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The scattered church: Can we really gather for worship online?

May 2020 | by Paul Smith

Across the globe, places of worship have been asked to close. Governments have no authority to forbid churches to gather. In the UK, the Conventicle Act of 1664 forbade such gatherings. Preachers like Bunyan preferred to stay in prison rather than not preach to gatherings lawful in God’s eyes but unlawful in the eyes of the civil magistrate.

Deciding not to gather physically is a choice made by leaders of local churches under special and temporary circumstances. Evangelical churches, moved by love for God and for our neighbours, seeking to honour Caesar, have carefully accepted governmental advice as wise. For the time being, the doors of church buildings have swung shut.

It is not the first time in history that Christians have been kept from meeting together. It may be the first time that we have had at our disposal such technological means by which to alleviate that distance.

Many congregations have switched to some sort of ‘virtual church,’ repurposing their usual recording and broadcasting tools. Others are finding such tools, learning how to use them for the first time. We are in the brave new world of maintaining some semblance of church life when the church cannot physically gather.

And there’s the rub. The church, by definition, gathers. The very word indicates a body of people called out of the world by God, to God, for God, into communion with God and each other. The worship of the church, by definition, is the people of God gathered together in the presence of God.

This situation challenges our idea of what the church is and does. It challenges our idea of what worship is, and when and where it takes place. It challenges our idea of what preaching is and what it involves.

Many criticised the multisite church model because physical dislocation from the preacher has a spiritual impact on the relationship between him and the hearers. For this reason, livestreaming cannot properly be considered church. Different technologies and experiences bring a variety of dimensions to the dynamic of preaching. Livestreaming provides many of those dimensions. It provides more than a video recording, which provides more than an audio recording, though sometimes the Holy Spirit brings truth forcefully to our souls by means of some ancient recording passed down to us.

But each time we remove a dimension it creates greater distance between the preacher and the hearer. If your theology of preaching involves merely a horizontal communication of certain true data, this may not matter much to you. If you believe that the gatherings of the saints involve a vital, vertical dimension, a meeting of heaven and earth, then nothing else will satisfy.

Full-orbed biblical preaching involves every dimension: a living man among living men before the living God. It involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels — preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit, communicating with each another under his influence. Under present circumstances the preacher is often preaching in the physical absence of any congregation, with a necessary impact upon him and his labours.

We should sympathise with those cut off from church gatherings by providential hindrances, sometimes for months at a time. We are not denying that the Lord can use various means to provide for them that we could not rely on if our absence were careless or deliberate. This is not about what the Spirit is able to do, but what he has ordinarily undertaken to do.

While these technological channels are not to be despised, they are not and cannot be a substitution for the ordinary gathering of the church. They reflect an interruption of that gathering. Nothing can properly and fully substitute for actually being there, engaged, as the preacher preaches

Consider potential long-term effects of allowing ourselves, individually and corporately, to assume that this is a proper and adequate substitute for meeting as a church? What will we do if members ask to continue using these means so that they can ‘worship from home’? There may be some for whom that would be a blessing, but might it undermine others’ commitment to and engagement with the saints?

There may be a sifting as some conclude that they might as well stay at home once the restrictions are lifted and tune in to whomever, whenever and wherever they see fit. Most seriously, if during this season we feel that nothing is really missing from our spiritual experience, should we ask whether or not we had anything to lose in the first place?

Further, who is left out by our dependence on some technologies? Does this make smaller churches dependent on bigger and richer churches? Does this accelerate a tendency for Christians to tune in to some particular friend or online personality whose sermons — however excellent in themselves — are not preached with a particular flock in mind? In our individualistic age is it helpful for each believer to select a DIY worship experience online, with music and message tailored to their preference?

Different congregations might address the challenges of these days in different ways, and have the liberty to do so. We are not against the use of technology. The churches we serve use various means for recording, broadcasting, and conferencing. Much good can be done. Many helpful means should be used to comfort, encourage, and exhort God’s people.

We should not neglect opportunities to feed on God’s Word or to pray together. Evangelistic opportunities should not be despised. Perhaps some will hear the saving truth who would never hear it otherwise. After the storm has passed, we may have new tools at our disposal, and new opportunities to use them. As we have said, none of this prevents the Spirit working to save and to bless as he sees fit.

Christians have been here before. In New Testament times, they wrote to one another, expecting those letters to do spiritual good. That did not stop them longing to be together. John said, ‘Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full’ (2 John 12, cf. 3 John 13–15). They did not doubt that there were spiritual dynamics sustained by God’s grace in their physical absence from one another.

Paul wrote, ‘though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ’ (Colossians 2:5 cf. 1 Corinthians 5:3–4). Nevertheless, that same apostle clearly valued and delighted in being among God’s people more generally (Romans 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:6; Philippians 4:1), but when he preached, Jesus Christ was clearly and immediately portrayed as crucified before the eyes of men (Galatians 3:1).

Our modern technology is ‘epistles on steroids.’ We should thank God for it and use it. Nevertheless, even beefed-up communications do not bypass the gathering of God’s people in God’s presence on God’s day, or the preaching of the Word of God by a living man to living men in the presence of the living God.

So how do we apply the command not to forsake or neglect to meet (Hebrews 10:25) at this time? Where and how can we meet? Some have decided that online gatherings are so far from the reality that it is better to avoid them to a large degree. Other local churches choose virtual gathering using video conferencing software (like Zoom or GoToMeeting). They believe this helps Christians to live out Acts 2:42 as far as possible.

We need God’s means of grace to us (especially the Word of God and prayer) and to minister grace to each other (fellowship). If those logging in together are members of a local church, their online gathering is real enough to whet the appetite; iron rations to keep us alive but not a full meal to sustain us long term.

When a church meets online it is possible – depending on what technology you are using – to greet one another. Those without a computer, or those who are not savvy with the technology, can dial in using their phones. It is possible to have multiple people praying, to read the word publicly, to have interaction, to teach from the Bible, for the preacher to see the faces and responses of his hearers, to sing (not easy but possible), and to linger in conversation after the formal ‘service’ is ended.

Is this perfect? No. Should this replace physical gathering? No. Communion and baptism are impossible, reminding us of the limitations. But by mirroring the gathered church as far as possible, some online meetings may help preserve our rhythms of life, including the Lord’s Day. They keep our cohesiveness as we long for the normal gathering – a joyful reunion when we next meet physically.

However we proceed, the church must fight hard to sustain its theology of gathering and worshipping. We cannot accomplish what cannot be done. We are not trying to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God. These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church. The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; that is painful but hopefully profitable. In the same moment, we have temporary and limited provision to stop us spiritually starving.

These scraps might, with the blessing of God, keep us going, but they should make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

By Jeremy Walker & Paul Smith, Jeremy is a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, West Sussex. Paul is a full-time elder of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent, and a director of ET.