Online, The Enemy

“Online church” is not your best life. It’s life-support.

It’s better than being totally disconnected, but it’s not as good as being fully connected.

We aren’t designed for extended periods away from community.

Someone reading this needs to go back to church. If not now, then when?

The above was shared by an acquaintance. This is not an uncommon sentiment in “traditional” churches, and (to be blunt) it is a runaway train in my particular denomination. Because it is shared within a generally “churched” context, there are a lot of agreements with it. Yet, there are some major underlying flaws in the words.

The Online False Church

I reacted negatively to this quote. Yes, I’m biased (still the digital guy). The way “Online church” is defined by the context isn’t church. Yet, because of the wording, all church online is tossed out, and that is a grave fallacy. Do I think “broadcast” church is bad? No. While I would agree with the quote that it is definitely life support, there is a huge “but”.

Broadcast church has been the norm for a generation or more. Come, sit in the pew, watch a show, be lectured at, go home. That is broadcast church. That mentality has been very strong within the 4 walls and remains so. What COVID has brought to our attention is that we lost the Way. It’s just that it became a mirror, and we don’t like the image we’re seeing (and that is a good thing).

The Real Church Online

Many churches struggle to have their online people connect. I will be the first to say that my church is no different, AND THAT IS MY “AREA”. Bluntly, it’s humiliating and depressing.

However, there are plenty of examples of churches that are being successful in building community online. By community, I mean a community that makes disciples that makes disciples. It includes people that are being transformed within their community. It includes people whose lives are being utterly transformed. It includes people that have found a place where they matter and can be honest with themselves and others.

Whom to trust?

As for placing a lot of weight on the physical gathering within the 4 walls, I do get it. We are wired for community, and physicality is a huge factor. There are other factors that are equally, if not more, important.

Pastors and church folks, we’ve got an issue. We are not trusted, including by ourselves. Think about many of the conversations in your church lobby, fellowship hall, classroom, parking lot, etcetera. How many honest, deep, and Jesus-centered conversations were being had pre-COVID? There were already issue with thin conversations, and rarely sharing of honest pain.

Even before my current church, I became trained to be very careful what I shared. I still overshared contextually, in that I shared deeper thoughts and concerns than others did because I wanted to model the behavior I wanted to characterize the church. Was that a mistake? From a human standpoint, definitely. From a pastoral standpoint, probably not (again, because I wanted to model the “goal” behavior).

The number of conversations I’ve had with people about not trusting people they worship with (even for years), hurts everytime. I understand that this undermines any commonality and any community we think we have.

“How are you?”

“Fine.”

“How about them [enter sports team here]?”

“Amazing!”

Choose your innocuous topic. It’s being discussed openly, freely, and even (maybe) happily in your lobby (or wherever). That doesn’t make a community as the New Testament would have us understand it.

The 4 Walled Box

A lot of people aren’t returning to church and it isn’t because they’ve been consuming online. They aren’t returning because they don’t see why church matters to their lives. “Gathering” isn’t the issue. “Church” is the issue. What do the 4 walls of the church matter to people? Honestly, the church building is merely a symbol. It has, in many respects, become an empty one (and in these times that can seem to be literal).

I’m currently in a “class” called Communities on Mission. One of the quotes from the opening session is…

The Church doesn’t have a mission. The Mission has the Church.”

If you’re like me, I had a negative visceral reaction to the first sentence. Then I heard the second sentence. I replayed it to make sure I heard it right. I thought about it and realized that it was accurate.

What is especially accurate is how it pokes at us who are pastors.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11–13 [NIV]

The “works of service” is what we are supposed to be equipping our people to do. I could point out that certain non-Christian traditions do a much better job than we do. It is part of their ethos. It is also (granted) part of their work to earn salvation (which is a different issue). Yet, ultimately, they do it because they believe they should.

To Gather

On to the next issue…the gathering. I understand that people do not perceive gathering digitally as, well, gathering. I understand that they do not understand. Except, we need to develop a missional mindset, and gathering within the 4 walls of the church may not be our future.

Some might say that, yes, missional for those outside of the church. That would be the majority of the population, so, yes. It is also, at this point, a significant proportion of our pre-COVID attendees.

It can be reasonably argued that the majority of the pre-COVID attendees who haven’t come back to church (even online) are an even more important of a missional field than those who have never attended. They were somewhat connected at some point, but are no longer. The embers of faith may not be yet dead.

Was This Really Needed?

Now, here comes my inference, which probably comes from some of my own woundedness. I emotionally took that last statement as arrogant and condescending. Knowing the person who posted it, I do not believe that this was their heart. Nor do I believe the people who liked or “Amen”‘d it were thinking that way either.

Even as I write this post, I am concerned that someone will respond to me in the say way (i.e., he’s arrogant and condescending). It is not my intent.

I acknowledge that there are some Christians that watch church online that need to have their faith rekindled and their joy in Christ restored. However, I would say that the same applies to many who enter our doors.

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Categorized as Blog

By Ian

Ian is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene. He currently serves as the Online Campus Pastor at Generations Community Church in Marysville, WA. He is blessed by his wife and 3 children.

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