I will admit that I have always been an online church curmudgeon. I recognize that there was an element of the church even in the New Testament that was “virtual.” When early leaders like Paul wrote letters to the churches, these letters were intended to be substitutes for their physical presence. The Church, however, is much more than simply its written correspondence. No one would ever have dreamed of making the claim that reading one of Paul’s letter was a reasonable substitute for participating in the body-life of the Church. No, the letters strengthened the churches, but they weren’t the Church. That would be like saying that filling up your gas tank is the same thing as driving to the beach.
The Church is an embodied community of believers testifying to the Kingdom and living life together. The life of the Church is a physical, incarnational life. Just to give three examples:
- I’ve always found it fascinating that Paul directed us to sing songs of worship “to each other.” (Eph. 5:19) Why? Don’t we sing to God? Well, yes. But there is also an element of our worship that is meant to be overheard by others. We lift each other up in our singing.
- Greeting time is received in many churches with a bit of a sigh. It seems cheesy and unnecessary, but greeting each other (with a kiss!) has long been a tradition in the church (Rom. 16:16). Why? Shaking someone’s hand isn’t true fellowship, right? Well, yes. But when we greet each other in the Lord we are recognizing the importance of sharing the same space with fellow believers even if we don’t know their name. We are reminded that worship isn’t a private affair. It isn’t mere spectacle.
- Communion and baptism are inescapably physical and communal in nature. These celebrations of God’s grace cannot be replicated in a digital space.
Pretty much the only thing we can replicate really well in a digital space is the sermon. Sort of like Paul’s letters, we can virtually deliver teaching that strengthens the Church, but the sermon is not the Church.
If it sounds like I’m being a grump, I’m really not intending to be. I’m just telling you my thought process going into today. Today was my first opportunity to “go to church” online. Here are my initial thoughts. I’ve put them into bullets because it’s late and I’m too tired to be creative.
- I am so proud of my church. The ministry staff did such an amazing job leading us this morning in what has been a very difficult and confusing time for them. The worship was fantastic. The sermon was uplifting. The technology was mostly seamless. (I had some problems on my end unrelated to the church.)
- I legitimately worshiped this morning. I was sitting on my couch, wearing my pajamas and coffee in hand, worshiping alongside of my family. We didn’t sing at first, but then as we got further into the service we were all singing, even my son who wondered why we didn’t stand.
- Communion was weird but memorable. We had Saltine crackers and Capri-Sun juice. Later, I was laughing as people started posting their own weird Communion pictures on Facebook.
- This was the right thing to do. At Ozark we have been talking about what our community responsibility is in the midst of this crisis. We feel that our responsibility was to close our campus and conduct classes online. Thousands of churches like mine have made a similar call. It is a responsible thing to not gather hundreds of people together right now. It is not a lack of faith. It is the exercise of wisdom and the implementation of love for our neighbors.
- One person asked me why every church needs to have its own streaming service. After all, some churches just aren’t able to pull it off very well. Why don’t we all just tune in to some fancy church that already has all the technology figured out? This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded that the church is local. These are our people! I don’t want to “tune-in” to some random church. I want to be a part of my family – even if it is online. We are already feeling so isolated. I need to worship with those I can’t be with.
- I’m probably always going to be a curmudgeon about online church. I can do this for a season because I must, but it is only going to make it sweeter when we can all be together again.
- It is nice that we are able to have an online service, but I think it is imperative that we also remember that the Church isn’t programming. The Church isn’t Sunday morning service. The Church hasn’t been closed by a virus. We must continue to find ways of being the Church for our localities and our world in these weird and scary times.