What is a church? What is the Church? Why is it important for Christians to be connected to a church? What does that connection need to look like? These are important questions, and relevant questions. On that topic, this inquiry came through Capitol City’s Facebook page last week:
So here is a question I have. What is the difference between driving in to town, walking in to church, getting greeted by the door person and shaking hands with two to three people during the service break, listening to James speak and singing some songs, getting up and leaving and driving home versus getting up, turning on Klove and singing some songs and then watching James or another minister speak on the web? I get the same connection on my computer I do by walking and sitting in church myself so why bother going?
What a great question. What is the difference between participating in a digital worship service (or internet service, or whatever you want to call it) and participating in a live worship service? I’ll start by saying that the ability to utilize digital media to participate in worship services or listen to sermons is a wonderful gift from God, one that I take advantage of almost every week. That’s why churches invest in their digital presence. If you can’t get out one Sunday because you’re ill, or because of the weather, or whatever, its a blessing that you can still connect to a church (and especially your church) online.
A different matter is those who would prefer a digital church experience exclusively. That’s my concern here, and I think the heart of the inquiry quoted above. I’ll focus on five theological differences between “real” church and digital church:
- Digital worship doesn’t require gathering; it isn’t an assembly. But God has called his people to assemble or gather together in worship: “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children” (Deut 4:10). Throughout the Bible, God’s people are called to gather to worship him. God never intended the worship of his people to be private; he intended it to be a public, corporate gathering.
- The church itself is not a collection of individuals, but a corporate body. God intended for believers in Christ to be united by their faith in Christ, and that unity actually serves the Church’s mission of honoring Jesus. Paul tells us the Ephesians that God sovereignly brought Jews and Gentiles together for this purpose, he unified people who were theological, socially, and culturally divided. He did this, making them “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (2:19) so that they would be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22). God builds his people together as one body, one temple of his Spirit. The digital church experience is one of isolation, however, and you cannot be built together with others when you worship in isolation.
- A mark of Christian maturity is love for and unity among other believers. Paul tells the Philippians: “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:2). By not gathering with other Christians, digital church worshipers miss the opportunity for this kind of maturity, which only occurs in the context of community. In other words, we need other believers to provide a context for our growth and maturity; the digital church struggles to provide that context.
- Digital church worshippers miss the opportunity to partner with other believers in ministry. Believers don’t attend church simply for their own edification and personal blessing – though I hope believers are blessed and edified by corporate worship services. Believers attend church to be mobilized, to be sent out on mission in the world. (This is why we close our services at Capitol City with a benediction, by the way. We want to send our people out into the world to do ministry.) Of course, individuals who aren’t connected to a local church body can still do ministry. But they lack the opportunity for partnership and fellowship in that ministry. Even one as capable as the apostle Paul needed (and was thankful for) partnerships in gospel ministry (see Phil 1:3-6).
- Because they aren’t connected to a local church body, digital church worshippers lack shepherds/elders/pastors who are invested in and accountable for them personally. Through the internet, people I have never met and never will meet are able to see and hear my preaching. I praise God that we live in a world where that is possible. But the Bible says that I, as a pastor, am responsible for the people who connect to my church by gathering regularly with the body here at Capitol City. To pastors and elders, 1 Peter says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…as God wants you to be” (1 Pet 5:2). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that this kind of responsibility is given by the Holy Spirit: “Keep watch over…all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The people who connect to my church by gathering regularly are under my care, and the care of the other shepherd-leaders here. Conversely, it is simply impossible for me to care for those who never attend my church but watch our services online. That may not seem like a big deal to some, but the biblical office of pastor/elder is ordained by God as vital to the life and function of the church.
I probably missed a few of the theological differences, and I did not even mention the many practical and experiential differences. Churches across the world will have to wrestle with these issues as the prevalence of and demand for convenient, digital access to worship services increases. As a pastor, I pray that many – here in Lincoln, and around the world – will be blessed by our digital ministry. But I pray that our digital ministry will not be a replacement for consistent, personal, physical engagement in our worship gatherings and church fellowship.