Recently, a megachurch in Denver made the decision to sell their building and go to an all-virtual format. They promised that their community social outreach—clothing and food services—would continue. They did not address how this would effect the social health of the church itself. After the pandemic of 2020-2021, a number of congregations are following their example. After this story hit the news, a Christian radio station asked what their listeners thought about this. The reactions were mixed, with some liking it and others saying they had to have the in-person interaction of a physical assembly.
Several issues come to mind when discussing virtual assemblies. These include participation, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper.
How much participation is involved in electronic church? That, of course, depends on the individual. TheThe increase in electronic viewing has also accompanied an almost 80% reduction in contributions. temptation is great to do other things while listening to the television or computer, and then your concentration is no longer on worshipping God. Others don’t even need the electronics, because they worship by themselves constantly. The assembly of the church, however, is designed by God to include corporate participation; many scriptures use the phrase “among you” in reference to the church. For many who participate in online church, there is no “among you,” because they never identify with a particular congregation, or don’t know who else is in that congregation.
While you can sing along with a televised congregation, sometimes people don’t do so because they can hear themselves separately. Of course, what is important is the worship and not how you sound, but some people don't like singing along with an electronic congregation. There is another aspect of this that will be looked at later.
Some TV churches only broadcast the sermon, and then you miss out on the other aspects of group worship. In other broadcasts, prayers may be hindered because when the one leading the prayer mentions specific persons, many of the listeners may not even know who the person is or how they are related to the congregation. Since they tune in individually, there is no participation with others, to know who they are or what their needs are.
Many larger churches, even those that meet physically, have a problem with members knowing more than a core group. There may be many such groups, and even some overlap in membership of those groups. Online worship exacerbates the problem. If one can participate in the worship without knowing who else is included, then one need never get to know other participants. It takes a strong will to find out who else is even considered a member of the congregation, and an even stronger will to reach out to get to know those people. Online congregations are often not even congregations; they are a collection of individuals with a common interest but no desire to associate with those of the same interest.
There is another concern with the trend toward virtual worship services. Research shows that the increase in electronic viewing has also accompanied an almost 80% reduction in contributions. Although people can still mail in checks (yes, those still exist) or set up electronic transfers of funds on a recurring basis, over a third of people going virtual fail to give to the church at all. A lack of group involvement results in a reduced interest in supporting the group financially. In spite of promises to continue outreach (social or evangelical), the reduction in income will necessarily result in a reduction of outreach services.
The Lord’s Supper
Bridging the gap between participation and fellowship is the attitude toward the Lord’s Supper. If you believe that participation in the Lord’s Supper is important weekly, you miss out on the important remembrance of Christ through the bread and fruit of the vine. You could bless your own and partake at the same time as an electronic congregation but it isn’t the same. You don’t need the electronic congregation in that case in order to take the bread and cup. You could do that at any time. There is no participation with the congregation, so there is no need to limit what amounts to personal worship to the same time as others are worshiping together.
Paul had much to say to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper. His discourse takes up the entire eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. Much of what he says goes against the idea of electronic worship.
You can’t “shew the Lord's death till he come.” (1 Cor 11:26) It is called a communion (1 Cor 10:16), but if you observe it by yourself, with whom are you communing and to whom are you showing.
“Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.” (1 Cor 11:33) One apparent problem with the congregation in Corinth was that they turned the Lord’s Supper into a common meal. “In eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.” (1 Cor 11:21) Paul expected joint physical participation in the Lord’s Supper. This is something that electronic congregations cannot do. They may participate jointly in time, but not with “one another.”
There are specific scriptures about the differences between electronic and physical congregations. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) The reference to “assembling together” specifically refers to doing so in a particular place. The reason this writer gives for assembling together (which you can’t do electronically) is to encourage one another in love and good works. It is the togetherness of family. If you are not physically present with a congregation you are not encouraging others by your presence, or by your words. While it is possible that some smaller congregations may hold their worship through a group chat, like Zoom, most stream it one way. If you are watching on TV, YouTube, or Facebook, there is little or no opportunity to encourage one another.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16) You can’t teach and admonish with your singing if you are the only one who can hear it. It may be personal worship, but it is not congregational teaching. Singing in the church is a group effort, in the physical presence of others.
“Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) You can’t “comfort yourselves together” if you aren’t together. There is little comfort from someone with whom you barely or never associate. The polite “I’m sorry for your loss” from the police or a doctor often comes across as a pro forma statement with little comfort.
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) How can you know those who labor among you if there is no “among you,” because there is no gathering together? How can an elder shepherd his flock if he doesn’t even know who is in that flock, because they are all in their own homes? Elders are appointed over congregations, but in online “services” there is no congregation, because nobody is congregating.
There may be reasons that a person would have to stay away from the physical assembly of the saints. Often these are physical reasons, such as illness. Sometimes it is because of work schedules. In the time of pandemic, it is sometimes fear of crowds and catching a disease that can kill you. In the first century, though, there was also the possibility of death. Many Christians died because they chose to assemble together. In those cases, the threat of death often carried with it the idea that they would have to renounce Christ. There is not that consideration with the pandemic. Online streaming of worship to those who cannot otherwise assemble is better than nothing. TheIf you are not physically present with a congregation you are not encouraging others by your presence. temptation, though, is to make excuses for why you cannot assemble together. Electronic worship enables some to create reasons they choose not to assemble. It makes them feel like they are doing the right thing while ignoring the command to assemble.
Television and internet evangelism have their place, but it is generally in trying to teach others. Its advantage is in evangelism, not worship. There are many people who would never darken the door of a church building, would never set foot in an assembly of the church. Some of those people might listen to a sermon on the television, even as background noise for other activities. The seed may be planted, whether they want it or not. Some seek out electronic worship to do their research into potential congregations or churches. By listening to online sermons they can determine whether a congregation or fellowship is following the Bible or mere doctrines of men. In that sense, electronic worship has value.
Electronic worship can never replace a congregation gathering together and showing love for one another. It can never replace knowing those who share your faith, and helping them when they need your help. It can never replace the innate human need for the company of others at important moments in their lives. These are things God wants, and he commands assembling together for our good and so we can experience these things.