Should Online Church Services be the ‘New Normal’?

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By Guest Author, N. K. Bottom

I’ve read several articles about online worship services. The Gospel Coalition published one by Rob Hill discussing the “new normal” of Sunday services. He makes several attempts to demonstrate that it’s okay if we don’t meet in person on a Sunday morning during this unique time. He reminds us we can still be together, virtually. Hill, like other authors I’ve read, assumes online services are best. But are they?

As the coronavirus quarantine was beginning, I was finishing up ​The Shallows​ by Nicholas Carr, so I couldn’t help making connections with online Sunday services. Practically every church I’ve looked into (a couple dozen), without exception, is providing online worship services of some sort—either it’s a live stream or a taped message from the pastor at home or some combination of the two. Again, the assumption has been, “Isn’t technology wonderful?” Meanwhile, something from Carr’s book keeps replaying in my mind: technology both amplifies and numbs. Think of any technological advancement, such as the computerized GPS. My ability to know which road I’m on and find where I’m going is amplified. However, my internal compass, sense of direction, intuitive knowledge of landscape/geography, and memorized routes, all have been numbed—to the point where we’re pretty much helpless without our GPS!

Here’s what I’ve been wondering: why did churches immediately jump on the online church bandwagon? Why was “video” church the knee jerk response? It made me sad. Here’s what I would have liked to have happened. The local pastor tells his congregation to pick someone in each household to lead a Sunday service at home. A mother would choose a Bible passage to read. A father would prepare songs to sing. A grandmother would give a devotional or teaching. Children would prepare the bread and juice for communion. You get the idea. Perhaps the church’s pastor could lay out Scripture passages to study during the quarantine, week by week. Maybe the church’s worship director could provide sheet music or song titles.

Maybe church leaders should have been doing this sort of preparation all along.

It reminds me of how Martin Luther took pains to prepare churches in the 1500’s for the day when they might not have churches or Bibles or pastors. The Ottoman Empire was advancing and threatened to overtake Germany, and if this happened, Germany would become Muslim. This fact of history was part of Luther’s motivation to write memorable catechisms, so his people would be able to hold onto their faith and teach each other while under Muslim rule. They wouldn’t be able to go to church, have access to a Bible, or hear a sermon. Then what? Technology may amplify our ability to experience a church service, but it numbs our ability to know our faith well enough to lead one.

There’s another element that’s been missing from the dialogue about online worship services, a true teaching on the doctrine of the church. The line of thinking from the articles I’ve read goes something like this: “Hey, just because we’re online, doesn’t mean it’s not corporate worship. God hears us all together.” But, I’ve got news for us, the internet is not what makes it corporate worship. We must remember the church exists locally and universally. The truth of the matter is that the local church is not worshiping together, so let’s stop pretending it is. The internet is powerful, but it’s not that powerful! We’re all still separated from each other.

All is not lost, however, because while the local church is hindered right now, the universal church is unhindered. The universal church includes all believers from all times and all places. No virus can put the universal church in quarantine. So our true hope is not that we’re able to see Pastor Jim or Jack on a screen in his living room at home, banking on the fact that other people from my church are following along in their homes. Our true encouragement comes from knowing we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, championing us on. We worship in spirit and truth with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham, C.S. Lewis, King David, St. Augustine, Mary, the other Mary, and the other Mary! You get the idea. So don’t let your screen ​screen ​ your heart from the fact of the universal worship service! Now is the time when we truly can take comfort from this rich doctrine.

Maybe you don’t feel confident enough to lead your family’s worship service this Sunday. What are you going to do about it? Take heart, for Moses, Jeremiah, Jonah and many more, also made excuses when God asked them to share their faith. Sure, your worship service might not seem as good as the one online, but it will be deeper and more memorable, I guarantee it.

As with the GPS, you may have to get lost a few times before you find your way.

5 thoughts on “Should Online Church Services be the ‘New Normal’?

  1. Huge thanks for your article, so much of it resonates with me. Online stuff still keeps everything centralized, which has been such a hindrance to institutional churches so many times in the past. I mean even Luther was in a hairs-breadth of house communities, but like the other Reformers he didn’t think/carry through his ecclesiology, imho. We, in our city, have pioneered organic house churches, networking in mission and in an inter-church way, for the past 14 years. So lock-down cannot destroy our groups, though for the moment we communicate by whatsap group, having even richer fellowship in some ways than before because it’s Church 24/7. I’ve traced house church movements around the earth via a Master’s degree (10 years ago, it badly needs to be updated!) and on-site investigations in China on two occasions – I’m sure you’re aware that the underground Church grew in a few decades from a few million believers to well over 200 million. I’ve got missionary friends in N.India, the same things is happening there. The underground Church in Iran is currently one of the fastest growing, often led by women. I’m convinced, this, in different contextual forms, is the Spirit’s way forward. For what it’s worth…

    Keep up the good work, my bro.

    1. Such great insight! The benefits of decentralized groups and small house churches (or micro-site churches) has a resiliency and flexibility that larger institutional churches struggle with. Moments like these has exposed our inability to disciple families well enough to lead themselves, children, and neighbors. I hope we’ll learn from these days and the church will be poised for movement in the coming decade! Appreciate your comments.

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