While this post may come across to some dear members of the body of Christ as overly dismissive of where you live and operate, nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that my heart breaks for those in our ranks who are settling for anything less than the INCARNATE gospel of Jesus fully offers through the INCARNATE gatherings of believers all over the planet in real time and space. What was a trend that lay semi-dormant before the dawn 2020 has now fully been exposed and even mainstreamed in our Covid-riddled world. As one author put it, “Church membership (and participation in it) INCARNATES the believer’s oneness with Jesus.” An experience that is too full and rich and sweet with THE Son of God who promised to be “in the presence of two or three gathered in His name (Mt. 18:20)” to let well-intended believers miss out on it regularly. Technology in ministry as a supplement is truly a worthy-of-our-investment gift; but the moment it becomes primary, it morphs into an insatiable robber of much that we should hold dear!
A few caveats before we get to the heart of this post:
This is NOT discounting those who truly are unable physically to attend in person. (We regularly have folks out who are also too sick to go to work, school, family gatherings that tune in, and I love their tenacity to track with us in any way that they can until they can get back to it fully in person. Many in this legitimate season of need, would give anything to have the choice of assembling that many carelessly take for granted!)
This is NOT a passive aggressive attempt to confront any specific person in my life or ministry. (If you think it you specifically that I am talking you, may I encourage to be open to the fact that maybe it is the Lord instead?)
This is NOT saying that digital platforms are not a part of reaching the lost and reconnecting with many disenfranchised saints. (Many of those who eventually visit our church or get saved first check us out for some time online, and I love it!)
But…I am submitting, after years of making our church’s digital footprint a serious budget and staffing priority, that it is woefully deficient when given the choice between virtual and in person! Here are some glaring areas where digital-alone engagement is inadequate for those tempted or entrenched in OPTING (key word) for it out of convenience and/or insulation:
Virtual-only worshippers get the immediate, a la carte perks of the local church without shouldering the lion’s share of regular, mundane responsibilities.
While I am working to more fully understand the perspective of those who choose to keep our church at a digital distance, may I ask the same from other side? Have you thought about how it is feels to be the only ones keeping the literal framework and fleshed-out continuity of our churches going on a daily and weekly basis from which you freely benefit? An example to help you would be our business meetings where much of the stewardship and strategy of ministry is tangibly activated/accessed. I would humbly submit to you that the deacons and staff that earnestly help formulate those projections and church members who are willing to be inconvenienced a bit after a Sunday evening service to prayerfully process them are the real heroes. It comes down to whether you and I, as stewards of the glories and grunt work of the local church, are takers or givers. Brother or Sister in Christ, a truly viable and vibrant digital ministry is only possible because of those willing to meet in person and sacrificially generate what others only legitimately need or preferentially desire to view online.
Virtual-only worshippers severely limit/lose the privilege of using and benefitting from the literal gifts of the Spirit of God.
While I am grateful for those who give financially and weigh in on the comment threads of our various livestream platforms, that is about the extent of ministry available those who choose to never frequent the physical campus of their church. The phrase “one another” is derived from the Greek word allelon which means “one another, each other; mutually, reciprocally.” It occurs over 100 times in the New Testament. Approximately 59 of those occurrences are specific commands teaching us how (and how not) to relate to one another. Obedience to those commands is imperative! It forms the basis for all true Christian community. When we refuse to be fully around each other, let’s be honest, there are so many “one another’s” are that being left undone. In other words, we are being disobedient…no matter how many technological props we deploy in compensation.
Virtual-only worshippers become far too accustomed to everything being on their terms and timetable.
While in no way is this always true, I observe that those of us who naturally gravitate to online-only church tend to be a bit more undisciplined or self-oriented with our time management. I, as a regular online content generator, would love to imagine that those who tune into our virtual services are always wide awake, seated prayerfully in front of their screen, singing out on every song with us, and with an open Bible, but the data painfully says otherwise. Often the livestream, at best, is watched later and watched half-heartedly while other self-oriented priorities are being pursued or accomplished. There is something sanctifying and refining in being required to get on the same schedule in the same space with a group of other believers that we cannot afford to miss with our full attention and presence. Just as we would label a family “dysfunctional” that voluntarily never shares a meal together around a literal table with literal chairs week in and week out, our churches are the same when this is true of us spiritually.
Virtual-only worshippers regularly open themselves up to unnecessary threats unique to autonomous isolation.
While many voluntarily prefer the strategic insulation from predictable, interpersonal tensions and hurts that come from imperfect people, they actually open themselves up to additional and more serious threats that normally scamper away from unrelenting Christian community. God never calls us to do/be something that is not only for His glory but our good; nowhere is this more true than with incarnate church worship and ministry. Our fallenness, even as believers, tends to want to do the opposite of what is good for us including licking our wounds from attempting Christian fellowship that will never heal independently of Christian fellowship! Eric Davis challenges that often-pseudo commitment to the church fostered by the buffered livestream, “Sure, you can be a Christian and not go to church. Kind of like a zebra separated from his herd getting eaten by cheetahs is still a zebra.” You, by yourself, curating what spiritual content you want to hear when you want to hear it are opening yourself up to a horde of blind spots and subtle compromises perpetuated by the enemy that slowly hollow out your very soul…all while soothing your conscience with religious fodder.
Virtual-only worshippers miss out on much of the “meat” of incarnate gatherings.
The best analogy that I can think of to jarred your numbed-over-time mind and heart on this issue would be in relation to your favorite restaurant. While “carry out” or DoorDash might be an option during less-than-ideal seasons, there is no app or option that can replace the ambiance of your favorite entree eaten in the place where it was made and served by the people who made it. In fact, many times the environment is as much what nurtures your body and soul as the food itself that tends to be a bit soggy and inferior after being jostled around and then delivered to your doorstep by an underinvested, impersonal delivery system. “Convenience” almost always requires compromise on quality, and nowhere is that more true than in the meat of the Word through the fellowship, worship, and pulpit ministry of the local church that know you and feeds you in an incomparably personal and powerful manner.
Last and the one that concerns me most: virtual-only worshippers tend to forget how their choices are and will impact future generations.
I recently heard a thought leader say of habit formation, “play it forward.” Nowhere does that fast forward button needed to be tapped more than in our aging relationship with the local church. Truly we reap in our descendants what we sow in our own lifetimes. To decentralize the church from the mooring of incarnate gatherings is to lose the intimate connection between our kids/grandkids and not only our church but our Christ! As D.A. Carson writes, “We are one generation away from apostasy.” This comes from assuming the gospel (the message uniquely entrusted to the church), then accepting a more convenient iteration of the gospel, and then finally abandoning it all together. We already see the rumblings of where digital-only “church” is taking us in fledgling attempts at pushing the envelope in the newly minted “metaverse.” (For more on this trend that takes disassociating from in-person church to a whole new level watch this concerning news story.) The book of Judges warns us that “to do what is right in OUR OWN EYES” (notice is visually oriented only) leads to the following consequence: “there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Jdg 2:10). If we want to avoid repeating this doomed history and have our children be saved, baptized, worshipping, fellowshipping, and serving the Lord long after we are in eternity, we must not abdicate our visible, tangible expressions of the faith. That’s not just what but WHO is at stake…including my two teenage sons who right now taking their tangible cues from my wife and me and are learning to work in the sound booth, teach in junior church, clear sidewalks, and will, someday sooner than it feels, ultimately lead the local church into the next decades. For their sake and the sake of those coming after them, don’t you and your internet-connected device take the easy way out!
I would concur with John MacArthur’s direct assessment that is unfortunately out of step of much of even Christian sentiment, “Zoom church is not church…The church is this communion of people, this fellowship of people whose lives are all blended together in a profound expression of love and unity, and that does not happen in any kind of video environment. I don’t think it even happens in a quote-unquote church where you’re watching a video of a pastor, because it’s very important that that man’s life be exposed and visible and known to everyone (My Add: This is not just a pastor picking on the pewsters or trying to preserve my professional context; we pastors need this post as much anybody!)…You’re in violation of the whole intent of the Lord and how He wants His people to work together.”
Here’s the summary takeaway from the lips of God Himself on the largest deficiency of viewing physically gathering as “outdated and irrelevant”:
To have the manifest presence/power of the Spirit renewed to His first century levels before the church had not only a livestream but buildings and many other assets that we associate with church nowadays, we as God’s people must be tangibly present and all in on:
Unity-We must lose the unnecessary pettiness that keep us home and divides us! (“one accord”)
Assembly-We must lose the feeble excuses to not physically gather at the appointed time with the same local church we project is God’s will for our life. (“one place”)
Ac 2:1-4 “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with ONE ACCORD in ONE PLACE. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house WHERE THEY WERE SITTING. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it SAT UPON EACH OF THEM. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”