Why Online Services will Never Replace On-site Church Services
Why Online Services will never be a Replacement for On-Site Services
by George Lawson
Please read the following with discernment, inclusion of the following does not necessarily mean endorsement of their web site, other writings, and their associations. I have included this, because I thought that they might be useful or encouraging to you.
About 2 months ago we began to live-stream our services at our church. For those of you who don’t know what live-streaming is, it’s a way to simultaneously record and broadcast in real-time over the internet. Originally, we intended live-streaming to be a form of outreach, as well as a service to some of our members who were sick or recovering from surgery. We had no idea that only two months from that time, our entire congregation would be live-streaming our services, due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. (I’ll save the debate over whether churches should live-stream for another time).
Last week in our state, our governor enacted an executive order, prohibiting any gatherings of more than 250 people, this prohibition was later expanded to include gatherings of more than 50 people, and now this week it was expanded again to include all events of more than 10 people. These kinds of restrictions have obviously affected churches, large and small, all across our nation and around the globe. Some churches are in danger of closing their doors, and many are wondering if this will mark the end of congregational worship. Will members even want to return to a church building when the doors open again? Do churches need to consider switching to virtual services as a permanent solution?
Not too long ago, I spoke with a member of another church who told me that “churches just need to get on board with on-line services”, but he didn’t make this suggestion because he was worried about spreading Covid-19. He was looking for a way to reach millennials, who don’t want to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. He concluded that the only way to reach people between 21-37 years old, was to stream the church to them. This way they could just roll over in their pajamas and hit the play button. Well, how convenient!
Virtual services as a permanent replacement for assembling ourselves together would be a disastrous and sinful alternative. There are some things you just can’t replace with a screen and a wi-fi connection. Below are just a few reasons why online services will never be a permanent replacement for on-site services.
1) It would violate the clear command to assemble ourselves together
Hebrews 10:24-25, "And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 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."
2) It would conflict with roughly 40 “one-another” commands in Scripture that require personal relationships
Our first service after the state prohibition was live-streamed from an empty building, and it was obvious why churches are designed to worship together.
I entered a quiet building, where I did not receive my normal greetings at the front door in the lobby. I was reminded of the simple command, to “Greet one Another” (Romans 16:16); 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; Philippians 4:21.
I read Scripture and prayed for a congregation, who did not visibly join with me. I was reminded of the command to give attention to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13) and to be devoted to prayer (Colossians 4:2).
I sang without the encouragement of voices bouncing off of the walls and covering the voices (like mine) that are out of tune. I was reminded of the command to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).
I preached to a small group, of around 10 people, and missed the sound of Bible pages turning, the look of attentive listeners, and the occasional “amens”, and “Gloria Dios” from one of our dear sisters. I was reminded of the command to “encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
None of these blessings can be replaced with a virtual service.
3) It would place our spiritual gifts on the shelf, which are intended for the benefit of the rest of the body
Ephesians 4:16, "from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."
The pastor is just one member among many. Every joint and ligament of the body has its place in the body. The church can’t be replaced with a talking head behind a pulpit.
4) It would rob the intended meaning from the rich biblical metaphors of the church
– The church is a body made up of many members: Romans 12:5, "so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
– The church is a flock made up of many sheep: Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
– The church is a building made up of many stones: 1 Peter 2:5, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
– The church is a family household made up of family members: 1 Timothy 3:15, but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
5) It would remove the example of the shepherd among the flock
1 Peter 5:3, "nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock."
1 Timothy 4:12, "Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe."
Philippians 4:9, "The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."
Church membership is more than a subscription to a podcast and Pastoral Leadership is more than having an online following. Pastors are to live as examples among the flock. We are to be hands that care, and feet that walk alongside, not just mouths that speak. How can you be considered a shepherd, if you never have contact with the sheep?
6) It would remove the example and encouragement of the sheep to one another
Not only is the shepherd an example and encouragement to the sheep, the sheep are an example and encouragement to one another. Imitation is a part of our discipleship.
Philippians 3:17, "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us."
1 Thessalonians 1:7, "so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia."
How much have you learned in church just by observing a godly Christian example? Maybe it was how someone spoke tenderly to their wife, or how someone patiently corrected their children, or how someone calmly redirected a conversation back to the Lord, or how someone graciously responded to criticism. We can’t replace those unscripted moments. Formal teaching from the pulpit is essential, but so is “on-the-job-training”.
7) It would mute the corporate witness of the church
Do you know that part of our witness to the unbelieving world happens when we gather together?
It was assumed that unbelievers would enter the assembly of the righteous. This was one of the reasons that Paul prohibited the undisciplined use of tongues in Corinth.
1 Corinthians 14:23-25, "Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you."
We can save the discussion of tongues for another time, but my point here is that the Scripture assumes unbelievers will enter our assemblies. It should be evident that God is among us.
The Scriptures also let us know that the church is the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:27, "Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it." (See also Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:24).
There is a place for the individual witness and testimony of the believer, but unbelievers will not see the body of Christ on display, outside of a gathering of believers. If the world is going to see a presentation of Christ on earth, it will be through the church! We dare not diminish the corporate testimony of the church.
8) It would eliminate the practice of the church’s ordinances
You might be able to watch a baptism or communion service online but you will never be able to participate in either online.
Included in the Great Commission is the command to baptize.
Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
It doesn’t matter how advanced your monitor is, it can’t baptize you.
We are also commanded to remember the Lord’s death in communion (Luke 22:19). The early church was not only devoted to the apostles’ teaching but also “to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Your 5G connection will never be able to serve you a communion cracker. There is no way to obey this command, without being physically present.
9) It would greatly diminish the resources used for the Lord’s work
The New Testament passages on giving make it clear that giving was included as part of the worship of the gathered assembly.
1 Corinthians 16:1,"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. 2 On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come."
When the church can’t gather, the weekly reminder that giving is an important aspect of our worship is absent. I personally know several churches in danger of closing their doors, several pastors wondering how to pay their bills and several missionaries who may have to come off the field. Most churches don’t have the budget to sustain a prolonged break.
I am thankful that many of our members regularly give online, mail in their contributions or set their offerings aside until we can meet again.
Christian giving is “a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18) and I would encourage you not to forget to support your local congregations during this crisis.
10) It would display a lack of love for the body
We long to be with those we love. What would you think about a husband who never wanted to see his wife in person? What about a mother who never wanted to see her child, unless it was on screen? Do you know of an engaged couple who never wants to spend time together? If you do know an engaged couple who never wants to spend time together, please give them some advice. Don’t get married!
We long to be with those we love. Do you have a longing to be with the body of Jesus Christ? Paul often spoke about longing to see the body.
Romans 1:11, "For I long to see you…"
Philippians 1:8, "For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus."
1 Thessalonians 3:6, "But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you."
How will unbelievers see our love for one another if we never desire to be together?
John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There are some things you just can’t replace with a screen and a wi-fi connection. We need living connections! I am thankful for the ability to live-stream and am happy to offer it as a service to our church, but it is not a replacement for service in our church. Online Services will never be a Replacement for On-Site Services.
I am personally looking forward to the great reunion we will have when we gather together again, and I hope you are too.
In Christ Alone,
George Lawson (author)
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