This past Sunday we were able to meet back in our church building following a second short lockdown. But we are not intending to stop our live stream from rolling. Which begs the question, what difference would it make if we just stayed home and live streamed in perpetuity? Why not just watch the live stream, download our Sunday service and save ourselves the hassle of getting the kids up and out in the morning?
Here are a few reasons why, despite the availability of the live stream, we shouldn’t consider it ‘church’ in the normal sense.
The meaning of ‘church’
Typically, the church has been understood as a gathering of God’s people who have committed to each other in a local fellowship. Many emphasise the meaning of ἐκκλεσία as referring to a group of people gathering together. Part of what is means to be a church is to gather together. Whilst it is possible to download God’s Word and hear great preaching online, it is not possible to meaningfully be a church in our separate homes. There is a reason why the Bible states explicitly, ‘do not neglect the meeting together of yourselves’. The Lord no doubt foresaw the advent of the internet and the ability to live stream, but the need to actually gather is explicitly stated in scripture.
Again, it is possible to download preaching and have the Word of God delivered through your laptop or TV. But you cannot download meaningful fellowship. Even our attempts to recreate fellowship online – through Zoom, Facebook or whatever else – always leave us feeling it just isn’t the same. Because it isn’t! If we think the fellowship of the saints is important – and the Bible suggests it is – we shouldn’t content ourselves with watching from home.
I don’t want to rehash all the arguments that have been rehearsed before, but if you choose to stay home you are depriving yourself of communion. Of course, you might have your thimbleful of wine and a scrap of bread at home by yourself, but that is no more communion than calling yourself a church of one. There is no means of accountability at home on your own, there is now communal element to the communion, there is no participation in the same loaf making the many one, there is only me, my view of my personal standing with God and nothing else. We call it communion because it is specifically communal. We deprive ourselves of this means of grace when we choose to only ‘do church’ via live stream.
It would be all too easy to rest the case entirely on what suits us without giving any attention to what might serve others. Just as we can’t download fellowship for ourselves, it is considerably harder – if not impossible – to encourage people meaningfully from a distance. You might be content to download the sermon and have done with it, but by staying home you are depriving others of the encouragement of seeing you. What is more, in churches like ours – where sharing testimony of how the Lord has been at work in our lives as an element of the sermon – we simply cannot do that very helpfully from a distance.
Confusing mitigation with reality
Of course, lots of us have been live streaming and clearly we think there is a place for it. But we have at least tried to be clear that watching a live stream is not church neither is it gathering or meeting. What we are doing on live stream is mitigating the fact that we cannot meet. Our mitigation is clearly worse than the reality because it includes no fellowship, no testimony, no communion. It is better than nothing, but it is not as good as the real thing.
What we mustn’t do is confuse a mitigation with reality. We all recognise there are mitigating reasons why people might not be able to fulfil the command not to neglect the meeting together of ourselves. Illness, infirmity, unforeseen circumstances might all be reasons why we recognise that command is not absolute. But in the ordinary run of things, the Lord expects his people to gather. But if we confuse a mitigation – a live stream in lieu of gathering – with the actual meeting itself, we are short-changing ourselves, our brethren and the Lord. We mustn’t confuse what is a mitigation – attempting to stop a bad situation being as bad as it could possibly be – with what is ideal and best.