We live in a digital age. On a Sunday morning I can watch a live-stream church service from North Point Live in Atlanta, USA and join a mid-week Bible study group as part of the online campus of Life.Church, based in Oklahoma but with satellite churches across the USA. This may seem odd, but thanks to modern technology it is possible. In 2014, over 70,000 people attended a North Point Ministries Easter service. An additional 32,000 joined them online.
The growth of online churches raises the question: Does having a physical church family matter? It should be stated that churches like North Point and Life.Church do not appear to be seeking to replace the local church. As North Point states on its website: “The mission of North Point Live is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ by creating an online experience where people are led to pursue community in a local church.”
A church that’s visible, incarnate and on show for a watching world is important
There are many benefits to online church: Broadcasting sermons serves the church members who would usually attend in person. If a congregation member cannot attend due to sickness, travel or inclement weather, they can stream the service. Christians in countries where physically assembling together is prohibited can be encouraged through the community offered by an online church.
Chelcie, who serves on the social media team responding to prayer requests for Life.Church, says: “Growing up in a small town, there were limited options where you went to church and who you went to church with. Church online was a place for me to call home because I wasn’t ready to step into a physical building.”
But the question remains – if online church is possible, why should I pursue community in a local church? Why not settle for a Sunday morning broadcast from one church service and an online Bible study from another?
The great commission
The old reasons for attending a local church such as listening to the sermon, worshipping with other Christians or meeting mid-week can seem a little obsolete in a digital age. We can replicate all of that online.
In Matthew 28, Jesus calls us to make disciples. This is surely a primary purpose of a church community – whether physical or digital. The decision to remain in a local church or opt for an online community could come down to one simple question – where will we grow best as disciples?
The first disciples ate with Jesus. They walked with Jesus. They watched him heal people and debate with the Pharisees. Jesus gave them tasks as an opportunity for learning. He rebuked, questioned and corrected them. Jesus loved them and taught them through the daily things they observed.
What is clear from reading the Gospels is that discipleship, as modelled by Jesus, is not merely a meeting, a course or a sermon. It’s not even a series of twelve steps. Discipleship takes place in all of life. We cannot reduce discipleship to attending Sunday morning services and small groups.
An online church faces an obvious difficulty. Digital contexts, while still valuable to Christian growth, are often limited to conversations or learning in a classroom-style context. Discipleship becomes a transfer of information – I grow in knowledge of the Bible. I learn about other people’s experiences. As someone who loves reading books, blog posts and articles, this suits me well. But in what other contexts does discipleship take place?
Discipleship as imitation
As a musician, I’ve tried to develop my skills as a jazz piano player. I’ve read books, watched YouTube videos and started listening to more jazz. While these exercises have not been in vain, I have been lacking one crucial ingredient. Classroomlike learning is not a substitute for meeting, hanging out and playing with other jazz musicians. Learning jazz is an immersive experience – it requires other musicians to observe and imitate.
Graham Tomlin, author of The Provocative Church (SPCK) writes, “We tend to change when we see a quality in someone else we admire and would like to emulate, and we learn to exercise that quality as we see someone else live it out. Embodied truth is much more effective than disembodied concepts.”
Watching a seminar on building a Christian marriage is all well and good, but observing and having a meal with an older Christian couple is even better. Listening to a talk about stewardship and compassion may inspire me, but observing a Christian friend excel in generous hospitality is even better.
It seems that even with the help of forums and social media, all of life discipleship cannot be captured within an online church. It is difficult for someone to say “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) if we only meet on the internet. There are fewer, if any, opportunities for immersive and apprenticeship situations that seem so crucial to Jesus’ approach to discipleship.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association have said more than 10 million people worldwide have committed their lives to Jesus Christ through its 'Internet Evangelism' ministry
Research from iMinistries revealed church websites are visited most on Mondays and least on Saturdays. It also found 50% of visitors stay on church sites for less than 10 seconds and 67% stay for less than one minute
Top 5 countries viewing Life.Church's 'Stay positive' sermon series 1. Pakistan 2. USA 3. India 4. Bangladesh 5. Kenya
Hillsong United's song 'Oceans (Where feet may fail)' has had over 81 million views on YouTube
Joyce Meyer, Elevation Church, Tim Keller, Bethel Church and Rob Bell's podcasts all feature in the top 20 of iTunes' Religion & Spirituality' genre
There are over 100 “one another” verses in the New Testament. Paul continually reminds Christians to love one another, bear with one another, speak truth to one another, forgive one another and tolerate one another. Gathering together helps give us opportunities to grow as disciples. No doubt, some of the “one another” commands can be lived out online. But one particular command seems best left offline.
In his book, Habits of Grace (Crossway), David Mathis writes, “One of the most loving things we can do for each other in the church is to tell each other when we’re wrong.” He encourages us to “embrace the blessing of rebuke”. As unpopular as it might be, this is an essential part of discipleship.
I remember about one year ago, during a walk with a friend from church, I was sharing a particular aspect of life that I was finding difficult. Hoping for wise advice, instead, I was met with a loving rebuke. “Joe, you’re a narcissist.” After asking what the word meant, I realised he was right! He spoke directly to the sin that was present in my life.
It may seem surprising that I was so open to his correction. A young man does not want to have his pride so directly exposed. However, our friendship had been built up over years. We’ve met on Sundays, we’ve shared meals together, we have been on holiday together – he has seen me at my best and worst. I know he cares. It’s within this context that he could speak truthfully to my situation.
I’m not sure that conversation would have taken place without us belonging to the same church. In a local church, he could the see sin in my life more clearly through our day-to-day interactions. He could offer a kind rebuke. And there was no running away! It’s not like I can log out from the physical world. If I were to opt for an online church, I’m not so sure I’d be so open to correction. For my own sake, I think I need to be in a local church.
Discipleship as witness
The church community is the outcome of God reconciling to himself all things and in the process breaking down divisions between people. The early Christians were a diverse blend of individuals from all moral, political and social classes. The same is true today.
To quote Graham Tomlin again, “the work of the Church is to demonstrate what this new life (in Christ) looks like. This in turn will provoke a response, and it is in this dialogue that follows that real evangelism takes place”. The community witness fleshes out the skeleton of the evangelist’s message. But can the reality of the gospel be expressed as effectively within digital church as in the physical world?
For my own sake, I need to be in a local church
People exist within online and physical communities, with the line between the two becoming increasingly blurred. There is no doubt that our conduct online and the content we share can be a visible witness to the gospel. But the majority of my internet-connectedness is rarely observed by the watching world. I can live-stream a church service and attend an online Bible study without anyone knowing. Our local community witnesses the love of Jesus through church-organised gardening and DIY community days. My local neighbours do not witness my online interactions but every week they see a rag-tag bunch of people pop by my house for a meal and a Bible study. Every Sunday they observe my wife and I heading off to a Sunday service. At barbecues and pancake mornings they meet my church friends. This is the church visible, incarnate and on show for a watching world. I think that’s important.
I still have a body
The physical is an important part of what it means to be human. I quite like having a body – I am not merely a brain on a stick. There’s a reason why I choose to meet a friend for breakfast rather than emailing him. There’s a reason why I spend money on travelling to the USA to be with my wife’s family rather than simply Skyping them.
I think my church friends who struggle with loneliness are better served through meals and holidays together, than social media. I think the housebound and elderly are better served through worshipping with them, than offering a worship service broadcast.
The local, physically gathered church is still the best place to make disciples. I’m not going to be joining an online church anytime soon. But it is a provocation. If online church becomes a feasible alternative, then perhaps it says more about our local churches than it does about the benefits of being online?
Do our local churches offer greater and more immersive discipleship experiences? Do people experience deeper discipling relationships through the local church? Are local churches a more visible witness to the gospel?
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, ESV). God chose to be physically present with his people. God could surely have chosen many other ways to reveal himself. But God chose flesh, blood, tears and sweat. Jesus lived alongside twelve disciples – eating, drinking and worshipping together. They were the first church community. I wish any online church members well, but I’m still counting on the local church to be all that it can be – a fellowship of disciples living as an embodied witness to the life-giving message and rule of Jesus.
JOE OGBORN is a freelance musician and writer based in Cambridge. He blogs at joeogborn.com