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It’s Not a Replacement

One of my first tasks when I started my new pastorate three years ago was helping our church get up to speed with our use of technology. When I walked into my new office on the first day, I found an old metal cart with stacks of multi-colored VeggieTales VHS tapes. On the bookshelves were boxes containing cassette tapes from 1995 which claimed to offer “the latest and best method for small groups for your church!” Other rooms had old VHS players(!) and printers sitting in the corner collecting dust, as well as several piles of old cables that nobody could remember what they belonged to.

Those early days were a lot of fun, not only clearing out all of the old, unused technology, but also helping our church embrace new technology to minister in this technologically advanced world. It took some time and effort, but three years later we  finally have a social media presence (which now is really firing on all cylinders thanks to the newest member of our staff), domain name email addresses, online giving, a church management software, electronic children’s check-in, and now…well, like everyone else, livestreaming.

What I learned about our church in those early days wasn’t so much that our members were resistant to technology. Technology wasn’t ignored because it was feared, but because gathering in person was valued so much that new forms of technology just hadn’t really been thought about. In other words, our church so prized the embodied gathering of the saints that technology was always thought of as something that would be nice to have, not something that was essential.

Churches across the globe are finding themselves in a really interesting place. Now that Christians can no longer gather in person (and for good reason), technology has never been more essential to keep ministry going. Yet the real, tangible, and embodied gathering of the church has never been more valued in this generation.

Why? Because we really miss each other.

In Life Together, a wonderful book on the Christian community, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:

It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible community is grace…

…The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer…Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.

Now that we no longer have the physical presence of other Christians, many of us are waking up – perhaps for the first time – to the fact that we really love being with other Christians. It just took a global pandemic and the doors of the church being shut for us to realize it.

The technology is great though, isn’t it? Like so many others, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a sense of connectedness with other members of our church – even if it can’t be in person. I enjoy our new prayer times, as well as the opportunity to stream some kind of worship service together. I’ve even heard stories of people tuning into services and Bible studies that likely never would’ve in person.

Many of us are waking up – perhaps for the first time – to the fact that we really love being with other Christians. It just took a global pandemic and the doors of the church being shut for us to realize it.

But it’s not the same is it?

Of course it isn’t. Online worship is not a replacement for the regular and embodied gathering of God’s people. And that’s ok. We can thank God for this wonderful technology while at the same time lament the ways that things are not the same.

It’s really difficult to meet together and encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). How can we “stir one another up to love and good works” when we’re separated by a computer screen? How can we continue to value the meeting of Christians when we can’t really meet? Yes, Zoom meetings can be wonderful (and sometimes hilarious). But it’s no replacement for the comforting sounds of too many people trying to gather in a church member’s living room for a meal and prayer.

Online worship is not a replacement for the regular and embodied gathering of God’s people. And that’s ok. We can thank God for this wonderful technology while at the same time lament the ways that things are not the same.

We can’t hear each other sing (Colossians 3:16). I don’t know about you, but I love the sound of the congregation singing. But even the best Zoom meeting is out of sync, making it nearly impossible to encourage one another with song. I’m glad I can sing with my family in our basement, but I can’t wait to hear the sound of 200 Christians singing at the top of their lungs.

The witness of our Christian love is now obscured to the world (John 13:34-35). Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely can show our love to one another. Our family has been the recipient of a lot of this love in recent weeks! But a fundraiser or video of a drive-by birthday celebration is very different from inviting someone to witness a gathering of Christians where an intricate web of loving relationships has been woven across generational, cultural, or gender lines.

God’s new temple looks empty (1 Peter 2:4-5). With Christ as the foundation of our life together, Christians living in relationship with one another are said to be living stones, a new priesthood, who together offer up their lives as spiritual sacrifices (Romans 12:1). That’s hard to do over Facebook live, isn’t it?

While our church doors are not being closed because of persecution or war, we may feel some connection with the prophet Jeremiah who mourned when the sanctuary in Jerusalem was burned to the ground. At times it feels as if “The Lord has…disowned his sanctuary” (Lamentations 2:7) and “Her gates have sunken into the ground…” (Lamentations 2:9).

While the doors to our churches are closed, our hearts are not closed to God or to one another.

But Christ has promised not to leave us as orphans (John 14:18). He has not abandoned us, because he has given us his Holy Spirit (John 14:26). So great is His Spirit in us that it is even greater for us than when Christ was on earth (John 16:7). While the doors to our churches are closed, our hearts are not closed to God or to one another.

So, what can we do now?

We lament. This means that we must sit the reality of the now, while looking forward to what will be when we can meet again. As Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice say in Reconciling All Things, “Lament views speed with pessimism.” Rather than brushing away how we feel or ignoring the present state of things, we can give voice to the deep feelings of our soul. We can cry out to God over the sin and brokenness of our present world.

We love. The entire law is summed up in our love for God and our love for others (Matthew 22:36-40). Even though our options for expressing this kind of love are extremely limited, God looks on the motives of our hearts. Medieval Theologian Thomas á Kempis wrote, “Our outward deeds are of no value without love, but whatever is done out of love, however small, is totally fruitful. For God takes account of the greatness of our motives rather than the greatness of our achievements.”

We commit to the Church. The doors may be closed, but there may be no more important time to commit ourselves as members of Christ’s church. Tish Harrison Warren exhorts us to “…push as hard as the age that pushes against you. The church is to be a radically alternative people, marked by the love of the Triune God in each area of life.” We belong to one another (Romans 12:5). Though our outward circumstances may separate us, we press in even stronger to maintain our bonds of love.

“Online Church” is not a replacement for the gathering of God’s people. It’s not supposed to be.

Thank God for our technology but lament with a heavy heart.
Look forward to the day when we can hug, sing, laugh, and eat at Christ’s table again.
Praise God for his mercies, which are new – even today.

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It’s Not a Replacement

by Ben Hein time to read: 6 min
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