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Why We Won’t Livestream During Lockdown (Though We Could)

Left-click the bread icon to consume the bread.  >Click<

>>>  Thank you. You have eaten the bread.

Left-click the cup icon to consume the cup.  > Click<

>>> Thank you. You have drunk the cup.

Sound preposterous? Why shouldn’t we do virtual Lord’s Supper? Our technology has made this scenario possible. But is it desirable? Probably most would say no. In fact, probably most who advocate for livestreaming their services would object. The question is why they would object to virtual Lord’s Supper, but not to virtual everything else.

The Lord’s Supper is that act of worship that everyone seems to understand requires physical elements, the physical presence of God’s people, and their physical eating and drinking. If we were to simulate all this with graphics, icons, or little avatars, probably most would use the words artificial, inferioror fake to describe it. Perhaps some churches would make sure every believer has his own personal Lord’s Supper kit, and at the appropriate livestream moment, everyone would consume. While this would be better than pretending to eat and drink, it still wouldn’t be much better. The Lord’s Table is a table. People gather around a table. They eat, drink, and fellowship.

When a pandemic prevents us from gathering, the appropriate response is to grieve that we cannot gather, and then do what is the closest thing to corporate worship, while praying for the restoration of normal life. Creating a simulation of gathered worship, however “live” or “real-time”, is just that: a simulation.

Video conferencing technology is great for many things: business meetings, certain kinds of teaching, adding an image to a phone call. In a lockdown, it’s also good for making sure every member of the flock is loved and cared for. On the other hand, video conferencing is not good for a wedding, for a feast, for a funeral, or for a family reunion. Which is corporate worship more like: a lecture, or a ceremony? A business meeting, or a family gathering? A performance, or a renewal of vows?

The event of corporate worship is a very physical moment, meant for embodied beings. We are to gather. The early church would greet with a holy kiss. They would pray and sing not just to God, but “to one another” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). They would baptise, and renew their vows to God and one another in each other’s presence. They would read the Word and hear it preached and make commitments. They would then share a meal.

It is a sign of the pervasive mind-body dualism in modern Christianity that we think of Christian worship as primarily the communication of ideas. We think of only the ideas contained in the songs, the ideas preached and prayed, the ideas read and understood. And if that’s all worship is, then all we need is media to transfer the information. In that case, an Internet connection and a screen is all we need. The only extraneous digit in this scheme of information transfer is that pesky Lord’s Supper, which doesn’t seem to be convertible to pure information. If more churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper more frequently, we might be less willing to brush it aside as “the one thing we can’t do online”, and take the physicality of all worship more seriously.

Worship is not a transfer of information; it is a training of imagination. The way we image reality is primarily shaped through our embodied practices, which requires our physical gathering. Again, is corporate worship more like a lecture, or more like a ceremony?

Just a few months ago, pastors were laughing at this satire. Now they’re insisting that their virtual church is a great form of community during the lockdowns. But of course, if worship is information transfer, why stick with your bland, vanilla pastor this Sunday? Livestream the best preachers in the world, or download the best sermons ever preached.

Beyond all this, there is a hint of partiality creeping in when everyone advocates for internet church. Can everyone in every congregation have the same access to a livestream that they had to a church building? Is it possible that livestreaming favors a certain group in the church, and that churches shrug their shoulders about those who cannot use it?

What then? Am I advocating defeatism? No, but a nice dose of realism would be good. When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.

Even though corporate worship cannot happen, we can promote and encourage the next best thing. We can provide our households with a similar order of service, so that the church, though dispersed, is still doing its best to gain likemindedness on the Lord’s Day. Families can worship together. Singles can worship privately using the same service. We can use technology to share the music or hymns we would be singing. A pastor could use technology to send a sermon transcript, or a pre-recorded sermon to all. And yes, he could also preach live to those who could access that, as long as we communicate that this moment is not an “online gathering”. Instead, it’s a painful moment of separation, where we cannot break bread together, and await our reunion. At best, it’s private worship, or family worship, aided by technology to be loosely in contact with the rest of the church.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

13 Responses to Why We Won’t Livestream During Lockdown (Though We Could)

  1. Absolutely disagree.
    Although I understand the idea of the need of fellowship and corporate worship, and I don’t think there is anything that can replace gathering in the Lord’s day, I still think we can feed the flock. We can lead dad’s to lead their homes (Psalm 78). We can serve each other in the sub group discussion that goes on around the service. While it’s not ideal and is hard to complete Hebrews 10:24-26, it is helpful for this short time. If this was a new norm I would push back with biblical basis. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. You’ve got to be kidding, correct? What is with the obsession at this site over “how bad” it is to stream a service online? This is not the first article on this site telling us what “fake” people we are and how bad we are to stream a service. In the comments section people are talking about how offended they are that some “liberal” churches that chose to live stream use Gaither music and the pastor does not dress like he’s at an NFL awards dinner in a suit coat and tie. So let me get this straight. The entire world is likely not headed for a recession, but rather an epic depression, millions of people are unemployed, with millions more likely to come. Yet, like good Bob Jones types, we pay no attention to that menial stuff. Our focus is on legalism and how people dress. Oh, and not to mention the possibility of millions of deaths. Live streaming a service isn’t what Bob Jones would do, and since they would not do it, it’s wrong for the entire world.

    If it really gets as bad as some think it may, you will see suicides by the thousands, not to mention countless deaths by disease, neglect, lack of health care, etc. Please, someone tell me that this entire site is meant as a sarcastic joke! This is a parody site, right? The biggest concerns at this time are that our pastors dress and act like it’s the 1950’s and our congregants do as well?

    Please, someone tell me that I can’t actually be reading this site by anyone with a straight face! This has got to be an act, a charade, no?

  3. This is Paul again. My apologies for being too sarcastic.

    I will say that I totally, but respectfully, disagree with this article, as would most people, I would suspect. I should have just said “megadittos” to Jack’s post. He expressed it well and more graciously than I did.

    The humorous video no longer applies. It is a totally scenario than when that video was made. It was funny at the time, but now it’s apples to oranges.

  4. Jack, I’ll let David speak for himself, but I don’t think he is dismissing some live stream options for certain kinds of functions during this time, like Bible studies, for example (he does say about that live conferencing works for certain kinds of teaching). He’s just suggesting that for corporate worship, live streaming is in sufficient.

    And on this I completely agree with David. For our church, we are using live conferencing options for Bible studies, discussions groups, and even prayer meetings, as you suggest would be helpful. But for corporate worship, we are pre-recording a sermon and providing a service, Scripture readings, and hymns for families to use in their homes, again helping those families as you suggest above without cheapening the service or trying to artificially reproduce the communal nature of corporate worship.

  5. Yes, a careful and charitable reading of what I wrote would detect that I have no problem with technology, nor do I even faintly allude to whether it is hip or not to livestream. I nowhere call a livestream “fake” – I’d call simulated Lord’s Supper fake, and most would agree.

    There are army trucks on the streets near my home. I think it would be charitable to assume that I understand the gravity of the situation. I did not post on “How To Keep Your Boy’s Hair Off His Collar During the Lockdown” or “Practicing Secondary Separation By Not Downloading John MacArthur Sermons During the Lockdown”.

    This is a post on the nature of corporate worship. Corporate worship is a gathering of embodied beings. Livestreaming has its uses. I even stated that the sermon section of a Sunday service could be livestreamed if all had access to it, and if it formed part of the disparate worship of households. My church will likely make use of it in discipleship ways as well.

    The real point is, does a church understand the difference between participative worship and a spectacle, between embodied presence and vicarious involvement, between the act of worship and the simulation thereof? To put it more bluntly, when the lockdown is over, what are the reasons a church would give for the livestream to not continue, and for people to return to “live” worship? If they are vague answers about “it’s just better to be together”, “actually being together is superior”, then the chances are, the church really doesn’t understand the essence of corporate worship.

    The lockdown doesn’t change the nature of worship. It just reveals what we’ve thought it was, all along.

  6. While a point can be made (and I’m all for a strong ecclesiology), it should be made with an attitude of grace and good timing. This blogpost lacks both. The author writes “When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.” This is hardly charitable.
    And as for timing? We’re three weeks into a situation none of us have been part of before; some grace and patience should be extended towards pastors and laypersons and, most of all, those sickened by the virus that has led to where we are (not to mention homebound saints whose only way of connecting to their Sunday church gathering is through livestream and who will remain homebound well after the virus blows through).

  7. The frustration that above commenters showed I think is largely caused by the disconnect between your clickbait title and actual content. The title that says you won’t livestream and then go on to explain how it’s not true corporate worship makes readers assume that you’re letting the ideal hinder the good. I think most pastors would agree that online meetings are less than ideal and we miss a large part of the corporate nature of worship. Of course the title, “Online Worship Misses the Corporate Ideal” isn’t going to generate clicks.

    As you articulate the vision at the end of family worship with a loose connection to the larger body is fairly accurate in the livestream, but it seems so at odds with the title that implicitly judges those who are trying their best to pastor their flock while apart. Of course it’s ideal that a pastor be present physically with his people, yet I believe Paul continued pastoring in his letter writing: guarding the flock, exercising discipline, and feeding the flock.

    Finally, to be consistent, you should exhibit the same level of suspicion to normal church gatherings. At some level, we’re always separated from the greater flock of Christ. We’re always apart from the rest of the True Church and awaiting (and longing) for the heavenly ideals of all tribes, tongues, and nations corporately together worshipping the Lamb. We may do things to connect us to the greater church (both past and present) like taking the Lord’s Supper and reciting creeds, but ultimately it falls short of the ideal vision of the church. Yet it’d be foolish to throw away what is present in the name of the ideal.

  8. Aaron,

    Thank you for your comment. Click-bait would have been “Why No Pastor Should Ever Livestream” or “Why Only the Unrighteous Livestream”. My title was carefully chosen. My church is not livestreaming (at least our Lord’s Day worship), because we believe it would create a false impression in the minds of our people. I give explanations for our choice, and say more than once that there are several options for livestreaming. Obviously, I think our choice is a valid one, or I wouldn’t post it publicly. That’s not the same as saying everyone must apply it exactly as I do.
    On the other hand, I do feel strongly that some forms of livestreaming are attempting something that ought not to be done: create the impression that corporate worship can continue when we are dispersed. That is failing to understand this moment.

    As to the frustration level of some of the commenters, I have my suspicion that it exists for other reasons than the one you suggest. But I’d rather not, as some of the other commenters here have, occupy the giddy heights of omniscience of knowing the hearts and minds of some of God’s other servants.

    I’m not sure that the ultimate gathering of the church triumphant requires any degree of suspicion towards the gathering of local assemblies. Certainly the local church is an instantiation of that final gathering, with key differences: there we will not take the Lord’s Supper, baptise, confess, or be commissioned to evangelise. In other words, the contrast is not perfect gathering versus partial gathering; it’s actual gathering versus imaginary gathering. I think our disagreement lies on what constitutes true gathering. Thanks for the thoughtful interaction.

  9. Thank you for the article. Well thought out and charitable. In these times of uncertainty, our leaders in our churches (more than ever) need to know exactly why we are doing certain things and why we won’t do other things. Also, thank you for your gracious and well thought out responses to some very harsh comments.

  10. Pl inform if our Pentecostal pastor is right or wrong. Due to Locked down church members stay home since March 1. But Pastor brings bread and wine to locked down families who want to partake, bless, pray and distribute to our family members.

    His justification is that distributing Lords table to believing baptized families is fine in locked down situation.
    Philip from India

  11. Philip,

    I can’t really rule on your situation or know the exact context to make a fair judgement. It sounds like he is doing is what is called communion for “shut-ins”, which is where a pastor will celebrate communion with a very sick or aged person at his home because he can’t attend.
    I don’t really believe in home communion anymore than I believe in wedding communion, or home baptism (apart from the local church).
    The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 does seem to be restricted “when you come together”. In that case, shut-in communion doesn’t really qualify. When we can’t come together, then there are some things that we simply cannot do.

  12. I read this article when it first came out. Now that 9 months have passed, it rings even more true. Thanks, David, for your warning.

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