Politicians claim the existential threat to our world is climate change. What is the existential threat to the church?
I believe the existential threat to the church is failing to define herself biblically. And the pandemic has brought this threat to the surface like never before.
When COVID-19 hit last March, most evangelical churches quickly moved their services online. To be sure, live streaming services existed before the pandemic, but it became mainstream during the pandemic.
And live streaming has revealed cracks in our definition of the church. Why do I say this?
On the one hand, the message of the gospel has gone out through hundreds of thousands of churches because of the pandemic. Live streaming services has made “church” available even to people who would never step foot in a church building.
On the other hand, I have argued in sermons here and here that the church is the gathering of God’s people in a particular place at a particular time to carry out the God-ordained functions of the church: preaching, reading Scripture, prayer, singing, ordinances, and fellowship (Acts 2:42). Because the church is the assembly of God’s people in particular place at a particular time, you cannot watch “church” on live stream. Live stream church does not exist. Are we unintentionally communicating an unbiblical definition of the church when we live stream services?
Do you see the dilemma we are in? On the one hand, live streaming services gets the message of Truth out to more people and allows those providentially hindered from attendance (e.g., sickness, physical inability, travel, inclement weather, pandemic, etc.) to tune in from a distance.
On the other hand, live streaming church communicates a false definition of the church—you cannot, by definition, live stream “church.” The problem, to be clear, is not technology. The problem is our ecclesiology (i.e., doctrine of the church) and our heart.
So, what are churches to do? Let me suggest three ways forward.
First, pastors must teach and preach a biblical, robust ecclesiology. They must communicate that you cannot fulfill the command to assemble with other Christians by watching live stream.
Second, pastors (and fellow members) must know their people. Church members might not attend church because they’re at high risk for COVID-19. Members might not attend church because they have unrepentant sin. Members might not attend church because they don’t value the assembly. Each of these reasons must be addressed individually. These members need different counsel from their pastors (and fellow members) because they have different reasons for not attending church. In other words, some members who absent themselves from church are “forsaking the assembly” and some members who absent themselves from church are not “forsaking the assembly” (Heb 10:25).
Third, if a church chooses to live stream their services, they should, at the very least, state a disclaimer, which clearly communicates that, by definition, the church cannot be live streamed. Additionally, a Christian must fulfill the biblical mandate to attend church services on a regular basis, barring any providential hindrances.
The pandemic, with the resulting mainstream availability of live streaming, has forced the church to consider her true nature. The church must define herself biblically. Not to do so poses a threat to her own existence.