During COVID-19 lockdowns, many churches took their services online and, I suspect, many of them will keep them online as a service to their community. But is it real church? Or should we follow the counsel of the pastor who tweeted: “You can no more go to church online than you can eat dinner at a restaurant online.”1
Then there’s the Anglican priest who supported online church during COVID-19 but says that offering both online and in-person services risks turning “worship into a consumer experience”.2
Certainly, during lockdowns, it was a great way to church without going to church. I watched my church online for several weeks until restrictions were over and I felt uplifted, helped by the fact that on the screen were people and leadership I knew who were serving us as a congregation in difficult times.
I can imagine that churches could develop slick camera techniques, excellent audio and music to impress, with pastors spending extra time to tailor their messages to attract an audience. What more could you want?
But the question, again—is online church really church? The big thing missing is the person-to-person contact where the congregation has an opportunity to mingle to develop and to build relationships. And to be accountable.
Life.Church is estimated to have the largest online church audience on our planet (70,000 weekly, most of them in 36 campus locations around USA).3 The claim they make is that, “Relationships can happen in any living room around the globe.”4 That’s if you have people gathering in your living room to relate to, of course.
Online church has a place
Of course, some will view online church as simply another option for their worship and church attendance. And perhaps they will make it their regular church. In fact, every congregation should recognise that their church being online can be incredibly important for those who are unable to attend for health or other reasons. This and people from the church being in contact is incredibly important for them.
And an online presence can mean that potential attenders can check your church out to see what it’s like before they attend. Consider it a taste-and-see before committing to attending.
However, Karl Vaters argues that, “Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face. Digital reality cannot replace actual reality.” At the same time, he defends online church because, “online church is real church for a lot of people . . . because of handicaps, geography” and so on.
However, he adds that while “online church is real church . . . it’s not enough church. It’s still important and the church needs to use technological tools far better than we currently do. After all, you can’t “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) without using all the tools at our disposal.5
But, is online church real church?
No! says Collin Hansen: “The body of Christ, or church, isn’t the same when you separate its members (1 Corinthians 12:27). The hands and feet and ears and eyes need to be assembled for this body to work for the good of all.”
He argues that livestreaming is “a little too convenient”. You don’t even have to watch your own church service. You can drop into church across town, across the country or in a different country. You can watch the sermon here and the music there.
“The very word we translate from Greek as ‘church’ in the New Testament suggests we must assemble in person. The church wasn’t just a bridge of 2000 years until humanity reached Peak Zoom.” It’s essential, he adds, for those who believe God came in flesh and lived among us, and essential for those who believe Jesus rose from the dead and “sat down to enjoy a meal with his stunned friends”.6
Certainly, when the first congregations met, “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). “Fellowship” has as its basic meaning, “association, communion, fellowship, close relationship”.7 For the early Christians this was it.
Unless we are incapacitated or isolated, we are biblically called to belong in a way that online church cannot satisfy. Jesus promised that He would be with us when even two or three gather in His name (Matthew 18:20). And there is the quite direct statement: “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do. . . .” (Hebrews 10:25).
Committed church goers
Laura Turner calls herself a committed church goer. It’s “non-negotiable for me, unless I’m out of town”. Every week she can, she says, “I am in a padded, stackable chair at the Russian cultural centre my church rents for our services, sitting under a disco ball and listening to a sermon about Jesus.”
Her argument is simple: “We can be members of a body best when we are all together—we can mourn when we observe and wipe away tears, just as we can rejoice when we can share smiles and have face-to-face conversations.” She doubts that this can happen when “online church is substituted for the real thing, because the truth is that community is good for us. We need one another.”
She doesn’t believe she would be a true Christian without real, in-person church—and in her case—“disco ball and all”.8
Back in the pre-digital world, when Christian apologist CS Lewis (1898–1963) became a Christian, he later confessed that he wanted to retire to his rooms and read theology. Instead, he attended a small church not far from where he lived as a way of “flying a flag” and admitting that he was a Christian.
However, “I disliked very much their hymns which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” He attended that church for 30 years.
Why? “As I went on, I saw the great merit of it.” He came up against different people with different outlooks and education and “then gradually my conceit just began peeling off”.
He realised those hymns with their “sixth-rate music” were “being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realise that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”9
Church life does that. One of the big advantages of church attendance is that you are mixing with people who share your faith, but who may be quite different to you in other ways. Those differences help us understand the depth and breadth of Christianity—and its attraction.
The evidence is clear that mixing with other Christians helps us develop in our own faith. For families that’s important as it helps children see that they and their parents are not alone in their Christianity. For teenagers, there is space and people to talk to about their faith questions—and individuals who may model their faith in ways that capture their attention.
Among older people there can be a steadfastness about their faith that is attractive. And, if they’re willing, to be encouragers to younger people.
Online church is not going to go away and neither it should. It has its place. However, just as a live concert is much better than watching it onscreen, we need to recognise that going to church with its face-to-face and live experience elements makes for better church. It’s true that it may not be as slick, as rehearsed or as professional, but it is warts-and-all real.
Vaters adds that God became human and “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) and that’s how God became real to us, “with a name, a face and a physical presence. If God needed to do that with us, we need to do that with each other.”
Congregating for church matters. That’s where live church has the edge.
6. Collin Hansen, “What we lose when we livestream church,” New York Times, August 8, 2021.
7. Polhill, JB, Acts, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992, Vol. 26, page 119.
9. CS Lewis, God in the Dock, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1970, pages 61, 62.