“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Ps. 111:1).
Rick Phillips writes:
One of the more popular features on our church website (www.spcgreenville.org) is the live video webcast that allows people to watch our worship services on the Lord’s Day as they are taking place. We are delighted to provide this, especially for members who are shut-ins, parents who are home with sick children, and similar situations. I recently heard of a member who was able to watch one of our services on his smart phone when he was stuck in a power outage. There are a surprising number of people who view our services over the internet and we hope it is a blessing to them all. We are particularly pleased if non-Christians are able to hear God’s Word and be encouraged to join us in the flesh.
For all the blessings of this kind of technology, there are some important limitations to video worship of which Christians should be aware and which call for us to make a wise use of this resource. In short, our live webcast is designed for those who are not able to come to church, not as a substitute for those who would otherwise come to church. With this in mind, let me point out some reasons why we should greatly prefer attending church in person, along with some suggestions for our practice.
1. Our physical presence is essential to full participation in worship and in the life of the church. When the Bible urges us “to meet together” (Heb. 10:25), this involves our physical as well as our spiritual presence. We are not meeting with the church if the church cannot see us! Jesus said, he would be present “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mt. 18:20). His meaning undoubtedly had the normal sense of physical presence with a shared heart. This is why we should never provide for home video participation in the sacraments and why the elders of the church meet in person rather than merely over the internet (notice that Matthew 18:20 occurs in a passage dealing with church discipline).
2. We need to come to church in order to contribute our gifts and graces to fellow Christians. The Lord accomplishes a number of important things through the weekly gathering of the church. For instance, the spiritual gifts of each member are employed in a wide variety of ways, each of which are essential. Paul wrote that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). He added that our spiritual gifts are provided to us “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Therefore, your fellow Christians require your presence: to serve, encourage, listen, support, laugh, hug, and love. We gather on Sunday as a church community, and this requires us to commune! So while video church is a help for exceptional situations, it should never become anything like the norm for a Christian.
3. There is an authoritative dimension to the preaching of God’s Word that involves physically “sitting under” a real and living pulpit ministry. It is a blessing to be able to hear the Word of God even if we are not able to attend church. Yet physically attending the sermon makes a significant difference to the way God ministers his Word. God has ordained for the Bible to be preached through living heralds and ambassadors, and the experience of sitting under a pulpit ministry integrally involves being physically present. Preaching is a living, communal event, and the preacher needs to see and spiritually interact with the congregation, just as the congregation needs to see and spiritually interact with the preacher. It is a blessing to have great preaching available via a number of electronic means and I would encourage you to do so, but none is a substitute from sitting in person under the personal ministry of your own pastor together with the church of which you are a member. This is why I am so opposed to “satellite churches” where the celebrity preacher’s video is beamed into a congregation where he is not physically present. This is also why you should especially attend to the preaching of your own minister, even if more gifted preachers can be heard on radio or the internet. Preaching is an important part of the pastor’s spiritual leadership and sitting under the preaching is an essential way to obey Hebrews 13:17 – “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.”
4. In worship, we need to give our full attention to the Lord, which is unlikely when we are not physically present in the church sanctuary. The sanctuary experience is designed to draw our full attention to the Lord and to his Word. Outside of the sanctuary and especially if we are alone, we simply are not likely to give ourselves wholly to God in our worship. This is similar to my concern for those using their tablets or smart phones in place of physical Bibles. There is nothing wrong with an electronic version of the Scriptures, but I know that my own smart phone is loaded with opportunities for multi-tasking and other electronic distractions from God and his worship. Is there anything wrong with checking your emails and texts during the sermon? Yes, there is. Psalm 111:1 says: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”
As Christians we should be the last to lose our sense of the whole person as God has made us, and we should not allow technology to truncate our view of the human person. Therefore, while we are glad to provide live video streaming for exceptional situations, let us not make the exception the norm and let us not permit technology to dictate our spiritual experience in worship.
Let me conclude with some suggestions related to the topic of video worship:
1) When traveling out of town on a Lord’s Day, make every effort to attend a local church in person rather than watch your home church via the internet. All Christians are part of the universal church as well as their particular church, and these are good opportunities for us to express and experience our broader Christian participation. God uses connections made in these settings to bring us together for his work. Even if there is no church that you would prefer, you should go to the best option. Experiencing “bad worship,” however we may define it, or “different preaching,” will nonetheless impart wisdom and perspective. Whatever the experience, we should generally prefer actual physical worship in company with fellow believers to a video experience even of our own church.
2) If you say to yourself, “I’ll just watch it on the internet,” instead of physically coming to church, you are cheating yourself and, more importantly, your fellow believers. This urge (which probably is more associated with evening worship) should be avoided as much as possible.
3) When attending a large worship event or conference where video screens are used to project the preacher’s image, sit up front where you can look at the speaker directly. I find that where there is a big screen my eyes naturally drift away from the actual person to the video image. This lessens the sense of a live encounter with a living preacher and we should avoid it.
I hope this counsel will enable us to use God’s gifts wisely and responsibly. Christians should always be on guard for unintended consequences and for opportunities of the devil (Eph. 4:27). The loss to the church of the physical presence of the people of God is too terrible to consider. Let us not permit technology to turn us from disciples into consumers, and from a church community to a mere resource provider.