The big debate over the past 12 months has been about whether our online activities during lockdown counted as church worship services and whether it was possible to do things like share communion online.
My position throughout has been that given the specific context we found ourselves in, that yes the online provision did count as gathering for worship and that it was possible to use things like Zoom to have communion. I’ve always felt that those things were less than the ideal and left me longing for something more but we were in a less than ideal situation.
However, some people have gone further than that arguing that many people primarily inhabit the online world and that this is where they find community. If the church is meant to be where people are and provides community, then surely it is possible to have a church that is solely online. Some such churches do exist.
My view, and understanding of Scripture, is that this isn’t either helpful or possible. Here is why. I do agree with those who point to us being embodied and so emphasising the importance of in person gathering. I appreciate that there are some people for whom this has long been impossible and I believe that we have got to think harder and do better in considering how they are included in the life and the gathering of the church. However, because we are embodied, physical beings, we need to recognise that the absence of physical, in person meeting and relating is always going to be less than ideal.
It is important to remember that in the New Testament, the pattern is to see local churches in geographical places planted and elders appointed to them. It is those contexts that people use their gifts to build one another up, God’s Word is heard, communion shared, baptism performed and discipline carried out.
When the Apostle Paul writes a letter, his letter does not constitute the church. It is sent to an already constituted church. It enables Paul to cross the distance and in a sense to be spiritually present with the church but it does not become the church. We are not all part of the Ephesian church through reading the letter to the Ephesians.
Throughout lockdown, we had to do so much online but that did not take away from the fact that our churches were local congregations and that there was real physical connection. Even if we could not get everyone together in the same building, as soon as we were able to, we did all we did to ensure a level of in person contact whether that was through outdoor small groups, 1-1s in the park, door step conversations and rule of six bubbles. Whilst we’ve found that the online stuff has helped, I believe it has worked best and been made possible, partly because it was temporary and there was the hope of returning to in person gathering and partly because our online activities were rooted in the historical reality of in person connections.
So, whilst twitter, facebook, zoom and youtube may help local churches to communicate and gather, especially during a crisis like this, I do not believe that they can, will or should replace the local church.