As we come closer to the one-year point in which many places shut down and people stopped coming together, I am thinking about those few weeks when my church was not meeting in person as we developed a plan for reopening. For some churches, it was the end and they had to close doors permanently. For others, it was a quick shift to online church and things continued. Still, a few others remained open and went on business as usual.
A lot of good things have come from the instant growth of online church. People found new ways to connect with each other. Our church took the directory and split it up between church leadership and made phone calls each week to check in with church attenders. This led to a few people feeling more connected than ever before because they actually had time to have a deeper conversation than they would after service on a Sunday. The connections continue to grow from our YouTube channel as we reach people in far away countries that we would never meet any other way. Additionally, the amount of good content has grown as many other churches are posting online like never before.
This brings up the question of why we really need to get together in the same room on a Sunday morning as has been the tradition for almost two thousand years. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 10:24-25 "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." My translation; those living a life of faith need to get together to encourage each other. That is the heart of why it is important to get together for church.
If “stirring up in love and good works” is the reason to get together, then this could apply to meeting for breakfast, or having a phone call, or watching a service online. When I get together with my mentor and we have breakfast, we pray that God is in our conversation and I am stirred up and encouraged for days later as I continue to think about the conversation we had. The same is true when I have a long phone conversation about faith, I feel recharged. To a lesser extent, a text message can do the same thing.
I have noticed online church versus gathering in a building are not exactly the same thing. For me, a face-to-face breakfast conversation with my mentor is like having church in person. I am there, I am engaged, I do not have any distractions and I hear every word. Online church is not quite like a text message, but it is also not the same as being in person. If you live alone and you have a big television you can cast to and it feels like you are there (which I do not have), it might be like having a really good phone call. However, production issues and camera angles can give you a sense of watching versus participating. No one at the church can hear you shout “Amen” and be encouraged. I think this is where the degradation of the church experience can begin, but it doesn't stop there.
This assumes that for church, you use a formula of singing, announcements, prayer, sermon, and closing prayer. You have all your bases covered with online church. Interaction is the big missing component. Some churches allow comments and conversations during the live stream, which is very helpful, but it is not always the same as a conversation in person before or after the service. It is in these conversations that we see the dark circles under people’s eyes and we ask them, “How are you REALLY doing?”. This can be followed up with a prayer that touches them in a way they really needed.
So far, I have been talking about the pattern that we think about when we hear the word church. It is a building and coming to the building weekly to give hugs and shake hands, worship God, hear a message, then get on with our week. I referenced breakfast with a mentor or a phone call, this is where church also happens. If two people get together and discuss Jesus, he is there with them (Matthew 18:20). That is also what Hebrews 10 is talking about. As those being born of the Spirit (John 3:5), we need to grow spiritually. This growth occurs from the teaching we receive from church, whether online or in person, and it comes from experiences and interactions with other believers. Sharing experiences together and living this life of faith together is what church actually is. When Acts 4:32 says they had everything in common, it obviously refers to the sharing of finances between them, but when you tie that to Matthew 6:21, I think it means so much more. They were a family sharing life together and looking out for each other as we should be sharing life together as the Church.
Online church can be amazing and a lot of good has come from it. It has its place and can be a great source of teaching and a chance to share in worship from your living room. I would never advocate someone to stop using online channels to get good sound teaching. However, I believe that if we make this our only source of “church” we are missing so much more. Make the phone call, meet for lunch, meet in the park; your interaction with other believers is paramount for your spiritual growth. Sometimes the best place to interact is on a Sunday morning in a building with a cross on the front, but even then, don’t make that your only interaction either.
One final note on the subject. We have been praying for someone in our church for over a year and a half. There have been prayer requests submitted in the Prayer Pals app and we have all been praying individually. A few people have been getting together every week at the church specifically for prayer for her and I showed up this week. Nothing could be more powerful than to hear the sincere prayers of agreement for her healing as we praised God and held hands in unity on her behalf. I was deeply encouraged and grew spiritually as I am sure others there have as well. Church is living life together and sharing in our burdens and joys in the name of Christ Jesus. It just might be impossible to do alone, at least for any long stretch of time.