No. 26: Online Church- Let’s Talk About It!

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No. 26: Online Church: Does it Count?

Why is online church so popular now? Is it okay to just watch the sermon from my couch on Sunday mornings? What is the purpose of the church? We dive into all these questions in this episode! To clarify before we begin, there are two different ways to talk about the church- the Big C church, and the little c church.

Today, we’re talking about a fun, somewhat contentious topic… online church.

Why is online church so popular now? Is it okay to just watch the sermon from my couch on Sunday mornings? What is the purpose of the church?

We dive into all these questions in this episode!

To clarify before we begin, there are two different ways to talk about the church- the Big C church, and the little c church. The Church is the entire body of Christ- all born-again believers across the world. They make up the global church. The church is the local gathering of believers. To clarify- we’re talking about the little c church in this episode.

The Benefit and Subsequent Danger of Online Church

Online church was beneficial during the COVID pandemic when it was much more serious and we didn’t know what was happening. However, if you were going out during COVID (to get groceries, work, eat meals, see friends, etc…), you should have been going to church as well. Of course, there were expectations, such as those who were high-risk, those who were sick, etc…

But ultimately, this goes back to our fundamental devaluing of the church. Look at other countries where the church is persecuted or underground: believers legitimately risk their lives just to attend church. They can be killed for something that we take for granted or so easily decide to just sleep in.

Unfortunately, as the country has opened up again after COVID, online church has remained pretty prominent. Lots of people find themselves regularly “tuning in” to church services from their homes on Sunday mornings.

There are legitimate (although, few) reasons to not go to church. For example, you may have a family member who is severely immunocompromised. Ultimately, you know if you have legitimate reasons not to go to church. If it is a matter of convenience or comfort or you just want to wait to get plugged in, those are not good reasons and you need to reevaluate. These legitimate reasons are rare and the exception, not the rule.

The Purpose of Church

If you’re not prioritizing the church, the root of that is likely the fundamental devaluing of church. So we need to go back to the purpose of church and why we should revere and value it. Please hear us, we are not trying to come down hard on you and take a holier-than-thou approach. Trust us- we’ve been there and have chosen to skip church after a long night up with little kids.

The Three Settings of the Local Church

At a minimum, there are two (Nathaniel would say three) necessary components of church. John Welsey (the founder of the Methodist church) emphasized the importance of faith being communal. He urged his members to take part in three distinct groups:

  1. Societies:
    – These are large classroom-like settings where members were taught, sang together, etc… (kind of like the Sunday morning gathering of the church)
  2. Classes:
    – These were mixed-gender of about 10-12 people for the purpose of learning and growing together in faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ (essentially, modern-day small groups). This small group model helps believers pray together, meet each other’s needs, and provides a setting for discipleship to happen. It’s where the church can be the church. This is where you live out the Acts 2 model of fellowship and “do life together.”
  3. Bands:
    – These are same gender, same marital status, and similar age groups of 3-5 people. These are voluntary cells of people who professed a clear Christian faith and who desired to grow in love, holiness, and purity of intention. Bands included ruthless honesty and frank openness. Members sought to improve their attitudes, emotions, feelings, intentions, and affections. (Think of what we would call Accountability Groups).

Using this model, Wesley saw explosive growth in his church. He didn’t require members to do this but strongly encouraged them to see the importance of the church functioning like this. All three of these settings have brought fruit to our own lives. This is what we would consider the ideal, “perfect church” model.

Corporate Worship

Ultimately, the purpose of the local church and corporate worship of God is to glorify God. This is through singing, teaching, praying, etc… In order to corporately worship God, it requires being in community and doing these things together. It is important to have our individual walks with God, but the corporate gathering of believers is so important. This is pretty countercultural in our individualistic society.

The Ordinances

Another purpose of the local church is to partake in the ordinances and fellowship together. The ordinances are baptism and communion and are intended to be done together. Both of these ordinances are a reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which is why it is so important to be in the same room as other believers as we do them. The church today seems to have lost a lot of the sacredness of the ordinances being celebrated together.

Preaching the Word

Another purpose of the local church is to hear the preaching of God’s Word. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it can be pretty easy to walk into a church today and God’s Word won’t be preached. When we isolate preaching as the only purpose of church, apart from the ordinances and corporate worship, it is easy to see how online church could be a good thing. If attending church is just hearing a sermon, you can do that with some headphones in on a walk outside or from your living room couch. We can listen to a podcast episode preaching God’s Word but that doesn’t make it a church service. You’re not actually experiencing the gathering of the local church.

Other Purposes of the Local Church

  • Another purpose of the local church is to meet the needs of others. This comes through doing daily life with other church members so that we can know the needs that need to be met. This can easily be lost in the context of the individualized, Western church.
  • Next, the church exists to help believers grow, be held accountable, and fight stagnation in their faith. If we are only tuning into a live stream of online church, there’s no one watching how we’re living our life, asking deep, hard questions, and holding us accountable. This is the role of the body of the local church. You could even go to church and miss out on this- believers need to invite this type of vulnerability into their lives.
  • Another purpose of the local church is to be encouraged, strengthened, challenged, and trained. 2 Timothy 3 talks about how Scripture does all these things. If there is solid preaching and teaching of God’s Word in the church, these things should come from it as well. This isn’t just for pastors or those who get paid to do it- theology isn’t just for seminarians. This is for the entire church body.
  • The church should also pray communally as a body of believers. This is powerful and impactful.
  • Finally, the church exists to be a witness to the community around it. The church should be a vital part of the community. If your church were to pack up and leave and shut its doors, would the community notice or care?

Why Online Church Misses Out

In order for the church to be all these things, you can’t just watch an online live stream of a church service. There’s an obedience factor to this, but you are also personally missing out on the experience, blessings, and gifts of the local church. The only thing from this list that you can do on your own is listen to the preaching of God’s Word. Don’t forsake the goodness of the local church and God’s design for flourishing!

If the entire family is sick and you wouldn’t be going to Church anyway, so it’s a great option to be able to stream the sermon so you can hear and be encouraged and challenged by the message. 

But if you’re honest with yourself and it comes down to a matter of convenience or preference, realize that live streaming a church service is not the same as attending and being an active member of your local church.

More Reasons to Go to Church

Still not convinced? Recognize that we are commanded as believers to regularly gather with believers (a.k.a- go to church). Hebrews 10:24-25 says “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The author of Hebrews has been talking about the assurance of our faith in Christ in the surrounding passage. Because Jesus is faithful, we should meet regularly together.

Don’t take this command lightly! This is pretty easy to do- we wrestle with this often. For example, we don’t think twice about making travel plans that cause us to miss church on Sundays. Nothing is inherently sinful about this, but it’s dangerous to make this a habit. If you’re really integrated into your church, it should be difficult to forsake the gathering for an extended period of time.

Another important point to remember is that anytime we think that church is not important, we need to remember that Jesus died for the church and that it is his bride. Ephesians 5 tells us that marriage is supposed to be a reflection of Christ and His church.

Go to Church!

There are certainly good reasons to leave a specific church. Church hurt is real and churches that are covering up sin and abuse or not preaching the gospel give legitimate reasons to leave that church. But there are not good reasons for prolonged periods of not going to another healthy, biblical church.

We have been designed with a need to know and be known by others and God created the church in order to fulfill this longing (at least to an earthly extent). Sin thrives in darkness and isolation and when we are alone. Going to church is actively engaging in spiritual warfare. Having other believers in our lives is not only a beneficial perk and an incredible privilege- it is a necessity. This is definitely something that we take for granted.

One Degree Shift

Think back to Wesley’s three tiers that we mentioned: societies, classes, and bands. If you’re not going to church, start. If only going to church services, but not in a small group, start. If going to both church and small group, but are not engaged in accountability, start. Basically, plug in and get engaged!

Additional: If going to all three, but not serving, start.

Online Church: Does it Count? The One Degree Podcast

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