In our right desire to reach more people with the gospel, we have made faith relevant, accessible, and easy. I am not advocating for unnecessary barriers to getting people to church at all. The question I am raising is this “What is the True Church?” Can I sit at home and with a bag of Cheetos and pull up an “online campus” on Facebook and “have church"?
Most people say yes. I say no.
The problem comes down to how we define the church. Historically the church has been understood as comprised by three realities.
- Where the Gospel is Proclaimed
Very little controversy here. Are we preaching the gospel of Christ or are we meeting to swap recipes and sell each other essential oils? As good as those things may be if we are not proclaiming the gospel of our sin and Christ sufficiency we may be a lot of things, but we are not being the church. This can be done over the internet very easily. The reason that we believe that online church is a viable way to live in community is that we have over personalized our faith and have reduced the church to gospel proclamation. Gospel proclamation can and should happen over the internet, but we must not believe that the transmission and the reception of the gospel message alone constitute a church.
- Where the Sacraments are given
This is where the idea of online church breaks down. You can not partake of communion by yourself, and you should not be baptized in private either. The sacraments of communion and baptism are communal graces for our good and God’s glory. This is something that can’t happen over the internet and shouldn’t happen in private. In most churches, the sacrament of communion doesn’t happen as often as it should. We must continually be reminded of what Christ has done and look forward in anticipation of the marriage supper of the lamb. This cannot be done over the computer and can not be done alone.
- Where church discipline is administered
Across all types of church and denominations of the church this aspect of the true church is most lacking. In wanting to not offend members and be sensitive to seekers we have lost this aspect of the church altogether. This is something that can’t be done over the Internet but must be done in the context of relationship. The goal of church discipline is not primarily to teach someone a lesson but to walk alongside them and continually apply the gospel to their hearts and minds until they see their need and Christs sufficiency.Are online church services helpful and convenient? Yes. Should we provide them as a way to temporarily connect those who are sick or away from their church family? Yes. Is online church, church? No. Can you love Jesus but not love his Church. Biblically speaking I don’t think you can. My encouragement to you is to find an imperfect local body of believers, get to know them and allow them to get to know you. You need to hear the gospel proclaimed weekly but you also need people in your life walking with you to loving apply the gospel to your heart. Find a church where you can commune spiritually and physically with local believers and hear the gospel proclaimed and applied. Love the church. Be the church.