Longing for Community: Virtual "Church", Social Distancing, and Forming Spiritual Habits
I miss my church.
In the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the essentially mandated "social distancing", local church leadership all over the world has had to come together and make some pretty difficult decisions. "What do we do when we can't meet" is a question that has not been relevant to the local church, especially in America, in a very long time. Pastors and leaders have entered into an unprecedented situation that is not as simple as "the Bible says that we should do this."
Many churches quickly pivoted to spending the bulk of their resources and time on creating a live-stream environment for Sunday mornings, as well as using technology such as Zoom to re-create a small group setting. This has been accomplished (quickly, I might add) to varying levels of "success" from a quality standpoint, but from megachurches to smaller congregations, social distancing has forced the local church to accept and utilize technology as a vital means of ministry.
Some churches have accepted the need for "virtual" small groups, but have chosen not to attempt to replicate Sunday Worship Services through a live-stream format. While the reasons vary, it seems that the primary reason lies in a theological nuance: These pastors are worried that their congregation will see "virtual church" as a legitimate substitute for being plugged in physically to a local body of believers.
Therein lies the issue with answering these difficult questions: the complexity is interwoven with theology, finance, sociology, medical practice, politics, etc. One pastor can champion live-streaming as a vital way to keep the proclamation of the Word of God in front of His people, while another can claim that to not live-stream the service is to recognize that nothing can be a substitute for the physical assembling of the body of Christ. And consider that with all of this complexity, we haven't even begin to discuss other issues like communion, baptism, tithing, or membership.
The Dangers of "Virtual Church"
The conversation about live-streaming and "virtual church" is not a new one. As technology has become easier for the layperson to wrap their heads around, and as it has become cheaper to provide a "quality" product online, the amount of churches that were live-streaming even before the outbreak was growing considerably. This growth has led to many conversations in the theological and pastoral community about whether or not you can "go to church" online.
As with many issues, I think the answer lies in our language.
I think that the Bible is clear (Hebrews 10:25) that participating in the community of the local church is a command of Scripture for those who have faith in Jesus. Yes, the church is not a building, it is people. But that gives us no excuses to forsake attending, serving, and becoming a part of a local congregation of believers. Social distancing aside, you cannot "do church" without that body of believers who are meeting together for the purpose of fellowship, discipleship, and accountability. Personal spiritual disciplines (prayer, bible-reading, worship and adoration) are essential to the growth of the believer, but are not substitutes for the gift that is the local church. This is a both-and conversation, not an either-or.
With all this said, I think I can say with conviction that I believe that there is no such thing as "virtual church". You cannot substitute the gathering together of believers for a computer screen and receive what God intended for you to receive when He gave us the local church.
Can "virtual church" provide you with real, tangible fellowship that serves to edify you?
Can "virtual church" provide you with opportunities to be discipled and disciple others in a way that is both effective and biblical?
Can "virtual church" provide you with brothers and sisters in Christ who will be able to hold you accountable to live in the ways that God has called us to live?
Can "virtual church" provide you with a real way to "plug in" (pun intended) and find your place to serve the body of Christ?
I think in the short term, you could find some semblance of these things in the "live-stream" or "virtual" setting. At best, however, they will be poor substitutes for the real thing. And that is why I am so insistent that language is at the heart of the question of how we "do church" during this time of mandated social distancing.
We are making a mistake if we are speaking about our live-streams, virtual small groups, and other virtual ministries as if they are the real thing. Our church is currently utilizing every technology that we can to continue to offer our people the Word of God. That includes a live-streamed service, discipleship material through our app, Zoom calls, and other ways to interact during this time. One thing that we are confident of, however, is that we are not telling our congregation through our words or our actions that any of these things are true substitutes for the real thing. We are using our resources available to provide spiritual engagement to the best of our ability in order to best edify and disciple our people while we cannot meet in person, but there is no doubt in my mind that our people are eager to return to physically meeting for both worship services and our discipleship times. Our hope is that no one finds these live-streams, zoom calls, and videos to be a satisfying substitute for the real thing. That doesn't mean, however, that we aren't going to take every opportunity we have to "hold them over" with the Word (that does not return void) until we can return to assembling together physically.
What We Can All Agree On
My goal in this article is to find some common ground between those churches that are diving headfirst into technology during this crisis, and those who are wary of what it will mean for the ecclesiology of their local church. Hopefully, we can recognize that each local church has its own context for why it has decided to land where it has on this issue. Some churches may not have the resources or the man-power to pull off a live-stream service. Some may have dedicated staff who were accomplishing these tasks weekly even before the outbreak. It is a nuanced issue that I don't think anyone will solve with a simple article, and I don't think there is a universal, theological, blanket answer for these questions at all.
I do think we can all find common ground, however, over a few simple points:
1). Help your congregation develop spiritual disciplines
For most people in your congregations, there is now a lot of "empty space" in their daily calendar. Gyms are closed, entertainment venues are closed, sports are cancelled, and so on. What better time for us to focus our energy on equipping our people to develop spiritual habits? Hopefully, we can give our people opportunities to begin filling their day with vital spiritual disciplines that often get tossed to the wayside when their days are filled with the hustle-and-bustle of normal life. As James KA Smith tells us in the book You Are What you Love, developing spiritual habits can go a long way towards reforming your people's desires around growth in Christ. Encourage and equip your people to begin developing these disciplines through bible study, prayer times, etc.
2). Keep the Word in front of our people, and it will not return void
I think that this is simple. However you accomplish this, be it through live-streams, Zoom calls, phone conversations, etc., we need to be serious about keeping our people under the preaching and the teaching of the Word of God. Be creative. Utilize the resources you have. Speak about these offerings with clarity so that your people know that while they are being fed, this is not a substitute for the real gathering together of believers. At the end of the day, rest your ministry of discipleship on getting the Word OUT to your people in this time, in whatever way you can.
3). Do what it takes to stay connected with your people, and they will see your love for them
We are called as a body of believers to love and care for our people. If you teach and preach well but do not love and serve your people, you have missed out on a vital aspect of the ministry. If you are not a leader in your church, and simply attend but do not fellowship, disciple, or edify the rest of the body of Christ, you have missed out on a responsibility given to you by God! In this time, we have an opportunity to show just how much we love and desire to meet with our people. Churches and individual Christians could easily use this social distancing as an opportunity to neglect serving, caring, and loving others. Imagine the impact it will have on your people when they see each other going the extra mile to check in on each other, speak to each other, care for each other, and love each other in a climate where that is not easy! What a witness that can and hopefully will be both to believers and unbelievers alike as they see the Church mobilize in the midst of uncertainty and difficulty.
I am excited for the day when the doors to WHBC will be reopened and we can get back to "normal." My prayer, however, is that we will never be the same.
I pray that our people return with vibrant spiritual disciplines that they developed during this time.
I pray that our people have a hunger for the Word and for the local body like never before.
I pray that our people will have seen their church love each other and go the extra mile for each other in a difficult time when we all could have just phoned it in and made excuses for our distancing from one another.
I pray that I and every pastor in the world can know that they did their best to be faithful to God and to the local church during this time, whatever their decisions are about how to "do church" in the midst of this crisis.
Live-stream or no live-stream, let's be the Church to the best of our ability. In a time of uncertainty, the Word of God and the people of God can still be a rock to cling to in the midst of the storm!