W. Jackson Watts
“It’s just not the same.” Most people have heard this phrase and uttered it countless times since March. It’s how Christians have expressed the sentiment of trying to worship together while not actually being together. After the suspension of worship services in March, the vast majority of congregations transitioned to various online expressions of Christian community and worship. These ranged from pre-recorded sermons being posted online to livestreaming full-length service elements from mostly vacant buildings—and quite a few other variations.
During this time pastors, teachers, and church members repeatedly said, “We know it’s not the same.” I’ve heard those words rolling off of my lips a time or two. Most people recognize that in doing something online, regardless of what they call it, they were engaged in something highly unnatural and undesirable.
Let’s zero in on the phrase itself: “Online ‘worship,’ ‘service,’ or ‘church’ isn’t the same.” I have two main concerns about this. First, it’s not clear to me that all Christians recognize that there is an inherent problem or limitation. Now if you asked them, “Would you prefer to gather in person or watch a video or something like a service online?” most would opt for the former. However, this leads to a second concern. Can we honestly articulate why an online experience isn’t the same as an in-person experience? Only in answering this question, based on biblical principle and practice, can we rightly address the first concern, which is to understand that there is indeed a problem or limitation that we need to face up to.
With that being said, I have composed a list of reasons why an online experience is inferior to an in-person experience. I offer this list with conviction, but also with compassion. I fully understand that we’re still in a transitional stage where many of our brothers and sisters are not yet able to gather owing to health concerns of various kinds. Yet the importance of addressing this issue is three-fold: (1) Crises are an occasion for us to grow in virtue and understanding. If we must be apart now, and if we want to make sense of the months we were apart, thinking this through will benefit us. (2) Because many who are new to the faith, or who aren’t believers, will likely not fully understand God’s design for the church, this is an occasion for discipleship. We don’t want to squander such an opportunity. (3) Pastorally speaking, there are many who think it’s safe enough to go on vacation, go to Walmart, protest while surrounded by thousands, and/or attend large family gatherings, but gathering at a socially-distanced worship service is somehow not sufficiently safe. Walking through such a list may cause them to reevaluate what is truly essential to our Christian experience.
With those being said, here are my 22 reasons, largely in no particular order:
- Church means “assembly.” It’s a gathering. You can’t gather apart.
- “Online church” or “Online worship” are oxymorons (see #1).
- God made us as embodied creatures to experience life.
- It’s impossible to look someone in the eye on a screen and the camera simultaneously.
- You can’t hug someone you’re not with.
- You can’t shake the hand of a person you’re not with.
- You can’t take the Lord’s Supper with the body when you’re not with the body.
- You can’t wash feet
- You can’t practice congregational church discipline online.
- You can’t easily hold a church business meeting online, if at all.
- It’s easier to get distracted when you’re apart, behind a screen, and no one else can see what you’re doing.
- Online ministry uniquely furthers the problem we already have among some Christians—which is to see the church as a religious content provider (i.e. Here’s a file to download at your leisure!).
- Virtual “altars of prayer” don’t provide us a place to weep together as we might need
- I can’t hear God’s Word being sung all around me online, no matter how good the audio and amplification are.
- The preacher can’t look his listeners in the eye in an empty
- The congregants can’t fully experience the depth of multi-directional communication that live preaching achieves.
- You can’t have the fullest range of volunteers assisting in leading the worship service.
- Online “visitors” don’t experience your church as it truly is, but as an online product.
- Younger children don’t get the opportunity to learn to be still and attentive in a service surrounded by other people.
- Younger children don’t get to learn about the act of giving by placing money in the offering plate that their mother, father, grandma, or grandpa handed them.
- Empty or sparsely filled parking lots diminish yet another opportunity churches have to give a visible witness to what they value in life to the surrounding community.
- Participating in Sunday school, small groups, and other similar ministries online loses a significant personal
I want to acknowledge that there may be a counterpoint to most of these. People are finding new ways to perform normal parts of life online. Yet I’ve tried to combine both principles (like #s 1 and 3) with both practical situations (like #s 20 and 22) to help us understand what’s really at stake. You can’t work your way around a biblical principle; it is what it is. It’s God’s good design for us. When it comes to the practical situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of specific experiences we miss when we’re apart. I do see these as practical ways we apply biblical principles, even though they aren’t all commanded of God (i.e. I don’t think Scripture requires Christians to hug as the only culturally-appropriate alternative to a “holy kiss.”). But some of these are ways we express our love and unity in the faith together that can’t be supplanted easily—if at all—in virtual reality.
Let me offer a final thought to those still at home who reasonably must remain there, and those able to gather but may have grown to devalue our embodied, physical gatherings:
To those at homebound or in nursing homes, you are not somehow less than God’s child because you are unable to be with other Christians. This simply means we who are able have a greater obligation to minister to you where you are, as best as we reasonably can. Pray for us as we pray for you. Do what you can from where you can. We miss you, and we love you.
To those able to gather but refuse to, or who deep down doubt the importance of in-person worship, what would you like to say to those stuck at home? After considering this list, do you still feel the same way? How might we honor, respect, and love God and His people well? Seeing why our online experiences fall dramatically short should help us to recommit ourselves to the importance of our gathered life of worship and service, and help us to be more intentional in serving those who weren’t able to gather, even before we ever heard of COVID-19.
 I am not advocating that we practice the Lord’s Supper or Feet Washing during a time in which social distancing is still necessary for health reasons. I’m speaking about what is possible (or not) during non-pandemic conditions.
Thanks for the good article. When we were first placed under the stay at home “order”, we did close. After it became apparent that generally healthy people had little risk of death, we determined to meet again. Some were “at risk” and did stay away for a few weeks longer, all but a couple have returned to regular attendance now.
Being older, I had resisted all social media for myself. When we “closed” I began putting Sunday morning sermons on Facebook and have continued, as there are some outside our body that now watch.
We supply masks, if desired. We provide hand sanitizer. We have a UV light to help disinfect the rooms. We have room to distance ourselves, but most have migrated back to “their” seats. But it is mostly families that sit near each other anyway.
I suppose that if we were forced “underground” we could eventually manage, but until then, we must work while it is day. It was just not the same.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and well written article. I had this discussion today at lunch with a fellow minister. I will pass it on to him.
Billy D. Hanna
I agree with everything Dr. Watts said. I do see a danger of our sanctifying in some way the method of serving God that our American culture has allowed us. Many devout believers do not have the opportunity for such worship as we have. Can we judge their method of worship that’s the only option they have. Some believers in Third World countries have no contact with the greater body of Christ except the mail they get from organizations such as through the Bible ministries , focus on the family etc. If this hasn’t done anything for me and made me more aware of my brethren saying time that you do not have an option of worshiping openly and freely like we do here.