Should we have online services? Some considerations
I would like to offer some thoughts on the issue with the hope of stimulating further reflection by the church.
03 MAY 2020 · 11:00 CET
In previous centuries, when pandemics broke out over several countries or continents, the reaction was more or less the same as it is today with COVID-19: stop travelling, avoid public places, be wary of foreign visitors, and stay home as much as possible.
Whereas in previous generations, this has led to the disruption of church services (although this was not always the case; see below), technology has opened the possibility of “be together” without actually being together.
This novelty has served to force the church to ask itself many fundamental questions about its nature and practices, and many of them seem to come together in the following one: Should we have online services?
In this article, I will not attempt to give a definitive answer to this question because I don’t think we’ve had enough time to think through everything yet. Rather, I would like to offer some thoughts on the issue with the hope of stimulating further reflection by the Church at large, especially among the Evangelical wing.
2. Why do evangelicals have online services?
One thing important to remember is that the body of Christ is quite large, and different denominations have different ways of responding to different issues. I am limiting myself to the Evangelical tradition, in distinction other traditions, such as mainline Protestantism, for example.
In this section, I would like to offer some thoughts as to why so many Evangelical churches have chosen to offer online services.
Spiritual over material
Because of (neo-platonic?) influences such as Zwinglianism, Puritanism, and the Enlightenment, many Evangelicals prioritize the mental and spiritual over the physical and material.
This means that our view of church is not tied down to material things such as physically being present with others, celebrating the sacraments (or ordinances), and embodied ministries.
Thus, for many of us, although we might not be sitting down next to our best friend or a new visitor in church, our experience of church hasn’t really changed much. What we value most is being able to listen to God’s Word, which we can do equally from a pew in a church or from our couch at home.1
Priority of preaching
Due to the same influences mentioned above, as well as others, Evangelicals place a priority on the preached Word of God. I am not saying that this is a bad thing (in fact, I would say the opposite!), but I am saying that online services preserve what we value most: preaching.
Most of us think, why not have online services where we can still listen to preaching?
Practice over reflection
Evangelicals are a practical bunch of Christians, and typically are not known for their ability to think deeply about issues. We often leap before we look, for better or for worse. In some ways, it is one of our greatest virtues, while at others, our greatest weakness.
I think many people in the movement have thought that there is no difference between preaching into a camera and preaching to a “live audience”, so long as the pastor is preaching from the Bible.
3. Should evangelicals have online services?
Before going further, I would like to draw attention to the second part of the title of this essay, which I chose on purpose: “Some Considerations”. I am not offering any dogmatic teaching on the topic, but rather some reflections that I hope others will consider.
Not the first pandemic
This is not the first pandemic that the Church has faced. For example, the Church as lived through major plagues in the 2nd, 3rd, 14th, and 16th centuries, just to name a few.2
The Christian response in all of these plagues was the same: in addition to staying in the affected cities and ministering to the sick and dying, Christians kept going to church.
The issue is complicated today in that we have a modern understanding of germ theory and many governments are mandating quarantines, thereby bringing in the issue of civil obedience (something not present during previous pandemics, to my knowledge).
Nevertheless, it is worth considering that Christians were quite stubborn about ministering to the sick and going to church, even when their lives were at risk. Church is where God renews our hope in his goodness and victory over evil. Perhaps now, more than ever, is when we need this message.
Before going any further, allow me to make an important qualification. While it is true that we should care very deeply about providing for others while they are sick and going to church, we should also care deeply about obeying civil authorities and protecting ourselves and our families.
God does not want us to be irresponsible and then “have faith” that he will keep us safe from harm. I realize that there is tension here, but my basic point is that I think we have something to learn from our forefathers in the faith, who prized worshipping God over everything else, including their physical safety.
Church in the first century
Many Evangelicals are offering online services without the Lord’s Supper, as if one could be separated from the other. Interestingly, this is the practice of many churches already: preaching every week, with the Lord’s Supper celebrated much less regularly.
However, this simply is not how church was done in the first century. Every church service had two parts: a meal followed by a time of mutual sharing that was centered around Scripture (for a short video explaining was church was like in the New Testament, click here).
It would have been utterly incoherent for a New Testament Christian to suggest that a church could have preaching without the Lord’s Supper. In fact, at least one text strongly suggests that the very purpose of getting together was to share a meal together (Acts 20:7).
They simply always went together. So, I think it is worthy to ask ourselves the question: Why do we stream our preaching if we do not stream the Lord’s Supper?
The New Testament uses an interesting phrase to refer to a church service: “gathering” (cf. Matt 18:20; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 5:4; 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Apparently, it is essential that Christians physically be together in order to be the Church.
After all, how else are we to love one another, comfort one another, pray one another, etc., if we are not together? If technology makes it possible for us to do some of these things, that’s great; but is it a perfect substitute?
I am aware that special times call for special measures, and that Paul said he was with the Corinthian church in “spirit” (1 Cor 5:4), but I think we must take seriously the issue of gathering. Perhaps a question would help here: Are our online services truly a “gathering” of Christians?
As Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us, God has revealed himself to us in many ways, but his highest form of revelation was in the Incarnation. Instead of speaking to us from afar, God chose to speak to us in flesh and blood.
While I would not want to press the parallels too far, I do think it is worth considering what the Incarnation has to say with respect to online services.
What is “church”?
Historically, Protestants have answered this question from two different angles. Those who look at the church “from above” (i.e., Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed) say that the church does three things: preaches the Word, administers the sacraments, and exercises church discipline.
Those who look at the church “from below” (i.e., Anabaptists) say that the church is a community, and therefore must fulfill the “one another” commandments of Scripture: love one another, exhort one another, etc. (For a discussion of these distinct approaches to the church, click here.)
The question arises: Is an online service “church” by either of these definitions? According to the first definition, while we can preach the Word, we cannot administer the sacraments (or can we? see below) or exercise church discipline.
According to the second definition, it is difficult, although not impossible, to fulfill many of the one “one another” commandments. My basic point here is that while there are some things we may be able to do with an online service, there are some things that we simply cannot do, or at least do as well when we physically come together.
4. Questions for Consideration
As advertised, I have not argued that Evangelicals should or should not have online services, although I do think that it is clear that I am cautious about saying that online services are just as good as normal church services. Here, I would like to offer some questions for both sides to consider.
First, some questions for those who have online services:
1. What are you doing to replicate “gathering” together as much as possible?
2. Do you have a way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper together? If not, why?
3. Is it clear to everyone that online services are irregular and limited, and that there are many things the church should be doing, but cannot do for the present moment?
4. In the early church, deacons would take bread and wine to the church’s sick who could not come to the service. Are there any parallels for our current situation?
Second, some questions for those who do not have online services:
1. If you are a pastor, how can you use technology to continue to pastor your church during the upcoming weeks and months?
2. Is there any way to create a “gathering” atmosphere, even if there is no physical presence?
1 Although this is not the appropriate place to develop this thought, the Church needs to be aware of the fact that our culture is experiencing a complete rejection of the Enlightenment vision. If the Enlightenment prioritized mind over matter, our postmodern world prioritizes matter over mind.
2 Cf. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/