When Orlando Grace Church launched its first livestreamed service on 5 April 2020, it seemed a great blessing that people could worship from their homes. We did the right thing then, and we would do it again, but those were unique circumstances. We believe it is time to cut the feed.
The point of gathering
Worshipping as a church is an embodied experience in both its individual and communal dimensions.
The Bible is clear that gathering is essential for the life of the church. In Matthew 18:17-20, in the context of Jesus speaking about the church, he makes his beloved promise: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.’
Paul admonishes Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they have come together (1 Corinthians 11:33). The author of Hebrews tells us not to neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).
We are not simply minds that passively take in the prayers, teaching, and worship of a worship service. Rather, as those created body and mind after the image of God, we must experience what is sung, prayed, taught, and tasted in worshipping God with our whole selves.
Our voices lift up together in corporate confession in song. Our hearts bow in corporate submission in prayer. Our bodies partake in a corporate meal in the Lord’s Supper. We are corporately commissioned with a blessing from the Lord in benediction. The sermon is the pinnacle of this corporate gathering, through which God addresses his people.
These are actions of a covenant people in covenant assembly worshipping the covenant God. Trying to accomplish these things by yourself through a device pales in comparison to the real thing.
A faint hint of that experience can be felt in a livestream, but at its best, livestreaming is the spiritual equivalent of a deployed soldier having a Zoom relationship with his wife: necessary, but nothing you’d want to get used to.
At its worst, it’s like playing a football video game and claiming to be in the Premier League. Even more, satisfying ourselves with this little taste actively works against our desire for the real thing.
We’ve all learned this year that we stream what we have to, but we show up for what is truly important. In-person worship is one of those things.
How streaming hurts us
We have enough data now to see that streaming fuels consumeristic church, enables laziness, and fools people into thinking they’re being nourished and built up. Online church is the York Notes of worship. It’s a cheap substitute.
‘But what about the evangelistic opportunities?’
We are sympathetic to this argument and appreciate the heart behind it. Churches claim that their reach is far greater now as their analytics soar, and non-Christians might see the service in their social-media feed. There may well be new Christians out there from a livestream, but the vast majority of these clicks are from people who couldn’t attend their church and picked the best online experience that Sunday.
We are thankful for the ways technology has enabled people to hear sermons and music outside the walls of the church. But even the best online experience is not better than in-person worship, and all parties suffer.
Well-meaning churches that hire online pastors to reach more people may well be doing the opposite and contributing to the de-churching of the West. We continue to lower the bar, keep people from what they need most, and make it easier to stay disconnected from the body of Christ.
‘But this allows us to reach people who have moved away!’
The best way to serve those who have moved away is not keeping them tied to your church’s worship, your finances, and your membership roll. The best way to serve them is to push them to connect with a church where they live, and to assist them in every way possible in finding a healthy church.
It is simply a game of make-believe to pretend that they’re still in the fellowship of your local body of believers when their body is hundreds of miles away.
‘But what about the homebound?’
This is the most compelling argument to us. As much as we want to serve these people and should work hard to minister to them, the principle still holds true that to livestream a worship service is to say something patently false about what worship is at its core.
While we may be swayed to provide a recording of the service afterward for them, we believe it is important to maintain the integrity of the gathering by not acting like a livestream is the same thing, even for those unable to partake.
When to cut the feed?
So when do we pull the plug? We’ve decided that we will pull the plug when everyone older than 18 who wants a vaccine has access to it. In our context, that meant late May.
After we cut the livestream at Orlando Grace Church, we will still provide sermon videos because they’re helpful in many ways. They just aren’t a substitute for in-person worship.
We’re thankful for the technology that got us through this pandemic, but we’re looking forward to diverting our resources elsewhere. We will continue to use technology to build the church through sermons, podcasting, live devotions, and social media, but we won’t continue to provide an imitation of embodied worship now that it’s reasonably safe to gather together again.
A version of this article appeared at The Gospel Coalition. Reproduced with permission.
By Jim Davis (pastor of Orlando Grace Church) and Skyler Flowers (assistant pastor of Grace Bible Chuch Oxford, Mississippi)