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Is Online Church Real Church?

Ever since the spring of 2020, we have witnessed a phenomenon of people who have retreated to their homes. Even though they come out to do their grocery shopping, play golf, and have dinner with friends and all the rest, we’re still dealing with hundreds of thousands, millions of Christians all over the world who have not returned to church. Now, there is a time and a place to talk about that larger phenomenon. I’ve actually done that on other episodes of Marked by Grace. But this week, I want to talk about the people who have not returned to church, not because they’re unbelievers, not because they were only doing it because they had to before COVID. But I’m talking about the people who’ve decided that they are going to do online church. And the question this week is, is online church real church? Is online church real church? Is that a real legitimate way to do church?

Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you the quick headline answer right up front, and then I’m going to spend the next few minutes explaining why I’m saying what I’m saying. So if you just want the quick and dirty answer, you could turn the podcast off in just about twenty seconds. But I hope you won’t do that because I want you to hear what I have to say about this. I think, in many ways, the heart and soul of the biblical church are at stake in what we think about this. So is online church real church? And the answer is no. No way. Not a chance. In fact, online church isn’t even a thing. It’s not a reality. It doesn’t exist. It’s like dry water, or a wet desert, or something like that, or a dog that is a cat. I mean, it is not a real thing. Online church isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. If you’re a person who cares about church attendance, and you’re a person who’s decided that what you’re going to have counts, as your church attendance is that you attend church online, then I just want you to know that that is not a real thing. That does not count. Online church isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. You might be doing things online. You might be interacting online in a certain way. You might be listening to preaching or hearing music or something like that. But no, online church is not real church.

What the Bible Teaches

Let me tell you why by pointing your attention to two passages of Scripture. The first is a crucial text in the book of Hebrews 10:24-25 and listen to what the Bible says. “Let us consider how to stir up one another, to love and good works. Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The text says we need each other. I need you, and you need me to help us consider how to love one another and stir one another up to good works. Because that’s true, we must not neglect the habit of meeting together. It says don’t neglect the meaning of yourselves together as is the habit of some. So honestly, to update that into 21st-century language, you could say hey, listen, some people are doing this fake online church thing. But don’t you do that. You meet together. Church is only something that you can do together and in person. Listen, there are interactions that can happen online. You can get content online. But the real church is always going to know that there is no replacement for true biblical fellowship for live and in-person interaction with preaching and singing and with fellowship. There is no replacement for that. An online chat doesn’t do it. Text messaging doesn’t do it. Podcasts, don’t do it. Church, if it is to happen at all, must happen, live and in person. If you try to do this some other way, then you are sinning. You are doing what the Bible says not to do, which is neglecting the meeting of yourselves together. Don’t do it, the text says. It says you need to encourage one another. You need to be together. And it says in verse 25, “all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The day is the last day of history when Jesus Christ returns with power and glory to end time and institute eternity. And that is the day. The Bible says as you see that day getting closer and closer (it is getting closer and closer), as you see that happening. You need to be together more. You don’t need to take your foot off the gas on this. You must be together more. You need it more today than you needed it yesterday, and you need it less today, then you will need it tomorrow. Don’t do this. Don’t fall for a fake.

Members of God’s Kingdom

There’s a reason why this text is in the Bible and others like it. And one reason it’s in the Bible has to do with another text. Ephesians 2:19 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens. But you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” A Christian is somebody who used to belong to the kingdom of darkness. And now they belong to the kingdom of light, and Ephesians 2:19 says that made you citizens of a different kingdom. Listen, you can’t do citizenship online. If you are a member of a kingdom, you’re a member of that kingdom. If you’re going to live in the United States, which is where I live, if you’re going to live in the United States, you’ve got to actually live in the United States. You’re not present online. But even more powerfully, you’re a member of this new kingdom, and you’re members of the household of God. One of the most common ways the Bible talks about the church is by talking about family. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re part of the family of God. And you can only do family, ultimately, together. Now listen, sometimes necessity forces us to be away. But if you’re part of a family that has to Zoom or FaceTime, or something like that, at the Thanksgiving table, you feel the loss of that, you know, we’re not together. And you know, that is a loss. Years ago, I was doing ministry in a foreign country closed to the Gospel. The only way I could talk to my family was through the Internet for a couple of weeks. I hated it. Oh my goodness, I was thankful for the opportunity to be able to see their faces and be able to hear their voices. But I couldn’t wait to get back together and give them hugs and kisses and share a meal with them. In the same way, over the last couple of years, I have missed a lot of church because of four different brain surgeries I’ve had to have. And so there’s been months, months over the last couple of years, where I have not been able to get out of my house and come to church. I was thankful for the gift of First Baptist Church’s online presence so that I could watch the services and listen to the preaching and hear the music and see some of the faces. I was very thankful for that, especially in the first couple of weeks when I didn’t feel like doing anything. But ultimately, towards the end of my recovery period, if I didn’t get to see my family at my church, I was going to lose my mind because I knew I needed to be with them.

Listen, online church can be a gift for people who absolutely can’t make it in person. Maybe you’re recovering from surgery. Maybe you have an infirmity that keeps you from being able to get to live and in person church, but when that happens, it is a loss. We’re thankful for the technology that allows us to get something of what we’re missing, but it doesn’t make up for it. If you believe that your online church attendance is real attendance, that’s just not right. You are missing out. You’re missing out on interacting with brothers and sisters. You’re missing out on interacting with your preacher and your other pastors. You are missing out on contributing your voice to the sound of the singing saints. You are missing out. And so no, online church isn’t real church. Real church is a family, and if you wouldn’t consider neglecting meeting together with your family, then you shouldn’t consider neglecting meeting together with your church.