The church in the United States and much of the world has never experienced anything like these past few weeks. Yes, the church has faced pandemics throughout the centuries, but it has never done so with the ability to move certain aspects of corporate worship online. Churches that have never livestreamed a service in their history have closed their doors and opened a YouTube channel. For some churches, particularly in more rural areas, even this has been beyond their ability. Thankfully, many pastors are able to preach the Word online and, as a result, provide temporary, virtual alternatives for those congregations that cannot live-stream their own services.
Two Lord’s Days ago, our congregation in Florida held services both online and in person. I assisted in livestreaming the service, and the elders discouraged attendance, especially for those who were more vulnerable to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). On the last Lord’s Day, March 22, 2020, the elders moved all the services to online only. I was home for the morning service, watching it on TV with my family. It was a bittersweet morning.
Thank You, Lord
For years, I’ve sought—along with many others—to remind the church to be thankful for today’s technology. It is helping us reach more people, and it is being used by the Lord in ways we’re still only beginning to understand. Lives are being changed forever as a result of blog posts. Many sheep are being delivered from the deceitfulness of false teachers through God’s use of quality podcasts. And millions more are being built up in their faith throughout the week, thanks to so many video resources accessible with a simple click.
The current crisis is highlighting even more clearly to more people in the body of Christ why we can give thanks to God for the technological advances of recent decades. By God’s grace, the lights haven’t been turned off. The Light of the World is still shining in the darkness as His gospel is preached and the sermons of faithful pastors are broadcasted on television, computer, and smartphone screens.
How Long, Lord?
Although I am grateful to be able to sit under the preaching my family loves and to sing with our friends and fellow church members (albeit dispersed across Central Florida), I also feel a tangible angst. I know this is not the ideal. This is not God’s normative design for His church. This is a time for which we should long to be over soon.
As I’ve thought about this, I’ve been reminded of the Apostle John’s words in 2 John 12: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
John would much rather have gathered with these Christians in person and shared the truth with them face-to-face. I stand by what I’ve publicly said before: at its best, “online church” is inferior. At its worst, it’s an oxymoron. And we all need to remember this.
One of the worst things that could happen as a result of church services’ being forced to go online is that they would remain online long after COVID-19. The enticement of no commute, being instantly home after the benediction, and getting a refill of coffee during the sermon could lead us to convince ourselves that this is an acceptable expression of the church’s corporate worship for those with the ability to gather in person. Introverts and extroverts alike need the sharpening of iron that comes from in-person fellowship and worship. We all need the accountability too. If we’re honest, despite all the rationalization we can give to keeping church online, we know something is missing when we “gather” at a distance.
Last Sunday, three young people (all siblings) were baptized during the morning service. I currently teach two of them each week in a Sunday school class for middle schoolers. My eyes welled up out of both joy and grief. I’m so glad that I did not miss out entirely on this significant moment in their lives, but I was grieved to not be there. Why did I feel this way? Why did that thought even cross my mind? Because although pixels are people, watching pixels is not the same communally as being in the presence of people.
Change Us, Lord
I do pray that this unprecedented season and our extra reliance on technology will result in positive change within the body of Christ.
Will this time help us better grasp what much of the global church already experiences every week? We are shut in due to an invisible virus, while many others are shut in due to the very visible threat of persecution.
Perhaps we will also taste a little of what many senior Christians experience when health limitations force them to remain at home. Elders faithfully meet with them during the week and encourage them in the Word, but what of the rest of the congregation? I admit I can’t recall the last time I prayed for someone to know the comfort and presence of God during their season of being homebound. The angst of that situation is very real to me now.
As we are all being forced to use new technology, the barrier of entry is also being forced down. The data surrounding how many in a congregation would participate in online resources is now available. Perhaps this means more elders and church leaders will have the opportunity to see how helpful this digital age can be—not to replace the weekly worship service, but to provide additional helpful resources for adult Sunday school and the many weekly opportunities for discipleship and Bible study. Ligonier Connect for groups immediately comes to mind as one resource to supplement discipleship.
I hope you share my feeling that these days are truly bittersweet. I’m reminding myself that there will come a day without end in which we will dwell bodily, together, with our Lord. Let us rejoice and be glad, but let us also long for tomorrow—the day when our joy truly will be complete and we will hear His words from His own lips.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on March 26, 2020.