And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

The above verse is being discussed a lot these days. It is the clearest command regarding regularly gathering as a church body. But the fact is, the importance of regularly gathering with a specific, local group of believers is written all throughout the New Testament. God has created us as social beings, and he has ordained the church to be a primary means of encouragement, endurance, and hope for those who follow Jesus. Here are six failures of digital or online church:

  1. Online church puts an inordinate amount of focus on the preacher and/or service leaders. When you (physically) walk into a church, most likely you meet several people before you meet the pastor (if you even meet the pastor). And this is great! Because the pastor(s) is not the church. If you want to know what a church is like (and what the God they believe in is like), you have to get to know the members of the church.
  2. An online church (may) cause you to view the pastor as merely a preacher. Pastors are shepherds (that’s where the word actually comes from). They are called to care for, protect, serve, teach, and guide God’s people. The preaching of God’s word (which we do on Sunday mornings) is a central part of this. I would even say it is the thing that shapes and empowers everything else they do. But shepherding also requires getting to know the sheep—their needs, struggles, fears, idols, joys. It requires guiding the sheep individually, helping them apply God’s word to their particular situations. And it requires showing love to the sheep. A TV preacher cannot be your pastor.
  3. Online church misses out on the encouragement of congregational singing. As the one leading the music each week, I can tell you that singing with an empty sanctuary is a far cry from singing with the full sanctuary. You may not always notice it, but there is something deeply encouraging in a church raising their voices together in praise, confession, submission and joy to God.
  4. Online church misses out on the two-way participation of the preaching of God’s word. A sermon is a two-way street. True, most of the words are coming from the preacher. But the congregation is certainly not passive, but actively responds in many ways: audible amens or groans; visible tears, nods, moving to the edge of the seat; various expressions of conviction, encouragement, understanding. All of this in turn affects both the preacher, and the rest of the congregation as they glance around the room.
  5. Online church limits the preliminary engagements often necessary for deep relationships. As much as you might despise church small talk, the numerous “How are you?” conversations that happen Sunday mornings set the stage for relationships to form in other settings. Even a two-minute conversation can be a source of hope and encouragement, especially to a guest or someone going through a hard time.
  6. Online church cannot provide (much) accountability. There is a tacit form of accountability in regularly gathering together. Our presence communicates that we are still enduring in the life of faith, and still committed to this body of believers. This is much more difficult to do online when your presence is limited to a Youtube “view” or Facebook “join,” both of which communicate very little.

May God hasten the day when we can gather together as a church again!