I, like many of you this week, checked into a live-streamed version of a church service. This has been an absolute necessity...but I don’t have to like it.

Church online, as a supplement to the gathered body, is really our only option right now, as the alternative would risk spreading a serious virus, and – as of today – breaking the law too.

We should celebrate being able to still connect online – but we should also lament what we have lost. I was glad to see people online, but also deeply hurt that I could only be so present with them.

There's been some quite cavalier theology circulating online. In some cases, I think we have not only downplayed the essential importance of presence but revealed just how little we valued the gathering in the first place.

‘Church’ online

The concept of ‘doing church online’ is a good one, if all you mean is supplementing church online, or meeting online due to an inability to meet otherwise. For some with disabilities, additional needs, or language barriers, the gathered body is simply too much of a challenge. In parts of the world where persecution is rife, gathering is fraught with danger. Doing church online gives us a way through in these exceptional, or temporary cases. I’m not only happy with that concept for online church, but I also believe that we’re way behind on doing it, and coronavirus is forcing us to play catch-up. It’s about time we got on this!

If, however, you’re saying that church, for everyone, is just the same online as it would be otherwise in person, and that nothing would actually be missing by meeting online, then I strongly disagree.

Across social media this week I’ve read people saying that because God isn’t physical, we can move past the idea that church should be, and that meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) can be fulfilled by gathering online. The underlying idea seems to be that physical church isn’t anything special, and that the online apparatus gives us all we need to pursue the same experience.

My question, then, is could you tell a mum that physical presence wouldn’t matter with her children as long as they had the internet? Perhaps more brazenly I’d suggest that if you feel you haven’t lost anything by moving your church online, then you might need to re-evaluate what church was to you before.

What is Church?

There has been pushback for years against the idea that church is the building. Rightly so! What’s happening now, however, is a push back against its physicality – and this is a tougher pill to swallow.

The word ‘church’ literally means 'the gathering', or 'the assembly'. Churches began gathered as people together (Romans 16:5) and Colossians 3 spells out the difficulties of being so closely gathered (v12-14), as well as the joys and activities of that gathering (v15-17).

Even though there is a detached element to the universal Church (1 Corinthians 12:13), the expressions of worship in the New Testament are all local gatherings (eg. Galatians 1:1-2). Jesus was God, bodily incarnate and physically among us – present to us. The Church today is an expression of Jesus’ body on earth, a living metaphor for the presence of God among people.

The importance of physicality

We the Church, are the bride, and Jesus is the bridegroom. That is a spiritual connection, but you better believe it’s physical too. When you create too stark a line between the physical and the spiritual you advocate for a dualism that you’ll never find in the Bible. The new heavens and new earth will be a collapsing together of these categories.

If I was forcibly kept physically separate from my wife and the only way we could communicate was using the internet, then I couldn’t pretend we hadn’t lost anything. We would still be married of course – the reality of who we are as a married couple wouldn’t change. But we’d still be deeply missing each other’s presence.

Have you ever just sat with someone mourning the loss of a loved one? Not counselled, just sat. Often what the bereaved person reports afterwards is the presence alone was their most important comfort – and the thing that stayed with them over any advice given. The warm – and yes, spiritual – encounter with another in that space physically was what counted.

Online church – the necessity

As a necessity – we have to do online church right now. We have things to celebrate, but to remain healthy we have things to lament too.

Online church can supplement church and help us get through times like this – and through to people who genuinely struggle with gathering. We live in a difficult world where the ideal isn’t always available to us, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it, hope for it, or healthily grieve when we can’t have it.

If we hadn’t used the last five decades to transform church into such a consumeristic experience, then we would feel a greater sense of loss today for not having it. One of the opportunities we have right now is to slow down, reconnect to our own stillness, and realise what we’re missing when we truly miss others.

So yes, I’m embracing online church right now as a necessity, and in the future as a supplement, but I can’t pretend for one second that I don’t miss really being with people. Online church is not the same as gathered church. It’s a plaster, a bandage, a splint, a ration – it’s not the thing whole. Let’s embrace it – but let’s not surrender to it.

If we forget what was lost, we may continue to take it for granted in the future – then it truly might be lost forever.

Tim Gough is the director of Llandudno Youth For Christ, editor of multi-award winning blog, and the author of Rebooted: Reclaiming Youth Ministry for the Long Haul - A Biblical Framework.

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