The novel coronavirus has resulted in a time where many churches have been unable to gather. This has been unprecedented for most of us alive today. Many churches have opted for a virtual or streaming ministry. Others have encouraged family worship, or sent pastoral guidance to church members to follow.
As I have repeatedly said, I think churches have made the right decision to submit to the government and suspend their normal public ministry. Pastors and churches should take the coronavirus seriously.
Yet it’s important to consider the nature of the virtual church. Some of us are experiencing a furlough from the gathered assembly for the first time in our lives. So I want to identify are the things I missed while not gathering with my local church.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read part 1 and part 2. To summarize, here are the reasons I have to this point laid out: (1) life is better in person; (2) church gatherings best facilitate interaction with the body of Christ quantitatively; (3) church gatherings best facilitate interaction with the body of Christ qualitatively; (4) you can’t greet others physically; (5) the actual physical gathering itself is a means of spiritual encouragement; and (6) it’s more difficult to take seriously virtual or private worship.
I want to add some further differences that show the priority of the gathered church.
7. The preaching is not as effective. Before I explain this, I must stress that I believe that written, audio, and video reproductions and transmissions of sound Biblical preaching to be tremendously beneficial. In some cases, single sermons have blessed believers for nearly two millennia, such as the sermon “On the Passion” by Melito of Sardis. The souls of believers have richly profited from the recorded sermons of many great preachers throughout church history, such as John Chrysostom, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or Charles Haddon Spurgeon. From the dawn of history, God has used human technology to spread his Word.1
All things being equal, live preaching is nonetheless more effective. Live preaching, especially in small churches, allows for better communication. This is especially true week upon week. We pastors know who we’re talking to. We see how people are responding. The people of God catch the preacher’s smirks and body language and subtle expressions much more easily.
Most of us know the preeminence of live preaching intuitively. This is why we say we wish we could have heard George Whitefield or Martin Luther or Andrew Fuller preach. If you had the choice of hearing “Heaven is a World of Love” in person or reading it in a book, which would you prefer? The same is true of audio and video recordings of sermons. (Someday, we might be able to say this is true of hologram sermons too.) Look at how many folks were disappointed different conferences were cancelled this year and replaced with online video sermons. Our intuition and actions show that we prefer live preaching to recordings, whether live or delayed.
But I would hasten to add, for pastors who right now cannot do live, in-person preaching, that change is also significant. If we’re live-streaming, we have only vague ideas of who’s listening. We can’t see their reactions. We can’t even see if they’re sleeping while we’re preaching!
Preaching into a camera stinks.
Every pastor knows that when he’s preaching, he considers his audience. He might say one thing one way when a visitor is present and another way when it’s only the church body. A skilled preacher can sense when he has said something confusing. If the pastor knows a soul struggles with a certain sin, and the Scripture passage before him demands he address that issue, the pastor will try to address that sin as skillfully as he can, given the state of that member’s spiritual maturity. The pastor addresses the spiritually apathetic differently than he does the one struggling with assurance.
To temper one’s words in this way does not always demand compromise (though at times it certainly is compromise). If we take the book of Proverbs seriously, controlling our speech is a matter of wisdom. Paul himself seems to allude to such wisdom when he says in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (ESV). But the principle still stands, these interpersonal dynamics of preacher and his hearers is a reality to which live preaching is best suited.
We Christians should do all we can to preserve the biblically commanded practice of preaching untainted and unadulterated.2 In 1 Corinthians 1:21, Paul wrote of the importance of preaching: For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. In God’s wisdom, he has given his church preaching. The importance of preaching may not even make sense to us in our human wisdom. While I would be the last person to forbid all recorded sermons and teaching (for I have been greatly benefited by them), let us maintain the centrality of faithful, in-person preaching.
Now, more briefly, I think it’s worth noting one other consequence of virtual services.
8. The conviction that churches must meet erodes as we grow accustomed to private worship and virtual gatherings. I would love to be wrong about this, but I fear that for some believers (certainly not all), the conviction that we should gather could wane. I am not worried about the vitality of Christ’s church overall, for that is in Christ’s sovereign and capable hands. Yet we should be aware of the unprecedented nature of this hiatus from the Christian gathering, and be wary.
The extended time away may cause some believers to assume that skipping church services is a more viable option than they used to think.
Will the break from weekly worship cause believers to “neglect to meet together”? I hope not. No matter what, all Christians must remain vigilantly convicted that the church of Christ must gather whenever possible.
So what did I miss when my church was unable to assemble? A lot. Some of the differences are intangible and hard to express just so. I’m likely missing key differences. Yet I hope that these few posts have reminded us again of what we lose when the church goes “virtual.” May we believers maintain the priority of gathering as a church for the glory of Jesus Christ.
- I’ll add that some in-person preaching is so detrimental that it would be far better for a saint to sit under faithful recorded sermons, were that your only choice. Yet even here, if there is no faithful church near you, you should labor to start one. [↩]
- The importance of preaching as practiced in the New Testament is one of the reasons why I think we’re on (at least) shaky ground if we add visual media to preaching, such as movie clips and power points slides. We should aim to practice preaching as commanded by Christ, without significant or essential alterations. At the same time, I do not forbid all “Power Point,” and recognize its value, rightly used, as a teaching aid. [↩]