During COVID-19 lockdowns, many churches took their services online, and I suspect many of them will keep them online as a service to their community. However, is it really church? Or should we follow the counsel of the pastor who tweeted, “You can no more go to church online than you can eat dinner at a restaurant online.”1
Then there’s the Anglican priest who supported online church during COVID-19 but says offering both online and in-person services risks turning “worship into a consumer experience.”2
Certainly, during lockdowns, it was a great way to go to church without going to church. I watched my church online for several weeks until restrictions were over and felt uplifted, helped by the fact that on the screen were people and leadership I knew who were serving us as a congregation in difficult times.
I can imagine churches could develop slick camera techniques, excellent audio, and music to impress, with pastors spending extra time to tailor their messages to attract an audience. What more could you want?
Nevertheless, the question, again: Is online church really church? The big thing missing is the person-to-person contact where the congregation has an opportunity to mingle, develop and build relationships, and be accountable.
Life.Church is estimated to have the largest online church audience on our planet (70,000 weekly, most of them on 36 campus locations around the USA).3 The claim they make is “Relationships can happen in any living room around the globe.”4 That’s if you have people gathering in your living room with whom to relate, of course.
Online Church Has a Place
Of course, some will view online church as simply another option for their worship and church attendance. And perhaps they will make it their regular church. In fact, every congregation should recognise their church being online can be incredibly important for those who are unable to attend for health or other legitimate reasons. Additionally, people from the church being in contact is incredibly important for them.
An online presence can mean potential attendees can check your church out to see what it’s like before they attend. Consider it a taste-and-see before committing to attending.
However, Karl Vaters argues, “Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face. Digital reality cannot replace actual reality.” At the same time, he defends online church because “online church is real church for a lot of people … because of handicaps, geography,” and so on.
However, Vaters adds that while “online church is real church … it’s not enough church.” It’s still important, and the church needs to use technological tools far better than we currently do. After all, you can’t “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) without using all the tools at our disposal.5
But, Is Online Church Really Church?
No! says Collin Hansen. “The body of Christ, or church, isn’t the same when you separate its members (1 Corinthians 12:27). The hands and feet and ears and eyes need to be assembled for this body to work for the good of all.” He argues that livestreaming is “a little too convenient”. You don’t even have to watch your own church service. You can drop into church across town, across the country, or in a different country. You can watch the sermon here and the music there.
Hanson adds, “The very word we translate from Greek as ‘church’ in the New Testament suggests we must assemble in person. The church wasn’t just a bridge of 2000 years until humanity reached Peak Zoom.” It’s essential for those who believe God came in flesh and lived among us; it’s essential for those who believe Jesus rose from the dead and “sat down to enjoy a meal with his stunned friends”.6
Certainly, when the first congregations met, “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). “Fellowship” has, as its basic meaning, “association, communion, fellowship, close relationship”.7 For the early Christians, this was it.
Unless we are incapacitated or isolated, we are biblically called to belong in a way that online church cannot satisfy. Jesus promised He would be with us when even two or three gather in His name (see Matthew 18:20). And there is the quite direct statement: “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do” (Hebrews 10:25).
Committed Church Goers
Laura Turner calls herself a committed churchgoer. It’s “non-negotiable for me, unless I’m out of town”. Every week she can, she says, “I am in a padded, stackable chair at the Russian cultural centre my church rents for our services, sitting under a disco ball and listening to a sermon about Jesus.”
Turner’s argument is simple: “We can be members of a body best when we are all together—we can mourn when we observe and wipe away tears, just as we can rejoice when we can share smiles and have face-to-face conversations.” She doubts this can happen when “online church is substituted for the real thing, because the truth is that community is good for us. We need one another.”
Turner doesn’t believe she would be a true Christian without real, in-person church—and in her case—“disco ball and all”.8
Back in the pre-digital world, when Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) became a Christian, he later confessed he wanted to retire to his rooms and read theology. Instead, he attended a small church not far from where he lived as a way of “flying a flag” and admitting he was a Christian. However, “I disliked very much their hymns which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” He attended that church for 30 years.
Why? “As I went on, I saw the great merit of it.” Lewis came up against different people with different outlooks and education and “then gradually my conceit just began peeling off”. He realised those hymns with their “sixth-rate music” were “being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”9
Church life does that. One of the big advantages of church attendance is you are mixing with people who share your faith but may be quite different from you in other ways. Those differences help us understand the depth and breadth of Christianity—and its attraction.
The evidence is clear that mixing with other Christians helps us develop in our own faith. For families, that’s important, as it helps children see they and their parents are not alone in their Christianity. For teenagers, there is space and people with whom to talk about their faith questions and individuals who may model their faith in ways that capture their attention.
Among older people, there can be a steadfastness about their faith that is attractive. And, if they’re willing, they can be encouraging to younger people.
Online church is not going to go away, and neither should it. It has its place. However, just as a live concert is much better than watching it on-screen, we need to recognise that going to church with its face-to-face and live experience elements makes for a better church. It’s true that it may not be as slick, rehearsed, or professional, but it is warts-and-all real.
Vaters adds that God became human and “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), and that’s how God became real to us, “with a name, a face and a physical presence. If God needed to do that with us, we need to do that with each other.”
Congregating for church matters. That’s where live church has the edge.
1. Adelle M. Banks, “Shunning online services, some clergy preach ‘abstinence’ from gathered worship,” Religion News Service, April 9, 2020. religionnews.com/2020/04/09/shunning-online-services-some-clergy-preach-abstinence-from-gathered-worship/.
2. Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services,” The New York Times, January 30, 2022. nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html.
3. Andrew Conrad, “5 Biggest Online Churches,” Capterra, May 10, 2019. blog.capterra.com/the-5-biggest-online-churches.
5. Karl Vaters, “Is Online Church Real Church?” Christianity Today, September 12, 2017. christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2017/september/online-church.html.
6. Collin Hansen, “What We Lose When We lLvestream Church,” The New York Times, August 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/08/opinion/covid-church-livestream.html
7. John B. Polhill, Acts: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture—The New American Commentary, vol. 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), p. 119.
8. Laura Turner, “Internet Church Isn’t Really Church,” The New York Times, December 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/15/opinion/sunday/church-live-streaming-religion.html.
9. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 61, 62.