The internet “church” has been around for a while, in one case it has been around for twenty-two years. The FICOTW is a non-denominational internet “church” and some have taken it upon themselves, to question if they were simply way ahead of their time or simply wrong-headed. The purpose here is to think through some of the implications which arise from practicing church on the web, or even if this can be accomplished at all in the first place.
There is no doubt that technology has provided wonderful support to all people during this COVID-19 lockdown. Providing an opportunity for people who wouldn’t see each other to see each other. Is it possible then to have an internet church? Obviously, given that more than one internet church exists, it is possible, in the sense that something can exist on the internet calling itself a church, but this isn’t about preference it’s about what’s possible given that the church is God’s creation.
Show and tell
One might even argue that having an online church with online donation forms will deal with appearance issues. Jesus did after all address those who practice their religion for show and tell purposes, rather than as they should before God. One could even prefer an internet church in order to control how warm or cool their room is, whether they have a selection of teas or just the standard choice of tea and coffee. An internet church might be preferred because the congregant would have access to a mute button, able to turn off any hymn they don’t like singing and any sermon they don’t want to hear off. They might prefer an internet church to a physical one because it cuts out the ten, twenty, forty-minute drive. Then there are those who would hate an internet church because their service does more for them than it does for others, suddenly the impact reality of who is serving who becomes apparent. Those who find their identity in what they do rather than in Christ will lose their identity the moment there is no longer the opportunity to do what they always did in a physical building.
You can’t be a wife without a husband
What are the essentials when it comes to church and how do they differ from our preferences? In other words, how much can we do without and still continue as the church? Do online sermons communicate the means of grace that come from the Word being preached or does it simply become an educational video. Again, we are not addressing how one person might feel about this and how it makes them feel. We recognise that listening to a sermon online, when we don’t know the family life of the pastor, means that we will be unable to determine whether or not he should be preaching, since to be qualified requires more than simply being able to teach the truth. The separation between teaching and guidance, learning and imitation have caused many to wander from the faith as they have got older.
Is it possible to have an internet church service where communion takes place? How are we to come to the Lord’s table together having discerned the body if we are not together, how can we share in the same bread and the same cup as taught in Scripture if we are not sharing in the same bread and same cup? How can we give and receive if we are in our own homes? The answer, for many to these questions, will be found in what you consider to be the essential parts of a church service, or a communion service and how these differ from your preferences. Some might argue at this point that missing elements do not prohibit them from participating at home, but that depends entirely on what parts you are speaking about and why you think those elements are included but not necessarily required. Instead of thinking in terms of prohibition, we might be better off thinking about this, as a woman claiming to be a wife when she has no husband.
If the only reason for people gathering, is that we prefer it to be this way when we listen to the teaching of God’s Word, have fellowship, break bread, pray, come to the Lord’s table, then the preference of one may not be the preference of another. If there are no essentials, no biblical obligations then many of these practices can be accomplished over the internet and if this is the case, it is then my personal preference whether I attended a live service in my living room or watch it at a later point in the kitchen.
What are we missing?
Are we missing the church as revealed in Scripture? The means of grace, the purpose of our gatherings? Those who neglect the gathering of God’s people might not be. It seems to me that the church is only ready to gather again when it appreciates the essential parts of our gatherings and how they radically differ from many of our preferences. If all that is gained when the people of God are allowed to meet together again is a gathering, then it might be worth asking if the Church is more about us than God.
When personal choice and the freedom to change our mind can be exercised in such a way that it frees us from existing commitments and our God-given obligations, the church like the family suffers. These inventive interpretations are not so much advancement in technology as much as they are a move away from what church is and how it is to be practiced as revealed in Scripture. If there are no essential parts and only preferences then congregations will be defined like birds of a feather that flock together, rather than the imitation of Christ. One wonders if these internet “ministries” are an outlet for there being so little spiritual and practical reformation in the church and one wonders the influence this has in local congregations and as an explanation for why there is such a defence of preference. The internet may be a good servant, but it is a poor master that seems to enslave many through what it offers.
The internet offers the ability to have a virtual identity and live as a virtual person, within a virtual family and with all the vices you like and none of the consequences or fear of being judged for such a life. It won’t be long before someone creates a virtual church where you can virtually attend and virtually participate. There will probably be the opportunity to have virtual marriages and virtual children, and for some, this won’t be a game, well if that’s their preference, who can argue? There will be a few of us I’m sure.