There is no doubt that twenty-first century Christianity is different. The technological advances over the last 100 years have literally given us instant access to the entire world. Preaching the gospel to the ends of the Earth is no longer as difficult of a task as it once seemed. If there were enough evangelists, modern technology would allow us to accomplish this goal in a very short amount of time. However, despite our high-tech abilities, Jesus’ words still remain relevant: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37)
No matter how much we progress, God’s timeless plan for His Church is not obligated to our technology. Whatever we build or discover, the gospel message will still be carried on the backs of individuals, not merely through the transmission lines of modern engineering. The Christian faith is a personal one. It requires people and always will.
With that being said, virtual church is becoming a prominent feature in the generation coming of age in the United States. One short article cannot deal with the many inconsistencies of placing these two words side-by-side. However, I do wish to explain a few basic truths that tell why church cannot just be virtual. Simply put, you cannot be a church on your own.
Before you think that I’m throwing the baby out with the bath water, let me say that I see no problems with live streams, podcasts, YouTube, etc. I believe the Church should use every tool available to us to get the gospel into as many areas as we possibly can. Technology is one such tool, and we would be foolish not to make use of it. Its use is not what I am wary of. As everyone knows, anything that man creates can easily be abused. What remains a tool capable of spreading the gospel message to diverse places, working individuals, or shut-in churchgoers can also become a hindrance to the Church at large. This is my hesitation with virtual churches or telling people that watching a live stream every week is proper Christian practice: It may be acceptable in our culture, but I don’t think the New Testament is as approving. We need each other in the Christian faith. We need every member of the body of Christ in order to function properly, and we need them in the same room.
Though every man or woman who goes through conversion into the Faith is considered a part of the Church on their own, the Church itself is communicated as a body requiring multiple members. “For in fact the body is not one member but many.” (1 Corinthians 12:14) We are individual temples of the living God who become the Church when we gather together. A single Christian sitting at home is not a church in the sense that they are not an assembly of multiple parts of the body of Christ. We don’t function as the Church in isolation, we function as the Church in community. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Though community may not be required to experience the presence of God, for the purposes of the Church, two, three, or many are needed. Multiple people are not just needed to perform the functions of the Church but also for the building of faith. Faith will never grow in isolation the way that it does in community. “From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:16) “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” (Proverbs 27:17) Likewise, we will never affect the world as a single individual the way we will as a multitude. Christ’s own model for His followers shows this very clearly. Community is a vital and necessary component of the Church.
That being said, the argument could be made that a person is joining the body of Christ from the comfort of their own home. They’re a part of the body, they’re just not in the room. This is where a proper Christian lifestyle comes in. We must understand that as believers, we are responsible for building up other believers. Though we may feel as if we don’t need to be physically present in church to experience God, this is simply a misunderstanding of what God has called us to. First, you need community far more than you realize. Second, the community needs you far more than you realize. They don’t need you watching from afar because it’s convenient and it helps you maintain your busy lifestyle. They need you to get in the trenches right beside them and help them carry the load. The person who is satisfied with a consistent virtual experience has no plans to carry any weight. How can they? Conventional laborers must go to the job site, the job site doesn’t come to them.
Let’s be honest. Participating in a virtual church experience is easier than the practice of going to church. You can sleep late, stay in your pajamas, sit on your bed, and just enjoy. There are no hands for you to shake or crying babies to distract you. It’s convenient, and it easily conforms to your current lifestyle. If you want to go out of town on the weekends two or three times a month because you have hobbies that require your time, then virtual church is your go-to. This is where we must draw a line between Christianity and consumerism and show the problems of virtual church experiences. At some point, we stopped telling people that they must conform their lives to the demands of the Faith, and we began to show them how to conform the Faith to the demands of their lives. It may be convenient, but it may fail to reflect New Testament Christianity as well.
Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “If any many would come after me, he must first deny himself…” Self-denial is literally the most elementary step in Christianity. The cross doesn’t conform to us. We conform to it and find that it is rarely convenient.
When we experience true conversion, our lives become subject to that conversion. We partner with Christ as He brings our will into line. Jesus doesn’t parallel our current experience, He intersects it. He then demands that we bend our will to His. The same is true for our involvement in the body of Christ. Church doesn’t bend to us, we bend to it. Does this mean we might have to get up early in the morning and inconvenience ourselves by getting dressed and going to church? Yes. Might we have to curb our hobbies or outings a bit to ensure that we actually function alongside the rest of the church? Yes. Is all of this worth it? If you’ve met Jesus, it is. What small sacrifices these are in light of the exceeding weight of glory and the opportunity to join the saints in worship around the throne.
Virtual church tends to feed consumerism. Christians aren’t consumers. We produce the fruits consistent with repentance (2 Corinthians 7:11) and a transformed heart. We are servants of Christ first and from that position, servants of people. It is increasingly difficult to serve the body of Christ if one is consistently absent from the gathering of that body. Two or three are still required and self-denial is still the expectation. Believers, you will find the rewards of an active relationship with God’s people far outweigh your need for convenience. However, you’ll never experience this properly until you get out of bed, get dressed, turn off the phone, and come to church.