Our church is back to having Sunday worship services in person. We still have Facebook Live going for those who don’t feel comfortable joining quite yet, but for those who do, they (and anyone else) is welcome to our physical gathering. One by one as our people trickle back in, I hear a recurring saying: “Thank you for putting together the online services, but they’re just not the same.”
The online church service pales in comparison to the physical gathering on Sundays.
The first person to tell me this was an elderly lady in our church. It was during a phone conversation. She hasn’t been back to our church because her personal health condition is so bad that, according to her doctor, if she gets COVID, she won’t make it. She hasn’t left her house much in months. So, I decided to call her to check-in. She desperately misses her church family, and we can’t wait until she returns.
As we spoke, I could tell there was something she wanted to get off her chest. She was selective about word choice and tonality but finally uttered what was on her mind. “I’m thankful for the online service,” she said, with hesitation in her voice, trying hard not to offend me, “but it’s just not the same.”
She thought she was going to offend me. In reality, her words were a source of encouragement. She affirmed a suspicion that I and countless thousands of pastors across the globe are having. There can be wisdom in implementing the uses of technology like live streaming and Facebook Live and YouTube, and this can be helpful, but these are and always will be inferior remedies compared to the physical gathering of the local body.
There are a host of reasons why meeting together beats the online service. The first is a fundamental understanding of the theology of the church. For the church member, church life is about participating, not spectating. You are one of the players, not one of the fans watching the game. Your involvement is essential. Church members are needed to encounter God through the preaching of his Word, to sing songs in unison with God’s people, to repeat historic creeds and confessions, to witness baptisms, to partake of the Lord’s supper, to receive and give Christian encouragement, and to grow in sanctification (among other things). This is best done in person. Church life is about physically getting involved because you are both wanted and needed.
The second reason is a little more obvious. There is a mysterious, powerful, and dare I say supernatural element that is difficult to articulate but is nonetheless evident when Christians corporately gather together to worship the triune God. There is power in the physical presence of other Christians. I’ll point you to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in his book Life Together, writes, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
Every Christian knows what Bonhoeffer is talking about.
A professional counselor once told me and several others about his method of counseling a depressed man. What struck me was the simplicity of his method. He assured the person battling depression that he would clear his calendar for the next several months to ensure that he would be available to counsel him. This gave the counselee peace of mind knowing that someone was going to be there for him. I’m sure the counselor skillfully unraveled his family history and gave practical advice. But what the professional counselor emphasized was simply his presence. Half the battle, as they say, is just showing up.
Sometimes, just knowing people are going to be there for you is enough. I’ll leave it to you and your church to decide if permanent live streaming is a viable option for your church. Whether we agree or disagree on the uses of technology going forward in our churches, I hope we can all agree that nothing will ever replace the importance of the physical gathering of God’s people on Sunday mornings.