"Church at Home": A Conclusion
With this post I intend to round off my writing on “church at home”. My hope is that those who’ve engaged with me and these articles will continue to reflect on the questions about church raised by lockdown. Though I have taken issue labelling streamed services as ‘church,’ this was never my primary concern. In the first post I reflected on what to my eyes amounted to little more than careless pragmatism. A solution was needed because churches could no longer gather physically. So, contrary to most of what we’ve said in the past regarding ‘virtual church’ and our own theological convictions, pastors piled onto the “church at home” bandwagon without asking where it was headed or who was steering. My second post called for us to look past justifications for jumping online being made after the fact. In it I suggested a few potential motivations and misnomers lying behind what seemed like a hasty decision to ‘meet’ online. I want to thank everyone who commented on the posts and privately contacted me. The result of these countless interactions has been that I can now pinpoint the reasons for my original and continued unease: ‘passive worship.’
Someone commented on my post that if we took a New Testament principle from Hebrews 10:25, to not neglect meeting together, then: “I don’t see how it goes against theology to use technology that allows the church family to hear the Sunday sermon on a Sunday, when it’s physically impossible to be at the church building.” Now, Hebrews 10:19-25 is certainly a key text for our doctrine of church, more so our practise. So too is Hebrews 12:18-28, which I’m grateful to one of my lecturers for highlighting the comments section of the second article. But in citing Hebrews we should note that the epistle was addressed to the congregation and not the leaders or teachers in that local church. For in the concluding chapter we read, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of life” (13:7). Therefore, in Hebrews 10, author is insisting on church gatherings where all God’s people and not the leaders alone are exhorting and encouraging each other (10:24-25). Though the Reformation insisted on the centrality of the preached word when the church gathered, they did not affirm solus pastorus (pastor alone). Technology may allow the church family to hear a sermon but this does not constitute a gathering in accord with our existence as embodied beings or the New Testament’s vision for the local church.
As I’ve argued in another post, Hebrews describes church as active participation in the edification of others. Significantly, this participation is not limited to saying corporate prayers, reciting the liturgy and joining in singing. Using technology to stream services into people’s homes does not allow for Christians to do any of the above other than receiving the content—and perhaps singing along with the musicians. Regardless of how well produced the music is, it cannot even fulfil the purpose of corporate singing: to encourage one another. I’m sorry, but sharing the link to your church’s services, tagging friends online or commenting ‘see you at church’ falls so far short of actively encouraging other believers and participating in actual worship that I’m shocked so many Christians have settled for it. As I wrote in aforementioned post, “The author of Hebrews is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians” (such as prophesying and serving with our gifts). This purpose extends leagues beyond sitting under the pastor’s preaching and singing along to a couple of your favourite hymns or choruses. According to Hebrews 10, church is the meeting where Christians minister to other Christians, edifying and exhorting them. Perhaps if we held to these more deliberate, personally invested and ultimately selfless purposes for church we would be slower to defend calling it ‘church.’
As I responded to the comment above, “We should certainly use the technology available to: stream sermons, maybe even services; comfort Christians who are isolated; and create a sense of ‘continuity.’ But the biblical principle for church is: gather for mutual encouragement. It is not listen to a sermon and music simultaneously.” There is a fundamental discontinuity between what we are currently doing and God’s intention for regular Sunday gatherings. I cannot fathom why leaders are adamantly attempting to reassure people that it’s business as usual. Obviously, it isn’t. My guess is that this strange insistence was behind the decision taken by many churches to stream communion over the weekend. Another point to pragmatism. But these gripes are for another time. Praise God that we live in the age that we do. It presents us with countless means to share one another’s burdens, encourage the downcast, exhort each other to persevere and stir selfless love among God’s people. But tuning in for an online service, even if you tell people you’re doing it, simply does not enable any meaningful active Christian worship. Many pastors have pointed out that their online offerings have encouraged believers in this time. Again, praise God. But the church doesn’t gather to hear a sermon. No. According to the New Testament, the church is meant to meet for engaged, other-person centred and participatory worship.