Growing up, I just figured that everybody’s church was exactly like mine.
In my head, anybody who was going to church on a Sunday morning was sitting in pews surrounded by stained glass windows that reached up to the high corners of vaulted ceilings. They would stand when they saw the asterisk in the program, bow their heads to pray and sing hymns in unison with the choir.
Whenever I heard the word “church,” I instantly thought of my church.
But when I moved away for college, I met several people who did church way differently than I did it, so I decided to expand my horizons. For one month, I visited churches that looked completely different from mine. I went to Sunday services at unconventional venues, such as bars, nightclubs, movie theaters and warehouses. Every service I visited offered something valuable that the others didn’t.
We’ve heard it said time and time again: The church is more than a building. The Bible is clear on that. Just read Matthew 18:20. Even so, it’s important for us to notice that the places in which we choose to worship have an impact on how we worship. And each place has both advantages and limitations.
Modern-day churches are experiencing a major shift. For many of us, the internet has become our new gathering place.
As we move further into the digital age, more and more churches are starting to make their Sunday services available online, either through live streaming, video recordings or podcasts. This globalization of the local church makes it possible for somebody to simultaneously never miss a Sunday service and never physically step foot in a church. It’s a fascinating new dynamic that many congregations seem to be grappling with these days.
So the question stands: How does the availability of online services affect our church communities?
In an effort to minister to a constantly changing world, it’s important for us, as the Church, to develop new ways of communicating the same message. Because let’s be honest, we all get our information from the internet. If we have an important message to share—the Gospel—then why wouldn’t we seek out and make use of the most powerful forms of communication?
With that in mind, the decision that many churches have made to broadcast their weekly services makes perfect sense. It allows them to reach an entirely new demographic of people who otherwise may not have any interaction with the Christian faith. And it gives regular attendees the opportunity to stay connected to the church on the weeks when they can’t make it. For individuals who are physically unable to attend due to illness, injuries or distance, the advent of online services has been a great blessing.
Online services also might give people the opportunity to engage more thoroughly with the sermon. Whether that’s through asking questions in the comments or replaying a part you missed the first time, a recording can be used to start conversations that help us grow in our faith. When I listen to a message that impacts me, I can to share it on my Facebook wall, which could create a dialogue with others about the topic. Most people today are constantly communicating via social media, so shareable online content makes it easier for churches to join the conversation.
In our effort to curate a singular church experience for such a broad and multi-channel audience, we do run into a handful of obstacles. There’s a fine balance that churches have to strike between impacting the in-person experience for the sake of the online viewers. Bright lights, for example, might help highlight the speaker or the worship band on video, but they also might cause distractions for people sitting in the pews. Deciding how to cater to both groups can at times be challenging.
Beyond reconciling the preferences of these two groups, online viewers must fight the temptation to become passive consumers rather than active participants in the church. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he writes about how each member of the body of Christ has an important function (1 Corinthians 12). When it becomes so easy for us to literally tune in and tune out of our weekly church service—like we would our favorite TV show—we run the risk of forgetting that we have a role to play in the life of the Church. If you are somebody who regularly enjoys online services in lieu of in-person ones, I’d encourage you to consider how you are or can be taking an active role in the Church, even from afar.
To me, fellowship might be the most critical compromise we make when the internet becomes our primary gathering place. During college, I remember a few semesters when I hit a long stretch of strictly online services, and I just started to feel disconnected and lonely in my spiritual walk. I was missing my brothers and sisters in Christ because I was made to be in fellowship with them. Maybe some of you have had the same experience.
So, what now?
I’ve noticed that most people who choose to gather in non-traditional places and call it “church” do so in order to reach an unreached group of people. Kind of sounds like Jesus’ goal during his ministry on Earth, doesn’t it (Luke 19:10)? That makes me think we’re on the right track.
Considering the fact that the internet is pretty much a direct line to the entire world, it’s not surprising that so many churches are choosing to share their message there. Online church services have their triumphs and pitfalls, but so does every single other type of church service.
As we continue to explore what works and what doesn’t, let’s commit to being thoughtful, intentional and prayerful about where and how we worship, keeping Jesus on the throne of our lives always.