I’ll never forget this one particular moment in my life. It was in the Fall of 2000. I was hanging out in the Bible teacher’s classroom after school with some classmates. One friend was recounting the previous weekend’s hunting experience; my fellow freshman had gone squirrel hunting and managed to bag two squirrels out of the same tree using a 20-gauge pump. My hunting experience was limited, but my interest was piqued. That was impressive to be fast enough to get two squirrels. BAM! Pump. BAM! Pump. Plop. Plop. Did I mention that this classmate was a petite, dark-haired girl? Yes, this was the beginnings of a love story. Tara and I grew as friends through high school and dated all four years of college. Back in those days, phone calls on cellphones cost money during the day, but were free on nights and weekends. You better believe that we took advantage of every moment we could since we were at different locales for half of our dating years. Technology can be a wonderful thing. I suppose if we were dating now, we would Skype or Zoom or Video Chat. Technology enabled us to grow in our knowledge of one another and maintain a long-distance relationship. Less than ideal? Yes. Wonderfully helpful during that season of life? Yes.
As I shared with the church family during our recent business meeting, we have decided to discontinue livestreaming our services starting this coming Sunday, June 6th. This might seem odd or counter-intuitive. Why wouldn’t we continue livestreaming our gatherings? Shouldn’t we harness the technology to make a gospel impact? Aren’t there numerous people watching who would otherwise not darken the door of a church? Before answering the question of why we would stop our livestream, let’s look back at why we started livestreaming our worship gatherings.
Why did we livestream our worship gatherings?
The obvious answer to this is COVID-19. In fact, there is a bit of irony in saying that we started livestreaming our worship gatherings. In fact, the first Sunday that we livestreamed our worship gathering, it was just the worship team, A/V techs, and myself in the room. A gathering? Sort of. Like most other churches, we temporarily ceased gathering out of an abundance of caution with the spread of a novel and unknown virus. However, our souls still needed nourishment, and all the more so during the panic of a pandemic.
As we have said from the beginning, offering a livestream is a less-than-ideal substitute called for by the extraordinary circumstances. We have always made clear that the gathering of the local church is essential to our being, sustenance, and growth. A church that does not gather is not a church. As Matt Merker in his book Corporate Worship points out, “Gathering isn’t merely a nice thing to do; it’s part of what a church is.” Consider these biblical truths:
- The biblical norm for the church is to gather together as an assembly (Acts 2:42-47)
- The expectation of the NT epistles is that the church will and does come together (1 Cor 11:18, 14:23)
- The Bible commands believers to not neglect meeting together (Heb 10:24-25)
- The metaphors used to describe the church imply gathering and deep union. What are members apart from a body? What are bricks apart from a building? (See 1 Cor 12:14ff; 1 Pet 2:4-5)
- The one-another commands of the NT necessitate gathering (How will you show honor, love, show hospitality, greet, etc. if you aren’t together?)
- Church discipline requires the gathering of God’s people (Matt 18:15-20)
- Spiritual growth is fueled by the gathering of God’s people (Eph 4:11-16)
Clearly, gathering is essential to the health and unity of the body. Livestreaming of the services provided a temporary, less-than-ideal solution to a difficult situation. However, now that life is returning to normal, rather than just maintaining the livestream, we must ask critical questions about whether it is wise and helpful to do so.
Why wouldn’t we livestream our services?
First, as just stated, gathering is essential to what it means to be the church. Just like any medication that offers a solution but comes with a host of side-effects, so also there has been some unhelpful side-effects of a livestreamed service. For many Christians, it has become all-too-easy to stay at home and “worship from home.” But is that really worship? Yes, you can hear the songs, hear the prayers, and listen to the sermon, but is that the sum total of what we are seeking to accomplish? Certainly not. We are intended to hear one another sing the truths of the gospel, to show preference to one another as we gather, to bear one another’s burdens, and to speak the truth in love to one another.
Second, livestreaming has fueled the already prevalent consumerism of our culture. It turns church into a one-way venture of receiving without having to give. With the convenience of so many quality livestreams (side note: we start to measure the power of the service by the lighting, sound quality, and preacher’s eloquence rather than the the truth proclaimed and the presence of the Spirit), several have opted for the buffet of church “experience”: worship music from here, preaching from there, prayer from over here, and I’ll give a little online over there. As Jonathan Leeman has pointed out, “Virtual church individualizes Christian discipleship. It subtly replaces a family-faith with a consumer-faith.” This is dangerous to the soul.
Third, livestreaming is not as evangelistic as we might think. Early on, there was much celebration about the vast number of people stopping by for a livestreamed service. But where are they now? Back to doing what they normally did before the pandemic shut everything down. Worse than that (I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for making sermons available online), we deprive unbelievers of the real evangelistic power source: the experience of the presence of God in the midst of believers worshipping together. No matter the quality of your livestream, the Spirit’s free movement among His people cannot be captured. Again, Leeman insightfully points out, “the Bible says non-Christians need not just a picture of you preaching; they need to be surrounded by Christians worshipping (1 Cor. 14:24–25). In other words, virtual church individualizes not just discipleship but evangelism. It shows the world a picture of Christianity through words, not words and lives. Maybe that’s why Christianity grew for 2000 years without our virtual services.” The real evangelistic power is still in Spirit-filled ambassadors taking the gospel to their neighbors, not sharing a livestream on social media.
Fourthly, livestreaming our services costs additional money and resources. In order to have a smooth-running livestream, personnel are needed to monitor the livestream and make adjustments as needed. We have been blessed to be able to produce a decent livestream with only spending a few hundred dollars, but our equipment has been getting maxed out. We also have to pay additional fees to legally livestream the song portion of the sermon, as well as services to be able to simulcast the service on Facebook and YouTube. These are financial resources that could be put to better use.
Finally, livestreaming our services has removed some of the personal and family aspect of our services. Many members have been hesitant to ask questions in the evening, because they are aware that the service is being broadcast publicly. Prayer requests have had to be veiled to protect the identities of those needing prayer. We have been unable to share specifics about our missionaries and their situations because we have a public (and potentially international) audience. The church is to be a family and right now the livestream is inhibiting our ability to function as such.
What about shut-ins and the sick?
This is a legitimate concern. Several of our shut-ins, and those who are chronically ill have been immensely blessed by feeling included in our church services. They long to be present in church but their health and physical abilities are preventing them. Their situation is much different than the member who simply finds “worship from home” more convenient.
In order to care well for the flock, we will offer a private livestream to anyone who is providentially hindered from gathering with us and desires to participate with us virtually. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org each week that you desire to receive the private stream and tell us the email address that you use to watch YouTube. Only those to whom we grant access will be able to see the livestream. Later in the week we will upload the sermon portion of the service to our YouTube channel.
Gathering as a church is essential. Yes, there continues to be very real threats from the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other viruses. Yet there is a more deadly cancer that lurks within the soul of each and every person – sin. There is only one solution to that sin problem, and His Name is Jesus. Yes, faith in Jesus sets us free from the penalty of sin. As we walk by faith – in community with other believers – we are being sanctified, set free from the power of sin. But we look forward to and long for the day in heaven when we will be set free from the presence of sin. Until that time, we must do everything possible to grow in the knowledge and the grace of our Lord.
Tara and I utilized (and continue to harness) technology to improve our communication. However, there has never been a question in either of our hearts as to whether talking on the phone or talking across the table was preferable. Never once, since we married, have we thought, “I sure would like to go back to a long-distance, free-nights-and-weekends kind of relationship.” Part of how God has wired us is for real, face-to-face, life-on-life relationships. What is true is also true of the bride of Christ: Gathering isn’t just a good idea, it is vital.