Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

"Church at Home": The Triumph of Pragmatism Over Theology

Can we really do “church at home”? Is it possible to “worship together” as we tune in from our respective lounges? Does viewing our church’s production of a Sunday service enable gathering even though we are doing so remotely? Does simultaneously watching a live stream of a Sunday service with my church constitute meeting together? For the time being, my answer to all of these questions is, ‘No’. I am convinced, for reasons that will become apparent below, that this is more than an exercise in splitting theological hairs. For, as my title suggests, I worry that labelling the solution many churches have hastily turned to as ‘church,’ or ‘meeting together,’ is little more than thoughtless pragmatism. At its worst, it is careless and devoid of discerning theological reflection.

Over the years I have watched and listened to sermons or services online. We’ve even been privileged enough to ‘attend’ conferences on other continents via live-stream or recording. But I have never considered those as times of meeting with other people who were doing likewise. At no point did I finish watching and conclude, ‘It was good to join my brothers and sisters at church.’ Why? Because I knew that that was not what was happening. I admit that our technological age brings unprecedented opportunities for communication. But with those comes unparalleled potential for confusion. Due to the carelessness of church leaders, many Christians are now wallowing in that confusion.

Admittedly, space-time is strangely blurred in our ever changing digital world. This is an area that we as moderns are grappling with: where does the person end, or how far does one extend into the digital and online? Yet, despite this bleeding between virtual and physical spaces or realities, we remain embodied beings. And, not insignificantly, this is how God created us. Therefore, while I was able to remotely listen to, or watch, services and conferences via a device, I always knew that I was not actually there. Even though other people were experiencing the same service, listening to the same talk or enjoying the same production, we were not doing that together. Unless you mean that we did it simultaneously. My concern is that in bowing to pragmatic and hurried solutions, church leaders have inadvertently pushed people over the edge of that quandary.

So what changed? Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in South Africa are no longer able to physically meet at real world locations. And the rushed effort of churches to create digital content (or video services) that enable churches to continue ‘meeting’ together points to an ultimately pragmatic but profoundly untheological action. I say this because, for churches who affirm the New Testament’s teaching regarding the church, such an arrangement would previously have not only been unthinkable but theologically indefensible. This is evident from the torrent of evangelical criticisms levelled against Judah Smith’s creation of an online church. It is further evident from the countless exhortations from pulpits to not give up meeting together. Not coincidentally, these can be found in Scripture too. Yet here we are.

So what happened? Well, people could no longer gather in their local churches. But instead of using this as an opportunity to impress on people the irreplaceable nature of church meetings, pragmatism reigns. I am not saying that churches were wrong to provide sermons, even entire services, online. I am sympathetic to pastors who had to make snap decisions. But where many have gone wrong was in their failure to clarify that those services are not church gatherings. They are not an opportunity to meet together. There is no “church at home”. Unless of course you’re referring to a small meeting of Christians in a home. We cannot close our laptops after watching a service on Sunday morning thinking, ‘It was great to be together.’ Worse are those posting on social media, ‘Wonderful that our church can still meet.’ Let’s be clear: prior to our present situation you would not have thought in those ways. And this is my contention with many churches and Christian leaders: they have failed to emphasise with meticulous and meaningful clarity that the local church gathering cannot be replaced. That we need to explore new and creative avenues for teaching people does not change fundamental or theological realities. Labelling something ‘church’ that previously ran contrary to our biblical convictions amounts to little more than thoughtless pragmatism. And simply calling it “church” is potentially misleading.

You might be reading this, shaking your head thinking, ‘He’s being pedantic.’ That’s alright. Because, as I said in my introduction, this is not a case of debating how many angels dance on the head of a needle (i.e. irrelevant theological minutiae). Others might read this article and roll their eyes because, ‘It goes without saying that what we are currently doing is not church.’ Yet it is such matters that demand careful articulation. This is the reason pastors are always saying things like, ‘the church is not a building; it’s a people.’ Or, as Justin Bieber is reported to have said, ‘Just as going to Taco Bell doesn’t make you a taco, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian.’ These things go without saying. Yet I hear them—ad nauseam. Sadly, what I haven’t heard nearly enough is Christian leaders defining what is and isn’t happening when a recorded or live-streamed service is watched from the comfort of home. Conversely, I’ve seen and heard pastors asking, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we can still meet as God’s church?’ I’ve read church profiles on social media stating, ‘Don’t miss the chance to worship together online this coming Sunday.’ We should be far more careful with our terminology, especially when careless statements can undermine biblical truths about church.

This post is already far too long. Forgive me. I’ll blame my writing hiatus. But let me conclude with one concern. If we fail to emphatically distinguish between “church at home” and the regular Sunday meeting of God’s people then we cannot be surprised that attendance is lower after lockdown than it was before. Why? Because we spent weeks blurring the line between physical, personal community and the parody that is ‘online community.’ Because we failed to instil in people a longing for real church gatherings and simultaneously trained people to unwittingly think that passive consumerism at home is on par with meeting God’s people week by week. Because we stripped the corporate language of exhorting each other, to love, good works and perseverance (Hebrews 10:24-25). Brothers and sisters, enjoy the abundance of great preaching and teaching available online. But please remember, if you will allow me to adapt something Christ said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ We might apply that to church. In fact, I think the sentiment can be found in Paul’s epistles, or Hebrews. Viewing church services at home does not constitute meeting or being with other Christians. Let’s not be confused.

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