Due to COVID-19, many churches across the globe have begun using live streaming platforms to reach their congregants at home in an effort to protect each other from contracting the virus and yet still trying to provide some form of “corporate” worship for Christians quarantined at home. There is no doubt that this is a unique time in the history of the church, and you can be sure that seminaries up to this point have not trained pastors for leading their congregations in a global pandemic. Because of this, it is important that people extend grace to pastors as they prayerfully discern what is best for each local church moving forward in the weeks ahead as cases continue to rise in America. We can trust, I hope, that every faithful minister of the gospel is eager to get back to the “good ol’ days” of attending church regularly in person each week.
However, since the announcement of the global pandemic on March 11th, 2020, we have seen virtual sermons, worship music, and even the administration of communion (or Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) performed via live stream. Because of this, I have wondered, “have pastors inadvertently taught their congregation that they can get the same worship experience online as they could in person?” Do not get me wrong, I believe it is good that pastors are preaching, praying, and bringing songs of worship online. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ability to watch a buffet of sermons on Facebook every Sunday. But have some churches gone too far in trying to bring the entire service experience online? What concerns me is the comments I am hearing from other believers since these live streamed services have begun. Comments like, “Isn’t this awesome! I can go to church from my bed!” or, “I can get use to this!” Because of comments like these, I fear that many believers do not know what a church actually is and therefore will not see it necessary to return after the pandemic.
What is the solution? I believe pastors are going to have to intentionally teach on what a church is after this pandemic is over. It will be completely necessary for pastors to remind their congregants of the spiritual and practical necessities of meeting together in person for corporate worship each week. In this blog post, I want to dive into that pool of thought for a moment biblically. I want us to consider, very briefly, what is a church and can I really attend church online?
What is a Church?
To be put simply, the church is the community of all true believers for all time (Grudem, pg. 853). The church (Gk. ekklesia) is an assembly of those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation, by grace through faith. Just because one attends a church does not mean they are part of God’s church. To be part of the church is to know Christ as Lord (2 Tim. 2:19). The church is both local and universal. The believer in your town is equally part of the family of God as the believer across the world. It is faith in Christ that unites us together. The church is made up of those who seek to live worthy of the gospel in their daily lives (Phil. 1:27).
There are many metaphors for the church used in Scripture. Among those metaphors are these three common ways to define the New Testament church: a family (Matt. 12:49-50; 1 John 3:14-18; Eph. 3:14; 1 Tim. 5:1-2), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32), and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The metaphor I most commonly use is that the church is a body. I like this metaphor because it reminds me that everyone, in Christ by faith, has a role to play in the local church. Every believer has certain gifts to offer the church (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11). But if you never attend the local gathering of believers, how can you use your gifts for the glory of God and the good of your neighbor? The church is not made up of one Christian, which leads into my question proposed above.
Can I Really Attend Church Online?
When we look at the marks of a true local church in the New Testament, we see that a church is always an assembly of people who have faith in Christ who practice specific things together. There are at least two essential marks of a biblical church: 1) the faithful (orthodox) teaching of the Word of God, and 2) the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Obviously we cannot follow the Lord in baptism online, but I would also make the theological argument that we cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper online either (that is for another post).
Wayne Grudem, Bible and theology professor at Phoenix Seminary, I believe rightly says, “baptism and the Lord’s supper serve as ‘membership controls’ for the church. Baptism is the means for admitting people into the church, and the Lord’s Supper is the means for allowing people to give a sign of continuing in the membership of the church — the church signifies that it considers those who receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be saved.” In short, God has given us these two sacraments as His church to identify, as best we can, who is a follower of Christ and who is not. If we never attend the physical assembly of the saints how can we partake in baptism or testify to others of our faith in Christ through the Lord’s Supper? These two sacraments have always been done when the church is together, not away from one another.
Believers not attending the assembly or corporate worship is nothing new. The author of Hebrews deals with this directly. He says, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis added, NASB). One of the things I miss most about regularly attending corporate worship is the mutual encouragement I receive to continue to walk with the Lord faithfully. If I never attend the assembling together of the saints, I can easily hide my sin from the people who love me the most. If I never assemble with other believers, I cut off all access for other Christians to pour into my life through discipleship. The Christian life involves a personal relationship with Christ, but it is displayed through a public relationship with others in the local church.
There is so much more that we can discuss when looking at what a church is, but I hope what I have shared can at least help us understand that we cannot “attend” church online. We can watch a sermon, we can watch worship music, but if we want to attend church we must be physically present with other believers. There are certain things we simply cannot do via live stream. We must gather in order to grow in the way God has designed His church to grow. For those in Christ, we have the Light of life (John 8:12) living inside of us. This light shines brightest when we are all gathered together, but it will surely dim and lose influence with the lost when we intentionally separate and forsake the assembly of the saints.
Sources: Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology