For almost twenty years a cadre of brave, but largely unheeded, commentators such as David Wells and Udo Middelmann have been striving to alert Christians to the fact that church marketing gurus have fundamentally changed the pattern of evangelical churches. Instead of taking the commands of God as the starting place for determining how to go about structuring the church, the trend these gurus introduced was to remold the church after the model of the modern retail business. In the world of American commerce, first the homogeneous chain-store began to replace the smaller local mom and pop store, and then the chain stores were brought together in the one-stop shopping experience of the modern American shopping-mall. Following this model, church marketers have replaced smaller local congregations with larger, homogeneous, seeker-sensitive churches and in turn these seeker-sensitive churches have grown to become the modern megachurch offering a “one stop” shopping experience for the modern worshipper. It is not uncommon to find everything from a coffee-bar to exercise classes all housed in these large modern worship facilities. But commerce, as always, has moved on, and even the trip to the mall (with all its attendant parking and walking problems) has become a hassle for many modern consumers. The solution to those hassles is to do your shopping from home via the internet. Even the chain stores view it as a must to have internet commerce alongside of their traditional “brick and mortar” locations. Modern megachurches have followed the same trends, first by introducing “satellite locations” which allowed worshipers to experience the finely crafted worship of the main church on large screens in a smaller congregation and without having to travel long distances or deal with the parking difficulties that come when thousands of congregants assemble. According to Outreach magazine in 2000 only 5% of megachurches were “multi-site” but by 2010 it is expected that over half will be.
Now as a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel entitled Finding the Divine Online points out, the megachurches are taking the logical next step in following commercial trends – Online Worship.
Now worshippers don’t even have to get dressed and drive to a satellite location in order to watch worship on a screen. Instead, they can experience the same excellent worship without the inconveniences of actually changing out of their sleepwear into comfortable clothes, driving to church, finding a parking spot, and having to deal with actual people. Internet worship also offers many other consumer conveniences not possible at traditional “brick and mortar” churches such as the ability to chat and network with other worshipers while the service is going on (without people thinking you are being rude), the ability to ask questions of an “internet pastor” when they occur to you instead of having to wait, and best of all, now you know you’ll always have the “best seat in the house” – unless your spouse grabs it first. Technically, it should be possible to even “pause” worship in order for you to get a snack, answer the phone, or go to the bathroom.
But is the online worshiper really attending a church, or even really worshiping?
What is clear from the bible is that in every age the Lord has been saving people not in order to create autonomous Christian units but to make them part of His body, the church. As we are told in Acts 2:47 “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” The church is the ekklesia, a word used in both the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) and the New Testament to indicate the assembly or congregation of the Lord. All of these biblical words, assembly, congregation, and body were chosen deliberately by God to emphasize the idea that the saints are called to be a group that is not only separated from the world, but brought together. His body is a visible union of many members that He brings together (Romans 12:4-5). Throughout biblical and church history, Christians have understood the necessity of being part of that assembly and have consequently joined themselves to particular congregations in which they have enjoyed the Lord’s blessings. In fact, from a biblical perspective an adult simply cannot claim that they are a member of church if they have not covenanted with a particular congregation, been baptized, and are a member in good standing actually taking the Lord’s Supper and thus communing with other believers. Those who only watch church on the internet are manifestly also not under the umbrella of church discipline and are still outside of the church and thus still in an unchurched condition. Such a person is disobeying the Lord’s command “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
When it comes to biblical church discipline, the bible makes it clear in places like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 that the members of the church will be aware of what is going on in one another’s lives and will be obedient to the commands to keep one another accountable, even pointing out sins when that is needed. The presumption is that if a brother or sister who is part of the assembly will not turn from their sins and repent, they must be cast out of the assembly as Paul puts it “put away from yourselves the evil person.” We call this process of being put away excommunication, and its ultimate purpose is the purifying of the body and the restoration of the offender. But how does one excommunicate the internet worshiper? Ban their IP address perhaps? The person isn’t actual communing, therefore to excommunicate them isn’t even applicable, all of which speaks to the fact that they aren’t really members of the church at all.
But not only is an internet worshiper always missing out on two of the important marks of the true church, namely the biblical administration of the sacraments, and biblical church discipline, he is also missing out on one of the most important parts of life in the body of Christ - fellowship and accountability. The pastor and members of the main church usually aren’t even aware of their virtual worshipers, and certainly aren’t able to keep track of how thousands of internet viewers are doing spiritually. The reality is that they don’t really know one another at all, and for a shepherd not to know the sheep, and the body not to know the other parts is tragic.
Additionally, every Christian has been given gifts which the Lord intends us to put to use for Him in serving the other members of the body. As Paul says: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:4-6a) This simply cannot happen amongst online worshipers. How does one use the gifts God desires be put to use in ministering to the body when we never actually meet the other members of the body? Additionally, the kind of ongoing multigenerational training that happens as older women train and teach younger women and older men train and teach younger men is also missing from the online community. Simply put, the kind of training and daily modeling that goes on in Titus 2 presumes a living breathing community of believers in close communion and contact with one another.
For all of these reasons, I strongly believe the Dutch and Belgian protestants at the time of the Reformation where expressing a scriptural truth when they confessed regarding the duty of all believers to join themselves to a true church: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” (The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXVIII)
As to whether the person watching a service online is worshipping we need to consider that there are three kinds of worship that Christians are called to enter into, the kind of personal worship we do alone in our private devotions, the daily worship we do as a family, and most importantly the corporate worship of the gathered church. This corporate worship we enter into on earth is actually a model of the eternal corporate worship of the assembly of God’s people in heaven. In a sense, on Sunday as we gather with the church we are “practicing” for heaven and enjoying an all-too-brief and imperfect foretaste of the perfection of heavenly worship. When someone is worshipping online, they have not joined with God’s people, they are not “gathered” or “assembled” together with the body of Christ. What they are doing is confusing two different kinds of worship by attempting to privately engage in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day when they are supposed to be corporately gathered together in His name.
Now one can understand having to do something like this “virtual worship” if one is a soldier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan without regular access to an orthodox protestant chapel service. But most soldiers will tell you they do not fare nearly as well spiritually under such conditions and cannot wait to return to the real worship of their home church. Most servicemen would not choose “virtual church” if they didn’t have to, anymore than they would choose to maintain “virtual” contact with their family and only communicate with their spouses and children via phone and internet once they got home. So to do this “virtual worshipping” by choice when there are living, breathing, orthodox Christian congregations within driving distance of your home is a terrible mistake, and while long term studies are not yet available, one can only speculate that the individuals who make this choice will not fare much better spiritually than the soldiers who have no other choice.
So who is to blame for this mess that leads people to remain in an unchurched condition while misleading them into thinking they are part of a church? In my opinion the blame does not lay primarily with the worshippers. They have merely bought into an idea peddled to them by megachurches that should have known better, and I believe the reason that many megachurches don’t know better is that they seem to have forgotten that the church is in fact the ekklesia or body of Christ and see themselves simply as a spiritual business marketing products like “a relationship with Jesus” and a highly sensual experience called “worship.” As David McDaniel, Director of Campus Expansion for North Point Ministries, tragically described the role of the megachurch in a recent article in Outreach magazine“What we’re doing is providing empty chairs for people to come and worship during optimal hours.” Now, if all the church was meant to be was a building containing chairs for Christians to sit in while they watch something described as “worship” in the same way they might watch a concert or a self-help speaker then yes, there really is no reason the chair should not be located in their living room, or the service unfold on a wide-screen TV as opposed to a JumboTron in an off-site location. The problem though is that often the megachurch definition of both church and worship is seriously unscriptural and instead of addressing that fundamental problem, megachurches are only compounding it.
Therefore, problems like the spread of the “virtual church” aren’t going to be dealt with until evangelical churches reform and that will involve ceasing to take their model for church from modern consumer marketing techniques, and returning to the pattern for churches that God has given in the bible. Until that happens, the deceiver is going to have a field day by persuading people that they are “worshipping” and “in church” when in fact the only practical difference between them and their unchurched neighbors is what they occasionally watch on their computer screens.