Question: "Is an online church service a valid way to do church?"
Answer: Faced with a pandemic and various restrictions set by civil authorities, churches around the world have chosen to respond in various ways. Most are following the government guidelines out of respect for the government and genuine concern for the safety of their congregations. More and more pastors, including many who have never done so before, are live streaming their sermons on the internet. An online church service might include music, announcements, and a children’s sermon as well as the pastor’s sermon to make it feel as “normal” as possible.
So, many churchgoers have by necessity stayed at home on Sunday mornings. Corporate worship time becomes a family affair, with the family gathered around a computer monitor to view an online church service. There is nothing wrong with “doing church” this way. Streaming a church service online does not invalidate our worship, lessen the impact of God’s Word, or hinder our prayers.
There are some real benefits to going to an online church service. The most obvious benefit is that an online service offers everyone the ability to view the sermon live, even though they cannot be personally present. It’s a way for the pastor to continue to shepherd his flock and care for their spiritual needs in a time of physical threat.
Many churches that have gone to an online service during the pandemic find that people who never or seldom attend their church are viewing their service online. It’s a good way to connect or reconnect with those whom the pastor may not see very often. Having an online presence also increases the chance that people looking for a church will be able to find yours.
Another benefit to producing an online church service has to do with archiving. After the live stream is finished, the service can remain online, available for playback at any time. A growing collection of past video sermons is a good resource for anyone searching for biblical answers or looking for a church home.
Of course, there are drawbacks to viewing an online church service. We lose the fellowship that comes with interacting with other believers face to face. It’s more difficult to encourage or exhort through a computer screen, especially when we are limited to posting comments and emojis. We need to supplement our time viewing an online sermon by making contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can send an email, text, make a phone call, deliver gifts, and mail letters and cards. The church can still be the church, even in quarantine.
When a church is exclusively online, as many are during the pandemic, the pastor will find his experience altered. Preaching to a camera is different from preaching to a live audience. In front of a live crowd, a pastor will often adapt his sermon as he is delivering it: he may make subtle changes in wording and tone or he may emphasize the gospel a little more, based on his knowledge of the audience and who is present. That’s hard to do online.
God is not limited in what He does (Luke 1:37). He can use live, in-person preaching, and He can use live streaming on the internet. Many of Billy Graham’s crusades were filmed live and are still being broadcast on television and streamed online. And they are still having an impact. “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1). It is the gospel that saves (Romans 1:16); as long as the gospel is preached, the fact that it’s online doesn’t matter.
An online church service cannot totally replace “the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25, NKJV), but it is a valid way of doing church, especially when we are faced with circumstances beyond our control that prevent us from being together.