The COVID-19 pandemic is causing individuals, organizations, and governments to evaluate and reflect upon their values and responsibilities and the church is no exception. Many churches, in a non-sinful act, have canceled their services. They have done so under the guidance of Scripture to obey civil government (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–16). Other churches, who were able to abide by government guidelines continued their meeting.
The suggestions to suspend gatherings on all levels of government (local and federal) is unique for many reasons. First, it is not an act of persecution. All places of social gathering have been instructed to do likewise (e.g., bars, restaurants, etc.). Second, there is justification for obeying the government since this is a matter of prudence. These decisions are made for the health of the general population. Third, there is historic precedence in the American church to suspend gatherings (see here).
Many have turned to technology to resolve the issue of suspended public gatherings. Churches have encouraged their members to meet in the digital world through live stream services to replace or supplement the lack of the physical gathering. While technology has its advantage, we should take a few precautions with such a decision.
We should recognize technology’s limitation and contribution to the life and health of the local body in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some things we cannot and can accomplish by providing a live stream.
What We Cannot Accomplish
#1: We Cannot Adequately Accomplish the One Anothers. At its core, a live stream service does not provide the platform of adequately accomplishing the biblical one anothers. Church membership involves more than just physical attendance. It requires we encourage one another (Heb 2:12–13; 10:23–24), admonish one another (Col 3:16), bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), and so much more. An online gathering does not provide the face-to-face interaction to fully engage in the one anothers. These one anothers are not optional, but are a required aspect of life in the congregation.
The fellowship of the church is greatly hindered on a streaming platform. Most the viewers have their eyes in one place creating a pyramid of sorts. Whereas the local church gathering should provide the opportunity for us to look at the people around us. A live stream “gathering” only allows for comments and likes, but will not allow for legitimate and meaningful interaction the same way as a face-to-face gathering.
#2: We Cannot Adequately Accomplish the Ordinances. An online gathering does not allow for the proper practice of the ordinances. Scripture indicates that the Lord’s Table is an ordinance the church practices as they “come together” (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). In a similar manner, the ordinance of baptism is a corporate practice (Eph 4:4–6). The corporate nature of the ordinances show us the limitations of the live stream. While I do believe there is warrant for the unique practice of the ordinances in church planting or house church situations, that is not what we see happening today with the movement towards live stream ministry. It is for these reasons that we will not observe the Lord’s Table and any baptism until we meet again as a corporate body.
#3: We Cannot Adequately Accomplish Local Church Preaching. This might be the most controversial, because we use social media to stream biblical preaching all the time, with or without this pandemic. But I would argue there is a difference in this situation. In this situation, the absence of the congregation removes a lot of the weight of preaching; mainly, the connection between the preacher and the people.
As a pastor, I have a responsibility to shepherd the flock of God “among” me (1 Pet 5:2). That localized aspect of shepherding is important. It means that I study for the given audience of members in front of me. A live stream context would prove awkward for me, not just as a preacher, but as a pastor. Preaching in front of a camera with no people would be like eating an anniversary dinner with my wife via FaceTime. Sure, she would be able to communicate and talk, but the face-to-face experience and intimacy would be missing. This could be applied to every aspect of the gathering, but especially for preaching.
What We Can Accomplish
#1: We Can Accomplish a Continuous Unified Study of Scripture. One of the benefits of technology at a time like this is the continued and church-wide study of Scripture. The internet can help provide continuity for the teaching series of the church. Even if the church breaks from their normal exposition of Scripture, it can start a new series relevant for the situation. The internet allows for continuity in teaching even though there might not be an actual physical gathering of the saints. This, in my estimation, can be a positive for many churches.
#2: We Can Accomplish a Form of Church-Wide Discipleship (or Counseling). While everyone is at home, there can be a centralized voice representing the church with words of encourage, comfort, and rebuke from the Scripture.
Undoubtedly, there are people who fall all throughout the spectrum of paralyzingly anxious to proudly negligent. The sentiment to take every precaution can clash with others in the congregation who belittle the severity of the pandemic. An online streaming platform can be utilized to address the broad spectrum of church members with Scripture. It is one of many tools the leaders can utilize to shepherd the flock.
#3: We Can Accomplish the Proclamation of the Gospel. Through a live stream, the church can use its resources for the proclamation of the gospel. Christians are not the only ones encouraged to stay home, everyone is. This means that more of our unbelieving friends and family will be home and looking for things to do. Many non-Christians will be given the opportunity to listen to the proclamation of the gospel. This can make a live stream well-worth our church’s energy and resources.
#4: We Can Accomplish a Growing Anticipation for Our Next Real Gathering. The live stream experience can be great, but nothing beats the real thing. In the example above, a married couple that celebrates their anniversary via FaceTime not only feels the limitations of technology, but that experience also builds anticipation for their next face-to-face gathering. In the same way, churches that provide a live stream option might be able to enjoy it for the season, but there should be a simultaneous longing for the next gathering.
Sometimes we do not appreciate what we have until it’s gone. A live stream reminds us of how much our church experience is impacted by the actual people who sit around us and not just those who stand on the stage or behind the podium or microphone. Church wouldn’t be church without the family that always sits in front of you. Church wouldn’t be church without the single guys or girls that sit around you. Church wouldn’t be church if you didn’t see the kids struggling to remain behaved during your service.
A live stream context of families at home in their pajamas, drinking coffee, or distracted with the comforts of home is not the same as gathering with other saints. Over time, the true believer will deepen his or her longing to be around other saints.
So What Should We Do?
#1: Use technology according to your conscience. This situation is not necessarily creating or changing or ecclesiology as much as it is exposing our ecclesiology. Therefore, make sure your conscience is clean with how you understand Scripture and the local church. Operate consistency as a way to manifest what you internally believe. If you are operating against your established ecclesiology, do not go against your conscience.
#2: Use technology as a tool not as a replacement. The last thing we need is for the pandemic to end and for people to remain at home watching the live stream. This might mean that your internet presence is not an exact copy-and-paste of your physical gathering. As a suggestion, it might be more useful to provide something that resembles family worship than a full blown local church gathering. This can help show the limitations of the internet while also exemplifying to families that they too can do the same Monday through Saturday.
#3: Communicate to the church the limitations and contributions of technology. Not everyone in society, evangelicalism, and your local church are thinking the same way about this. Make sure your leadership is in constant communication with your members. Have your leaders meet regularly during the pandemic to evaluation the situation. Make sure the elders are in constant communication with members for any spiritual needs. Encourage deacons to take action in appropriate areas in order to care for the physical needs of the church.
#4: Realize that ministry is more than Sunday. Ministry requires work is done outside of the pulpit. People still need prayer, discipleship/counseling, encouragement, instruction, and ministerial needs. Make sure you are working hard among your people and not just in your study. Pastors, labor and strive for the gospel and for the holiness of your people. Remember that technology cannot replace spending time with people, praying for them. While technology is a useful tool for ministry communication (e.g., video chat, text, etc.) it is merely a tool in the greater goal of loving and serving one another.
A Final Reminder
Remember that this is a fluid situation. Last week, the church was able to meet the guidelines of the government for meetings under 250. This week, the situation has changed for our local context. In times like this we must be flexible and charitable. For those who are in contexts that can still allow for a public gathering, we rejoice in that ability. For those who cannot meet, we do so under the guidance of biblical wisdom and not fear. God is our greatest hope in times of trouble, our only refuge, and hope in this life and in the life to come.