Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

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Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Crisis: It Reveals Theology

I like this analogy by Cory Wilson:

A theologically uninformed pastor seeking to navigate these choppy waters is comparable to a first-year medical student being placed in charge of the COVID-19 response for Cleveland Clinic. Theological training and formation for pastoral ministry matters. Especially in days like these. There is a wealth of truth reaped among the disciplines of pastoral training that provide strength as pastors hold their hands to the helm.

Wilson explains ways biblical theology, systematic theology, church history, global theology, and missiology all have importance for pastoral ministry in a time of crisis. I would add spiritual theology as well. Wilson states (in the quote I pulled) that formation for pastoral ministry matters. Yes it does. Formation in congregational ministry matters, too.

The best time to prepare for a crisis is when there isn’t one. How well has the church  been prepared? Equipped? How mature are we? That point of reflection is vital not only for congregants, but for pastors. There is a virtuous circle here, I think: healthy churches are shepherded by healthy pastors, and healthy pastors are fostered by healthy churches, with all dependent on the Lord, foremost, as the Great Physician and healer of all. Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor, writes:

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Savior, your own hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them. Though there is a promise of shining as the stars, to those ‘who turn many to  righteousness,’ that is but on supposition that they are first turned to it themselves. Their own sincerity in the faith is the condition of their glory, simply considered, though their great ministerial labors may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many have warned others that they come not to that place of torment, while yet they hastened to it themselves: many a preacher is now in hell, who hath a hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it. Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refuse it themselves; and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglect and abuse? Many a tailor goes in rags, that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work. Take heed, therefore, to ourselves first, that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.

Bad theology does harm. Good theology gives life. Pastors must not only be theologically informed, but spiritually formed, taking “heed…that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.”

Cory Wilson writes, “How you shepherd during these days will force reveal your theology. As the curtain is pulled back, may you not be caught standing naked.” Let us take heed, then, first of ourselves.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

Spiritual Leadership is Tough

“People may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” Laurie wrote after Wilson’s death. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

There is similar introspection among clergy of many faiths across the United States as the age-old challenges of their ministries are deepened by many newly evolving stresses. Rabbis worry about protecting their congregations from anti-Semitic violence. Islamic chaplains counsel college students unnerved by anti-Muslim sentiments. A shortage of Catholic priests creates burdens for those who remain, even as their church’s sex-abuse crisis lowers morale. Worries for Protestant pastors range from crime and drug addiction in their communities to financial insecurity for their own families to social media invective that targets them personally.

Adam Hertzman, who works for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, witnessed the emotional toll on local rabbis after the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“Somehow in the U.S. we expect our clergy to be superhuman when it comes to these things,” he said. “They’re human beings who are going to feel the same kind of fear and numbness and depression that other people do.”

– David Crary, Associated Press, “Stresses Multiply for Many U.S. Clergy: ‘We Need Help Too‘”

Eugene Peterson wrote, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”

Pastoring is hard work. It is challenging work. It is human work, and it is divine work. I’m not sure if being a pastor is any more challenging now than it has been in any other age. Regardless, two reminders are worth noting. First, be kind to your pastors. Second, offer them your help.