of the spectator mentality.
Fellowship As a Means of God's Grace
In theological conversations, there is a term that refers to the different ways in which God edifies, strengthens, and blesses the church. The term is “means of grace,” or as it is sometimes referred, the “ordinary means of grace.” There are untold ways by which the follower of Christ is blessed and strengthened day in and day out. I can be built up and encouraged by some unique experience or interaction with God’s creation like seeing God’s glory and goodness in the mighty ocean or His splendor in the rolling mountains. However, there is no specific biblical principle or promise that these experiences will convey God’s grace to me in ways that fortify my faith.
The Bible does, however, identify certain ways in which God intends to channel his grace to his people in ways that deepen faith and conform us to Christ’s likeness. The means of grace which is most applicable for our purposes is that of fellowship. The English word fellowship is translated from the Greek word, koinonia. Koinonia simply refers to sharing a common life together with others.
This kind of fellowship is more than fried chicken and dinner on the grounds. It involves an intimate sharing of dreams, pains, joys, grief, mission, and even possessions. This is the kind of community that the Holy Spirit invites us into when he adopts us into his family. The Bible paints a vivid picture of what this kind of fellowship looks like.
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The Spiritual Benefits of 'Assembling Together'
The writer of Hebrews speaks most directly to our question when he says, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Now, I would be the first to admit that the issues facing the church in our day are different than those facing the church in the days of the Hebrew writer. However, in principle, maybe we have more in common with our ancient brothers than we might think.
It is likely that the writer of Hebrews is addressing Jewish Christians who are either being persecuted or who are very acquainted with persecution. In Hebrews 13:3, the writer instructs his audience to, “Remember the prisoners and those who are ill-treated”, and it is inferred that the incarcerations and ill-treatments are brought about because of their faith in Christ in light of the reference to Timothy’s “release” in 13:23.
Against the sobering backdrop of how these believers had their possessions seized and their great conflict of suffering and public humiliation (Hebrews 10:32-34), it is easy to ascertain that the practice of their faith was risky business. Christianity is seldom safe. It is into this dangerous culture that the writer commends the church to continue to “assemble together” despite the risk. It is safe to assume that the writer believes that the real spiritual benefits far outweigh the physical dangers that might accompany such actions.
Isolation Isn't the Overall Intent of Christianity
It would appear that the writer understands how the “togetherness” of the body serves as an ordinary means of God’s grace by which the believers will be strengthened and their faith reinforced. God has designed that his people grow in grace only as they are deeply rooted in the community of faith and engaged in life together with other saints. Christianity is not, nor was it ever intended to be, lived in isolation. Even as I make such a statement, I also acknowledge that exactly what that “togetherness” looks like from culture to culture can vastly differ.
In this writer’s humble opinion, technology is a wonderful gift of God, and it must be used to reach people that maybe we would never have the opportunity to reach with the gospel otherwise. You can listen to a sermon online, but you will never replicate virtually the holy energy of God’s presence when he moves among his assembled people. You will never receive in your living room, alone, what God desires to extend to his body in the public gathering of the saints.
Without a doubt, you are to pray in the privacy of your closet, and God hears you as though he were in the closet with you. However, something special and unexplainable happens when two or more agree to carry a petition to the throne room of grace as a corporate body.
If You Can, Join the Body
Through the years, I’ve had friends who were members in churches that offered online streaming of the worship services long before COVID-19 was part of the American vocabulary. I have observed on many occasions how some people are so easily inclined to “participate” online in the comfort of their own home rather than attending the public gathering.
If a person is physically hindered from public worship, then I’m convinced that technology becomes a great instrument in the hand of God to extend whatever blessing he deems appropriate to that person. However, for those who are simply seeking to fit their Christianity and church life into their busy lifestyles, they are robbing themselves of a heavenly blessing that can only be received corporately.
Belonging to Christ and his kingdom cannot be reduced to merely what happens in the context of a two-hour window on Sunday morning. True Christian fellowship involves sharing life, mission, service, love, and possessions each day that the Lord gives us breath. But the spiritual value of the public assembly of the church cannot be overstated. This is a spiritual reality that the world cannot understand.
Gathering Is Life-Giving
But for those who are set apart and bear the marks of Christ, the public gathering of the body is essential and life-giving. As our culture becomes increasingly obsessed with safety and comfort, online church will likely become an excepted and even preferred concession. But those who are able to attend corporate worship, yet still embrace online streaming of the worship gathering as their preferred worship mode, may soon discover that the compromise will prove more costly than the perceived benefit.
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Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.