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What an Online “Church” Service Can’t Provide

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In his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch notes, “One of the great gifts of technology is the simulation of presence at a distance.”[1] One way we see this most acutely in the Western Church is through the presence of online church services. But is this simulation as good as it appears?

Virtually every church with a website does something to capture their corporate worship service and reproduce it for others at a later time. As a result, there are scores of families and individuals who never darken the doors of a particular church gathering, yet claim to be members because they tune into worship (online) at some point throughout the week.

But is it biblically possible to be a “member” of a church, if you are never physically gathered with the church? Didn’t God design corporate worship to be shared, well, corporately? What is lost when we remove ourselves from the physicality of corporate worship so that we can’t talk to, interact with, pray for, react to, touch, or hear our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Allow me to offer three considerations concerning corporate worship that is primarily online:

1. Worship isn’t about me.

We live in the age of individualism, and we have been taught to understand the world around us as being about us. So when we think about worship services, why would things be any different? When I think about whether to actually attend a live gathering, or tune in through a simulcast, I’m mainly thinking of what makes me happy: lights, music, great public speaking. Of course, if that is all there is to a worship gathering, then why wouldn’t I stay home and stream the service?

According to Scripture, “worship” that takes self as its starting point sounds a lot like idolatry. True worship begins with considering God’s desires and the instructions He has revealed in His Word. If you don’t think how we worship matters to God, then just ask Uzzah (see 2 Samuel 6:5–15).

Not only do we need to think about God when it comes to corporate worship, but also we must think about one another. Followers of Christ should be marked by a self-giving, self-denying love. When we worship in a church service, we are not there for a show, but to worship the triune God together with other believers in whom Christ’s Spirit dwells. Paul’s metaphor of the human body (1 Corinthians 12–14) highlights the close relationship between Christ and His people. Christ manifests Himself in the gathering of His people.

2. Meaningful membership is virtually impossible.

Now it should be acknowledged that church “membership” as a formal process, including keeping a list of names, is not explicitly commanded in Scripture. But the principal, and even the language, comes from Paul’s imagery of the church as the “body” of Christ, where each of us are “members” of that body (Romans 12:4–5). Even with this elementary understanding of church membership, how does an online church experience fit with the idea that believers are fellow members of Christ’s body?

Yes, we are “members” of the universal body of Christ, but Paul was not thinking abstractly when he referred to the Corinthians as fellow members. He was addressing relationship problems that came from real people who could not escape other real people through the magic of simulcast. These Corinthian believers had to learn what it looked like to live the cross-shaped life by dying to their own preferences in order to love the people in their church who were frustratingly different than themselves. Some might call this relational reality part of the sanctification process.

Meaningful membership means that I value worshiping with others because I get a chance to embody the love and care of Christ to another person in order to aid in their worship of God. I get to serve them, be patient with them, forgive them, be forgiven by them, bear their burdens, and even learn from them. I get to carry out the many “one another” commands in the New Testament, commands that help me experience more of the presence of Christ in my life (Philippians 3:10-11).

3. New Testament worship assumes physical presence.

There’s a lot that we could say here, but we need look no further than the Lord’s Supper to make the point clear. Paul rebuked the church for taking the Lord’s Supper in a way that slighted certain members who were present, thereby taking the meal in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

Note: the church could not be rebuked for disparaging certain persons in taking the Lord’s Supper together . . . unless they were actually together. Paul does not have a category for partaking in the Supper alone at home. If we are to partake in the Supper, and thus be obedient to our Lord’s command, then we must not forsake meeting together (see Hebrews 10:24).

There are many people who, for a variety of reasons, including physical disabilities, are not able to be physically present in corporate worship. For such people, worshipping online may be a gift of God’s grace. But this special circumstance should not be made the norm for the church. It should be the exception, not the rule.

The gospel’s power in our lives is closely related to the presence of people in our church. So much of our ability to live out the truth of the gospel, and experience the presence of Christ, depends on the depth of our relationship with other believers. In light of the push to make worship a virtual experience, may we not lose sight of the ministry of presence.

[1] Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family, 161.

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