[The following is excerpted from the book, Gather: Getting to the Heart of Going to Church, Copyright © 2021 by M. Hopson Boutot. Click here to download the entire book for free.]
It’s no surprise that many are calling the Covid-19 pandemic an opportunity for the church to embrace a “new normal.” (1) Are physical gatherings even necessary if the church can meet safer digitally? Call me a Luddite, but I prefer to be counted among those who insist upon the “old school” church gathering. What pastor and author Jay Kim refers to as “analog church.” (2)
Consider some of the ground we’ve already covered. In the physical gathering God speaks through Spirit-filled preachers who faithfully preach the Spirit-inspired Word. When we gather we encounter God. The presence of God cannot be coded into ones and zeros and broadcast on the internet. I do not mean that God cannot use these technologies to bring about encouragement, conviction of sin, and even saving faith. But that’s not the same thing as encountering the presence of God. I once met a saint who was born again after reading one of the Left Behind books and meditating on the truth of the Gospel. God can use all sorts of things to draw sinners to Himself. But that’s not the same thing as encountering His presence when the saints gather to hear His Word preached.
But that’s not all. In the physical gathering we are provoked to love and good works. Now sure, the preacher can still do that in the sermon you’re watching on Facebook Live or YouTube. But that’s not what the author envisions in Hebrews 10:23-26. It is the people, not merely the preacher, who are called to provoke one another to love and good works. And that’s unlikely to happen in the comments section on Facebook while you’re watching the service on your tablet.
In the physical gathering we are invited and encouraged to use our spiritual gifts. Sure, you can use your gifts throughout the week to serve one another in the body. But the gathering creates a unique space where your gifts can be used to serve one another, and that simply cannot be replicated over a livestream.
In the physical gathering your presence encourages your leaders and your fellow members. I suppose you can probably encourage others by posting a comment in the chat box online while you observe the livestream from the comfort of your couch. But when the typical response to that encouragement is a thumbs up or heart emoji (instead of a smile, a hug, or happy tears), it’s obvious that your ability to encourage is lessened by the lack of physical presence.
In the physical gathering you can exercise one another ministry to the body. Sure, some of these commands can be obeyed apart from the gathering. But some commands, like singing to one another, simply cannot be achieved remotely. And even if they could I’m pretty sure none of us would want that. Few sounds are more rapturous than a gathering of saints singing God’s praises together. No technology can ever replace that.
I could go on, but I think you get my point. While online attendance may be a necessary supplement for a season, it is no substitute for the physical gathering of the saints. As Jay Kim writes, “online church” offers information not transformation, content not community, communication not communion. (3)
1. See, for example, Jerry Pillay, “COVID-19 Shows the Need to Make Church More Flexible,” Transformation 37, no. 4 (October 1, 2020): 266–75, https://doi.org/10.1177/0265378820963156.
2. Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2020).
3. Kim, Analog Church.