Rev Stephen Brooks explores the growing trend amongst Christians to ‘attend’ on-line services, and argues that they should supplement, not replace, real-time engagement in church.
The nature of Christian worship is such that it does not require any formal setting; the only criteria is the minimum attendance of two people (Mathew 18:20). Neither does it centre on an object or an image that has to be protected or reverenced. The Christians of the First Century chose their homes as the location for worship. The question is what the 21st Century Christians should choose as their preferred place of worship: a dining room, a conference centre, an open field, an industrial estate or a live broadcast over the Internet?
Whilst researching this article, I attended a Family Worship Centre Media Church, who tune in to the services at Family Worship Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hosted by Jimmy Swaggart. On arrival at the mid-terraced property, I was warmly welcomed by the host, and invited to join the other five members of the house congregation, sitting on voluptuous white leather sofas. In front of me, there was a ten foot screen, displaying a live broadcast of Jimmy Swaggart’s Easter Camp Meeting service.
It was interesting to hear that the ministry does not have numerous church venues, but one central worship centre in the USA, avoiding the mega-church structure which is so impersonal, voyeuristic, and where members seemingly participate anonymously. Alternatively, what I was experiencing was a home-based cell church, within the mega-church structure.
The way the home group participated in the onscreen broadcast, with the help of the surround sound, tinted lights, large screen, and responding to the service with applause, singing and corporate praise, created a real church atmosphere.
Just like the Alpha Course at the end of the service, there was corporate prayer and refreshments that provided the context for conversation, and an opportunity for the testimony of one’s faith. It is not without coincidence that Jesus was known as a ‘glutton and drunkard’, as one who could often be found at a party, around a table with tax collectors and sinners. In fact, He seems to have been in such places much more than He was in the synagogues.
A common misunderstanding about attending church within a formal setting is that it should somehow make us better people. It is not the action of going to church, but the encounter with God and with others that changes our lives for the better. Most people who go to church do not understand this and, as a result, do not seek to have life-changing experiences through worship and church activities.
Many churches have begun to broadcast their worship services live on the Internet, and have expanded their following with a virtual crowd. The mentality of many who ‘go to church’ from their home and watch the service on a screen in isolation is that their presence doesn’t matter. This attitude underestimates one’s significance and the power of the Spirit of God residing within them, when you believe staying home is just as good as going to church. One will miss what God wants to do through you and for you when you stay home.
There are three spiritual pillars necessary to have a strong Christian life: personal prayer, Bible study and fellowship with believers. The Bible says that believers must not keep apart from other believers (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is true that we are influenced and become like the people we associate with. Also, by getting together, common beliefs are affirmed, and ways to overcome problems are shared.
A significant number of Christians are tempted to allow these technologies to serve as a substitute for participation in a local church. This can be a dangerous practice for less mature Christians, as they are more vulnerable to false teaching, particularly at a time when, according to the Office of National Statistics’ latest figures (2011), 82.9% of all adults in the UK have used the Internet, including nearly 80% of those aged between 55 and 64, so we are not looking at the exclusive realm of the young.
Believers need the accountability found only within the local church. We need to hear sermons preached by flesh-and-blood preachers in the real-time experience of Christian worship. The limitations of the digital preacher and technology become evident when the church is most needed at times of personal celebration or grief. It may be true that lots of people live in the digital world, but don’t forget we all live in the real flesh-and-blood world.
Many of us need to recognise that the Church has changed, and nobody has told us! The principles are the same, but the methods are in a state of flux! Churches with an online community have another opportunity for mission. It shouldn’t replace church attendance, but supplement it. It enables ministers to reach out, more frequently, to those who are physically unable to participate in church services.
Rev Stephen Brooks is national Development manager for Excel 3. For more information about Excell3, visit www.excell3.com