A line on social media recently read, “Join me and my church for our virtual worship service this week.” Still another one read, “You are invited to our special Easter service filled with passionate music, relevant preaching, and virtual communion.” Such marketing lines make me nervous for several reasons—but for the sake of this article, we will focus on the aspect of virtual church.
Certainly we have learned much regarding the secret providence of God during this pandemic. Yet, there are things that perhaps we will never learn that are not intended for us to know about God’s purposes during this season of life. One thing that can be said of God’s church is that we’ve been stretched to think critically about very important matters during this time of social distancing. One good question to answer is this: Is a livestream service really church at all?
Several weeks ago when the rise of the COVID-19 virus began to spread throughout the world and across the United States, it became clear that we would need to make swift and wise decisions as pastors regarding the care of our local church. In discussion with our elders, it was clear that we thought it would be best during our season of social distancing to provide an online livestream service. Interestingly, we don’t typically provide a full worship service through livestream. We do livestream the Sunday morning sermon, but that’s simply provided as a service to sick members and those who are hindered from attending and desire to stay on track with our current study. However, during this pandemic, we decided to take it up a notch and provide singing, corporate prayer, and Scripture readings too.
In doing so, we have rejected the idea of having virtual church. What we are doing as elders is providing the church with opportunities to worship together as individual family units, but we are not calling it church, because it is our conviction that it’s not church at all. While our livestream helps us to literally worship, it’s not literally church. Instead, we are calling it worship, because it’s quite possible to worship God even when the church is unable to assemble due to the providence of God.
When we consider the subject of worship, we must not bypass the vein of Old Testament worship whereby God’s people brought sacrifices to the altar to be consumed as an offering to God. There was always something tangible and real about the worship of God and as we read Scripture it’s apparent that God designed worship in that manner.
Our worship is not virtual or symbolic—it’s literal. When we sing it must be real and genuine. If you’re being forced to sing in your living room when in the past you’ve been sitting in a room with dimmed lights, fog machines, and really enjoying the Sunday performance—you’re going to feel very much unfulfilled during this season. When we engage in the reading of Scripture, there must be something that’s real and genuine whereby we bridge the gap of the original audience to our own heart and life. When the preaching of the Word takes place, there must be a desire to engage in the preached Word—in the sermon in such a way that personal application during the preaching brings about a proper learning, worship, repentance, and devotion to God.
It is possible to worship God without the gathered church. God has designed us to be worshippers, so we worship God on a regular—even a daily basis. Therefore, during a pandemic we are able to engage in the worship of God without the gathered church. The decision of our church to livestream our worship service (in part) is to provide a healthy means by which families can gather together and worship God in a somewhat orderly manner for his glory.
Why Virtual Church Is Not Literal Church
Virtual reality (VR) is the use of technology to create a simulated environment and experience for the user. During this time of social distancing when churches are unable to gather together—many churches have been offering up what they call virtual church. Although virtual church is not true virtual reality, we must see the similarities. They both are seeking to provide a virtual environment that delivers a specific experience to the audience or user. This not the goal of our livestream service.
Rather than providing a simulated or virtual experience for church members, we are striving to provide an opportunity for our members to engage in the worship of God by using the same songs and hearing the same sermon while at the same time feeling the constant limitations of impersonal technology. Yes, we aim to do everything (even a livestream) for the glory of God, but we do not aim to replace the physical church with a virtual church. That is simply impossible.
The English word church is the translation of a Greek term, “ekklesia” which means, “a called out assembly.” The term can have a couple of meanings in reference to God’s people. For instance, it can be centered on the universal church (or as the Apostles’ Creed refers to it: the holy catholic church), or it can be a reference to a local assembly, such as the church at Ephesus. By the very definition of the church, assembling is part of what the people of God do on a regular basis.
This is why we have made the decision to not engage in the observance of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) during this season. There are limits to technology, and the interpersonal elements of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper require real in-person engagement together as a church body. You cannot reduce the gathered church into pixels on a screen and audio waves from speakers.
If this pandemic has not caused your heart to ache for the reassembly of God’s people—your virtual experience has clouded your understanding of the doctrine of God’s church. We live in an age where everything is being reduced to a virtual environment. We have online banks, online restaurants, online medical services, online shipping companies, online legal services, and for a while now we’ve watched a trend to reduce the church to a virtual online community.
If your worship is virtual rather than literal—it will cheapen the worship of God. Virtual leadership and pastoring is truly impossible. Virtual communion is not real communion. While you can watch someone’s baptism through a screen—is that real and genuine baptism? In the early days, the church gathered together in public for baptisms. The church was there to receive the new convert as he or she would be marked as a follower of Jesus in the eyes of the watching community and the gathered church. How is it possible to engage in church discipline—virtually? If a person is excommunicated from the church, is it less sobering to see your name threatened from being removed from a Zoom list or a literal church family assembled together for worship and service of God? When fencing the table for the Lord’s Supper, is a visible pastor standing before the table a more sobering scene than him merely pointing to a cup and a cracker through the lens of a camera?
Consider the fact that worship is to be orderly. In fact, God has organized and ordered his worship to be carried out in a specific way. Even the word “ordinance” has in mind a specific order of worship whereby we carry out the mechanisms ordered by God in order to publicly identify with the crucified and resurrected Christ. Virtual church models can never communicate the gravity necessary to engage in both baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and for that matter—worship in general.
The community of the church needs to be in person to live life together, break bread together, serve together, engage in mission together, and to worship together. In short, when you take your children to a funeral home, they need to know more than this is @Tom_Smith_5689 from your virtual church group who always had the really cool virtual backgrounds. They need to have rubbed shoulders with Tom and witnessed Tom persevere in the faith to the very end. In fact, more than the children, even the adults need this as well.
This is the way God designed his church to function—visibly. Consider what chapter 26 and paragraph 7 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states:
To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power. ( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )
Notice, the language of “gathered” which is common through this chapter of the Confession. The idea of a simulated gathering simply does not measure up. God has designed the worship of God’s people in such a way that the limitations of technology cannot properly fulfill it.
So, when this pandemic comes to a close and we are able to once again reassemble together as a church—pastors must do the work of properly disassembling the virtual communities, turning off the Zoom virtual backgrounds, and assembling together in a room where we will be capable of engaging in worship the way God designed it from the very beginning.
Until then, remember words matter. Virtual church is not real church at all. Until we gather again, let’s engage in literal worship and long for the day when we can meet together as a literal church.