Let’s Relax: Online “Church” Is not Church

Online churchThe COVID-19 shock-wave that turned the United States upside down knocked more than one pastor out of his pulpit. With the help of Facebook Live, Youtube, and lesser known platforms, ministers have begun to regain their footing, launching online services. As pastors have started “going live” they have also begun to criticize their sheep who fail to watch their the latest sermon or who watch that sermon irreverently. Pastors who a few weeks ago challenged the legitimacy of the Facebook users’ faith are now employing Facebook to question the faith of those who do not use Facebook enough.

Irony aside, the pastors’ complaint raise a foundational question: What is a church? Is the online service truly a church service? Do those members who fail to watch their pastor online break the commandment of Hebrews 10:25 and forsake the assembling of the church?

What is a Church?

A quick overview of the New Testament reveals that online church services cannot be equated with the typically weekly gathering of the church. Though the definition of the church can be expanded to cover pages as Dr. Greg Allison has done, it can also be reduced to two basic elements: the right preaching of the Word, and the proper administration of the sacraments. For a group of people to rightfully claim to be a church, they must meet regularly to preach the gospel, to administer the Lord’s table, and to perform baptisms.

Can people meaningfully do these things when they are not physically meeting together?

The Scriptures say no. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he expected them to meet together as an assembled group of believers. He encouraged “the assembled” church to practice discipline, to rightly administer the Lord’s table, and to correctly employ tongues and biblical teaching (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Cor. 11:18; 1 Cor. 14:23). The phrase, “When you are assembled” was the lens through which Paul shaped the church. When Christ spoke of the church, he too defined it as consisting of two to three people who physically gathered together to worship and to practice church discipline (Matt 16;18).

To borrow Jonathan Leeman’s terminology, the church is similar to a soccer team . The members of the team identify themselves when they play soccer together. Even when the teammates go home, buy groceries, and fly on airplanes, the members of the team can still be called “the team.”

In same way, the church is the church because it physically assembles together to hear the word preached, to eat the Lord’s Supper, and to baptize new converts. The church does not cease being the church between Monday and Saturday. Nor does a church’s inability to meet during the Coronavirus imply that the church has ceased being the church. But she has stopped meeting. Zoom meetings, phone calls, and live-streamed services are not the same thing as the game. The unassembled members can’t hear the whole church proclaim the gospel through prayer, song, and giving. They can’t pass the bread and the cup. They can’t dunk new believers in the baptistry.  They can’t hug one another and take each other out to lunch. Like Leeman, I too, “have a hard time envisioning an assembly that doesn’t assemble.” To worship, to play the game, the church, the team, must physically meet together.

What About Spiritual Presence?

Some pastors object to the exclusivity of physical assemblies, noting that 1 Corinthians 5:3 and Colossians 2:5 describe Paul as being spiritual present with distant churches. This spiritual connection between people hundreds of miles apart appears to negate the necessity of physical church meetings.

But when pastors place these texts in their biblical contexts, they will discover that Paul’s expression cannot be used to justify the live-streaming trend. Paul speaks of a spiritual presence precisely because he could not be physically present with the churches in question. Yet, he still connects with these assemblies spiritually because he knows they are possessed by the Holy Spirit that possesses him. Thus, he is confident that the churches he cannot physically attend will share his conclusions because all parties are lead by the same God. In much the same way a Brazilian church would expect a Bible believing Chinese church to condemn pornography or to pray in “Jesus’s name,” Paul expects the readers of his letters to live out the Christian the faith as he was doing. All Christians are spiritually connected by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

Some pastors object to the above interpretation. As John Gill and Chrysostom, they argue that Paul was spiritually observing the congregations at Corinth and Colossia. But this view still cannot prove that YouTube is the equivalent of the physically assembled church. In Gill and Chrysotom’s view, Paul supernaturally saw the churches through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul went to the churches in much the same way that Ebeneezer Scrooge traveled to the shadowy visions of Christmas past, present, and future, seeing things no normal person can see. Even pastors backed by professional media teams cannot accomplish this supernatural feat and be present as Paul was present with these ancient congregations. For all its grandeur, live streamed services fall short of prophetic, real time visions. 

In short, Pastors today can only be spiritually present with their congregation when both the pastor and the congregation assent to teaching of the Bible, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This connection can occur and be furthered when the church is assembled together and when it is scattered. It can transpire when the pastor is online and when the pastor is offline.

So Are Online Service Bad?

No, they are beneficial. Online services and activities should be an encouragement to our souls. Throughout church history, Christians have encouraged one another with letters built around scriptural instruction, admonishment, and encouragement. Christians still enjoy and cherish gospel letters.

In a similar manner, live streaming platforms allow pastors to send meaningful notes to their entire church team and family. Just as a man enjoys Skyping with his wife and kids while on a work trip, pastors have a great rational for wanting to be in the living rooms of their church members during times of separation. And church members have every reason to want to hear from their spiritual fathers.  The family of God should love to communicate while they wait for the next face to face interaction. Live streaming blesses family relationships, allowing the team to stay in communication while apart.

In my experience, a word of encouragement from one’s spiritual father caries far more weight than a message of truth from a famous uncle or cousin whose lives thousands of miles away. But if a team member finds the online ministry of Pastor Joe in Oregon or Pastor Steve in New York to be more encouraging than my church’s online ministry, praise God for the ministry of other gospel centered pastors.

Online streaming has proven to be a phenomenal tool on the pastoral tool belt. Pastors and church members can embrace it with enthusiasm, sending and receiving digital messages.

Is It a Sin Not to Attend “Online Church?”

And now we return to the question which started our discussion: Do people sin when they neglect the church’s online service?

No, Christians have not sinned when they failed to watch Pastor Bob’s latest sermon or when they caught the last ten minutes of his sermon in their pajamas. Though Pastor Bob may have been at the church building, the church was not assembled. Moreover, some saints lack the technology to keep pace with their pastors digital evolution. Other members encounter a host of environmental struggles such as power outages, screaming children, and defective technology that keep them from watching. Though these members fail to watch online, their heart motives remain pure. Pastors who criticize their sheep for not watching their online services or for watching their online services “incorrectly” go beyond the bounds of Scripture. Like the pharisees of old, these pastors turn blessings into burdens. These pastoral rebukes bear a striking resemblance to the actions of a crazy uncle who complains about his nephew because the nephew did not regard the uncle’s birthday card highly enough. Instead of criticizing their spiritual children for not liking them more, pastors should examine their hearts to see how well they have loved their congregation. The pastor who loves people well will have no difficulty finding his people online.

Let’s relax, embrace the technology, and remember that our online services are not church services. Are you ready to relax?

Your Church Discipleship Isn’t Working

discipleshipDiscipleship. Seemingly every Southern Baptist Pastor and every evangelical minister, lay leader, and church member worthy their salt is all about this word. Discipleship books are popping of the selves of Christian books stores, conferences are dominated by the theme, and most every Sunday school vendor has launched some sort of new “Discipleship” curriculum that synthesizes discipleship principles into an accessible five to seven step program that promises to redefine you and your church.

The focus upon discipleship is extremely timely and needed. Today, only 1 of every three Southern Baptists attends church on Sunday. And only 39% of SBC members read their Bible every day. Mega churches such as Willow Church have and are continuing to radically adjust their programming because they discovered church participation does not equal spiritual growth and abiding faith. As Bill Hybles notes, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders.” As a result of this mistake and of many others, SBC and evangelical churches often resembles the American culture which prizes self-actualization above all else. As Americans and Christians look within they do not find peace. They find narcissism. New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat comments that,

A nation of narcissist turn out to be a nation of gamblers speculators, gluttons, and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.

The same can often be said of Christendom. The evangelical, conservative church desperately needs revival and reformation. She can greatly benefit from rediscovering discipleship.

The focus upon discipleship is also needed because Jesus commands his followers to make disciples. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands us to:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Christians are to make disciples. Christians are to be regularly teaching each other, investing in the lives of others, and sharing their faith. All who follow Christ have been commissioned by their God to make disciples. All Christians should be about the business of being discipled and discipling.

The church should champion discipleship. I am thankful for Bill Hull, Robby Gallaty, and the many others who have speared headed the discipleship movement. But in their zeal to disciple, the created a defective view of discipleship. Gallaty defines discipleship as, “intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ.”

The definition is good as far as it goes. It rightly priorities the relational nature of the Christian faith. But Gallaty’s and many others stop short of the historical definition of discipleship taught in the Scriptures and defended by Southern Baptists of old. The leaders of the modern discipleship movement divorce discipleship from the historical doctrines of formative and corrective discipline, making discipleship the property of the small group instead of the church. To teach God’s people the full counsel of God, the people of God have to deal with ecclesiology. They have to teach on and exercise the keys of the kingdom. The small group is the only one of many important cogs used by God to mature men and women into his image.

alex-gorham-341310-unsplashUntil liberalism stormed into the SBC in the late 19th and early 20th century, Baptist theologians seldom employed the word discipleship. The used the word discipline from which the English word discipleship derives. They believed two types of discipline existed: Formative Discipline and Corrective Discipline. As one might guess, formative discipline consisted of all the disciplines needed to mature or form the believer in the faith. Baptists affirm that the church forms disciples through covenants, the preaching of the Word, and small groups. Instead of being the impetus for discipleship, small groups are places where church members are encouraged to live out their covenantal commitments in light of their pastors’ teaching. Small group foster and aid the general discipleship process of the church but are not the discipleship process.  Mark Dever rightfully notes, the pastor’s “teaching of the Word is the core of the church’s discipleship ministry.” And the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer concurs, writing that “the sermon remains the encompassing of spiritual care.”

As men faithfully expound the Scriptures detailing all the commands of Scripture, men and women hear truth, internalize truth, and then begin to make decisions based on the truth. Dr. D.Martin Lloyd-Jones notes that the goal of preaching is “to isolate the radical problems and to deal with them in a radical manner.” Preaching is discipleship. Church covenants are discipleship. Small groups are discipleship. And every element of church worship and life that proclaims the gospel is discipleship from the pulpit to the arm chair. In short, formative discipline is the process of forming believers into disciples through the accurate and intentional teaching of biblical truth. As the great Baptist theologian Edward T. Hiscox writes,

[edification and spiritual growth] are largely attained by instruction from the pulpit, the various departments of worship and the general activities of the Christian life.

Churches that have poor discipleship programs most likely do not have a faulty small group structure. They have a faulty preacher.

Discipleship, formative discipline, begins and ends with the local church.

Admittedly, even the most faithful of local churches will not produce perfect disciples. Though church covenants, godly preaching, and small groups should do much to promote the spiritual growth in the church, men and women are still very much sinners who are prone to sin. Matthew 18 clearly teaches the local church to be prepared for such failures. Men and women are commanded to confront those who sin and to call them to repentance. Most of the time such confrontations end well and the sinner believer is restored. But at times, the believer refuses to repent, the Christians must go back to the sinner with witnesses. And if that does not work, the believer must take the matter to the church. And if the sinner still refuses to repent, the sinner must be put out of the church.

Corrective church discipline described above can be likened to a school grade. Jonathan Leeman notes that the church should award A’s to those who diligently pursue Christ and to those who willingly repent of their sins, but hands out F’s to those who refuse to obey Jesus’ commands. If the church refuses to issue letter grades and if the church refuses to discipline men and women for unrepentant sins, the discipleship culture of the church will unravel. Anarchy will reign because obeying self is always easier than obeying Jesus. Hiscox prophetically notes,

The Church is the school of Christ; let the school be controlled with strict, yet wise and kindly discipline or the pupils will learn more of evil than of good, and anarchy and confusion will supplant good government.

Sadly a quick scan of today’s churches validate Hiscox’s warning. They are weak, feeble, wandering, sick, and lead by ungodly men and women because they have abandon elements of if not the entire doctrines of formative and corrective discipline. J.L. Dagg also hit the nail on the head in in 1858 when he wrote, “When discipline leaves the church, Christ goes with it.”

The discipleship programs in most of our conservative churches are broken because they follow Gallaty and Hull and others and only embrace one of the elements formative discipline, neglecting preaching and covenants and completely ignoring all the meaningfully elements of corrective discipline.

Brothers and sisters we do not need more small groups. We need men and women who are committed to the whole counsel of God and who are committed to preaching and living the Word, willing embracing all the costs and heart aches of church discipline. Until the churches of the SBC and conservative evangelicals begin lovingly and thoughtfully practicing church discipline, there will be no revival in America. I share Dr. Albert Mohler’s conclusion that,  “A church lacking these essential qualities, is biblically defined, not a true church.”

Are you ready to embrace both formative and corrective church discipline?