The battle of the ages physical vs online church
Over the last two+ years due to the COVID pandemic, many local churches have conducted their ministry with a mixture of online and physical gatherings. With the recent easing of lockdown regulations in South Africa, churches are grappling with how to best return to in-person services.
This has led to debates about the best way of “doing church” in a post modern world.
Some have advocated that online church should continue to be the main way of doing church in the 21st century while others have claimed that virtual church is unbiblical and online worship services should be banished as a thing of the past.
With the latest innovations in Virtual Reality and The Metaverse, along with the possibilities that it presents, some have even begun arguing that it is maybe time to get rid of physical church buildings and worship services all together.
I don’t know if I can offer a perfect solution to this debate, but I would like to offer some thoughts here.
First, there are many positives about online church that we need to acknowledge:
The Benefits Of Online Church
- Access – Online church provides access to churches that some might not usually have for various reasons. This could include the elderly, the bedridden, certain disabled folk, those who have to work on Sundays, etc.
- Reach – Online church extends the reach of a church’s ministry. One of the great things of lockdown that many found, was the access to a vast range of sermons from all around the world. I know of a pastor who served a small community of about 30 Christians. She spent many hours every week planning and preaching beautiful sermons. Someone in her congregation took it as their personal calling to upload these sermons to Facebook. Now thousands of followers are benefiting from her messages of hope and justice.
- Connectivity – Online church helps to connect us to people all over the world. In the midst of extreme isolation during the pandemic, online church programs have helped many people stay connected to those who they love and cherish.
It is clear that being forced to do church online has presented churches with many great opportunities to remain relevant and helpful to a modern world. I believe that a church’s online presence needs to remain, even in a post-COVID world. However, I believe that there are many advantages of in-person church gatherings that we miss terribly if we only do church online.
The Benefits Of Local Church
- Community – Perhaps the most obvious benefit of the local church is the community that it offers. While online communities are helpful and enjoyable (especially for us introverts), there is something special about authentic, regular, in-person community. The local church provides a space for individuals to meet together, build relationships and offer mutual support to each other. This was an essential part of the early church’s passion and purpose.
“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
- Tangible – Many have speculated when we will see the next development in technological advances that will allow us to smell, taste or even feel the things we are watching and hearing on our screens. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), these advancements still seem to be a way off. But the local church, on the other hand, offers us a tangible way to meet and experience the many graces of God. The smell of incense, the hug of a friend, and the taste of bread and wine, all contribute to our experience of the Divine. This phenomenon is most evident in the regular practice of the Sacraments, Holy Communion and Baptism. The sacraments are visible, tangible ways that we regularly experience the inward, invisible graces of God.
“Jesus said, ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’”
- Participation – While there are certainly ways to participate in online worship, there is a particular joy and fulfilment that can only come with regular participation in a physical church community. We all have God-given gifts that we can (and should) offer the church. As the apostle Paul claimed, we are each a part of the body of Christ and the body cannot function as it should without each part actively playing its unique and vital role (1 Corinthians 12).
“We have different gifts according to the grace given us.”
So Which Is Better?
During the COVID pandemic, we have been reminded that the church is certainly not the physical building or the gathering of believers in worship. The Church is the people of God. To be the Church in the world is to live out our calling as followers of Christ.
Churches have been forced to have an online presence and many have been reaping the benefits. Churches should not waste the opportunities that being online presents.
But the question remains:
“What is the most beneficial way to live out our calling as Christians in the world?”
In the middle of a global pandemic, and perhaps during other particular scenarios, I believe this to be virtually and online.
But when it is safe and possible to meet together, I believe that the local church is the best way to experience church, do church and be the Church together.
Perhaps the greatest biblical support for gathering together in person as believers comes from the book of Hebrews:
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”