After in-person services were canceled last year during “two weeks to flatten the curve,” pastors turned to “online church.” Motivated by love, they recreated Sunday gatherings as best they could, even sometimes encouraging Christians to attempt “communion” with whatever crackers and juice they had in their kitchens.
For weeks under lockdown in Washington state, I tuned in. I sang the worship songs along with my children. I paid attention to the sermon. But no matter what well-meaning pastors called it, it wasn’t church. Scripture makes no allowance for being a participating member of a church body from arm’s length. Administering the sacraments isn’t possible without physical presence.
Although the vast majority of churches are finally open for in-person services again, many continue to maintain an “online church” for members who don’t “feel comfortable” rejoining in person. A welcome to “those joining us from home” is now a routine addition for pastors greeting the congregation.
Many churches streamed their Sunday services years before the pandemic began, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with letting a wider audience peek into the life of your church and benefit from the worship and preaching. I’ve watched recorded sermons from other churches more times than I can count. Those bedridden and otherwise indisposed can also benefit from participating with their congregation through streaming in addition to the traditional private pastoral visits.
But to pretend streaming the service in pajamas is actually gathering as the body of Christ for the rest of us not only rejects our biblical calling, it also enables those who’ve struggled with anxiety over the last 15 months to feel comfortable and validated in their fear rather than encouraged to lean on Christ and be courageous. How can we “stir one another up to love and good works” or “encourage one another” by singing, praying, and hearing the message in isolation?
The writer of Hebrews encourages us not to “throw away your confidence,” pointing out how believers have suffered, been publicly afflicted, and had their properties plundered, yet held fast to the belief they had “a better possession and an abiding one” in their faith. COVID-19, a disease with a survival rate in the United States above 98 percent, and higher for those younger than 70, pales in comparison to the trials of early believers.
It also pales in comparison to other terrible diseases like the bubonic plague, which was far more likely to kill people than leave them alive. When the plague hit Martin Luther’s town of Wittenburg, Germany, the leader of the Protestant Reformation praised Christians who refused to flee: “They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in God … It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread. Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing?”
While the tendency to flee from death is “implanted by God” and shown repeatedly in scripture not to be a sin in itself, Luther wrote, the devil delights in making us “deathly afraid” of sickness, that he should “under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles.”
“If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me,” continued Luther, “why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague?” Even during a plague with a 66 percent mortality rate, many Christians chose not to flee and encouraged each other to help sick neighbors, exposing themselves directly.
How much more trivial is the rough equivalent of a bad flu for most healthy people, especially with widely available vaccine trials shown to be essentially 100 percent effective at preventing death? How much easier is attending church with other healthy people than nursing a neighbor afflicted by the Black Death?
Church gatherings are corporate affairs. The “breaking of bread” in Acts 2 and other passages cannot be done alone but denotes fellowship in eating together. Our walk with Christ is not meant to be solitary; we are walking in faith as part of the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Being part of the body means gathering together for worship, prayer, and edification as best we are able.
By continuing to promote “online church,” we discourage members of the church from functioning as part of the body and deny them the encouragement and wisdom they need from other believers to overcome their fear and anxiety. Instead, replacing fellowship with a Zoom link encourages the exact shut-in behavior that degrades social ties and mental health, making it harder to function in society, let alone serve as part of the church.
The longer people isolate themselves, the more anxious about “re-entry” they can become. Church leaders are telling them their fear is justified and their isolation is appropriate so long as they feel “more comfortable.” That is not helping them to be “strong and courageous” in carrying out the will of God (Joshua 1:0).
Online “church” is not the corporate worship and edification we are called to in scripture and it never was. It’s time to abandon this pretense. Instead of enabling fear-based isolation, we should help believers out of it, stirring them up toward the good works we are called to in Christ’s name.