The church now deals with something new that previous generations have provided no direct applications, which is virtual worship. Guy N. Woods, G.K. Wallace, David Lipscomb, N.B. Hardeman write nothing about virtual worship. The current generation of Christians cannot lean on the scholars of the previous generations to directly answer their questions concerning the soundness of online worship services acting as a replacement for physical assembly. Primary research and investigation is needed. The discussion on virtual worship being a legitimate form of fellowship has grown into quite the debate, and most Christians just do what the majority has been doing, which is to trust their elders because the situation happened so fast it hasn’t given people much time to really study the ideas of the argument. Can virtual worship be defended biblically? If it can, what are the long-term side effects of Christians worshipping primarily online?
In Facebook forums and online articles, preachers, members of the church, elders, deacons all contributing to the discussion, many offer their contentions and concerns about virtual worship. Out of the vast dialogues and objections over the past six months, two primary objections come into focus. The first matter of consideration addresses the question, “Do we have to be physically together to fellowship/assemble?” Many believe that God requires a physical presence in order to fellowship, to assemble, to partake of the Lord’s supper, and perform the other acts of worship. There is an email being circulated around the brotherhood by those who oppose online worship as scriptural. While revealing the whole email is not necessary to understand the point, one part of it reads:
What a shame all over this country my brethren are so easily influenced to stop meeting and forsake the assembly in a craftily devised plan of Satan to use the logic of “caring for our neighbor” or “obeying the laws of the land”…how in the world can you even try to admonish the unfaithful in attendance after this? You cannot, you lead the fray. Sorry, but watching some guy on a screen promoting “worship” and listening to great choirs sing a cappella religious songs, is just not going to work for us.
While most of what this person says is bombastic and uninformative, the email exposes that several argue that letting people believe that online worship meets God’s requirements for worship is hypocritical and unbiblical because it is not the physical assembly.
The second major contention is that video worship will become the future model of the church. Preachers teach and have taught for decades that every Christian must be at the building for the assembly; God requires it. However, now members hear that staying at home is acceptable, and they can just worship virtually online instead. If God doesn’t condemn the practice, and church leadership admonish no unfaithfulness in video worship, then why wouldn’t people just stay home from now on? People don’t have to get up as early; they can stay in their pajamas; they can drink their coffee at home on the couch while being a part of worship; they can eat their lunch faster; they don’t have to worry about the babies and children disturbing other people. The convenience of online worship makes certain leaders fearful that the majority will not want to come back to the assembly all together. Virtual worship will become the future of the church and the physical assembly may eventually become obsolete.
In any research considering matters of God’s will, one especially important qualification must remain primary! Whatever the premises, they must be biblical. Paul writes, “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col. 3:17). If Christians cannot use scripture to defend their actions and why they do what they do, then it is not authoritative. Just because the law of the land says people should do it, doesn’t make the action right in the eyes of God. The authority God gives the law of the land only goes so far; government cannot supersede the law of God, and Christians should always follow God before the law of the land (Acts 5:29; Rom. 13:1-5). Whatever defense one affords, the factors need to come from scripture, not fear, not personal feelings, not government, not convenience, but the law of God. Advocates against virtual worship claim that it violates the law of God, so the only legitimate defense that they can make must come through the law of God.
In considering the first deliberation in the soundness of virtual worship, which is the question of fellowship and communion being possible without the physical presence of individuals, the Bible must provide evidence that a medium can be used for joint participation between brethren who are physically separated. The Lord’s supper will be considered first because the communion stands as the primary matter of concern in virtual worship. Remember what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 10:16,17: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” In the context of the discussion, Paul knows the Corinthians had corrupted the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), so Paul asks them rhetorical questions to help them understand their relationship with Christ in the Lord’s supper, while in a larger teaching warning the Corinthians about the spiritual nature of their actions. Paul elucidates that communion with Christ and the brethren exist in that cup and bread, which must be included for the act of worship to be pleasing to God. Thayer defines the Greek word κοινωνία (koy-nohn-ee’-ah)translated “communion” as “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation.” Paul says, “we being many are one bread, and one body” (1 Cor. 10:17a). God expresses an implication here of fellowship and joint participation. So, can this communion be accomplished while being physically apart?
Did anyone notice the pronouns Paul used in the text? Paul writes, “the cup of blessing which we bless…the bread which we break…” Where is Paul when He writes this letter? He writes to the church in Corinth from Ephesus, hundreds of miles apart. Is it likely that this aged apostle traveled from Ephesus all the way to Corinth every Sunday? Did he travel to every church to whom he wrote to break bread all on the first day of the week just so he could say “we break?” It would not have been possible at that time. Paul says that despite being physically apart “we” have κοινωνία (koinōnia [translated “communion”]), which is fellowship, association, communion, and joint participation. Paul and the Corinthians dwell hundreds of miles apart from each other, and yet Paul uses the medium of a letter to tell them that he and them still have communion with each other through the joint partaking of the Lord’s supper. Christians dwell together spiritually, even when they are physically apart, so together they break bread and drink of the cup in fellowship. Can Christians have fellowship/communion while being physically apart? Paul would answer, “Yes.”
One individual on a Facebook discussion who received several good comments for asking the question states, “What is allowed? is not the issue. The issue is…What did God intend with the practice?” It is useful to take a step back from the logistics of a command and simply ask, why did God give this command? What did God intend for Christians to do? However, that does not mean one ignores the details of a command, but one should keep in mind the overall theme and intension. Given the examples in scripture, plus the commands, God clearly wants His followers to be together, physically, on the first day of the week to partake of the Lord’s supper. Paul physically tarries in Troas just so he could be with his brethren on the first day of the week to partake of the Lord’s supper (Acts 20:6,7). Paul does everything in his power to be with his brethren physically to partake of the Lord’s supper. The language in Acts 20:7 implies that the purpose and reason Christians come together on the first day of the week is to partake of the Lord’s supper.
In scripture, Bible readers observe all the other acts of worship done independent of the assembly on the first day of the week. The Lord’s supper stands unique in that it is the only one that was never used outside of that time and assembly. There is something about the Lord’s supper in which God desires the church to be together in order to do it.
While the ideal situation would have been for all Christians to be together on the first day of the week, even in the first century, this wasn’t always possible. Christians found themselves in situations that kept brethren physically apart for months and years at a time. Paul was imprisoned in most of his missionary journeys and bound by the Romans for several weeks perhaps months being transferred from Jerusalem to Caesarea to Rome (Acts 21-28), and at one time being shipwrecked on the isle of Melita (Acts 27:39-28:10), which would have most definitely kept him from assembling with his brethren every Sunday. The apostle John was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos for several years before he was released and free to assemble with his brethren on Sunday. Before Paul became a Christian, he committed several Christians to prison (Acts 8:4), being bound in a jail cell for several weeks was not uncommon for Christians in the first century. Unfortunately for the first century and even now, idyllic situations were few and far between.
Think personally for a moment, would you rather stand before God on the Day of Judgment and honestly say that you did everything in your power to obey His law given your situation, than to say, “I just refused to do it because I wasn’t able to do it under ideal circumstances every time.” If it offends one’s conscience to partake of the Lord’s supper without the physical assembly, then don’t do it, but no biblical reason exists as to why Christians should not make every effort and use every resource available to partake of the Lord’s supper with their brethren, and there certainly exists no biblical reason to make the brethren feel bad about trying to do so. Paul rebukes Christians on several occasions for creating arguments and disputes within the church just because the brethren offended their personal conscience (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).
The other acts of worship must also be considered in this deliberation. Can Bible readers see other acts of worship done together, yet apart? Again, the Bible would need to show a medium employed by Christians sharing the act of worship. Preaching – 1 Corinthians 15:1: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand.” Preaching may possibly be the most obvious. Paul utilizes a letter to communicate the gospel to dozens of Churches. 1 Corinthians 15 is a whole sermon on the resurrected Christ. Paul preaches a whole sermon through a letter. Peter taught through an epistle, John did the same, Luke did this, all the inspired writers used a medium while not being in person to preach the gospel. Luke and John even extended the invitation through a medium of communication (Acts 2:38; Rev. 22:17). If God didn’t want Christians using mediums of communication to teach, why did He give us a Bible?! Prayer – Ephesians 1:15-23 records Paul’s prayer to the church in Ephesus. Paul prays for the Ephesians and issues this prayer through the medium of a letter. Paul prays with and for the Ephesians while not being with them physically. Singing – Acts 16:25: “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.” The one biblical qualification mentioned for one to really sing in “one accord” (Acts 4:24) and “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16) is to hear each other or see each other, which can be done through a live video. Giving – 1 Corinthians 16:2,3: “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” Paul receives the churches’ money, and takes the collection to Jerusalem; the Corinthians don’t have to be physically with the poor saints in Jerusalem to give. Paul acts as the medium for giving.
The mind of worship must also be considered when a Christian offers praise to God, can one have the proper mind of worship while being alone, separated from the assembly? The author of Hebrews writes, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). Christians assemble not just to worship but to exhort and encourage each other. All Christians need to accomplish exhortation is communication, which they have through a computer. Christian watchers can place comments on the live video, which encourage and exhort all those who see and participate in the video. Peter, likewise, writes, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). God commands Christians to have a mind of thanksgiving, praise, and sacrifice to offer up worship before Him. Can Christians do that at home? If Christians can pray, sing, and teach in their homes, like the first-century Christians (Acts 2:46), then it must be possible. James writes, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13). Two acts of worship are mentioned here and in the singular. James encourages the brethren on an individual level to worship God through prayer and song. It is possible to prepare one’s mind for worship alone. Christians unquestionably possess the ability to prepare their minds for worship by themselves; they do not need the physical assembly.
It is possible to use the acts of worship in spirit and in truth while being apart, yet united on a spiritual level.
Studying the second major deliberation, one must ponder the effects virtual worship will have on the future concepts of the church. With less emphasis put on the physical assembly, will physical church attendance become unimportant to people? Anyone can understand the obvious appeal of staying home and still having communion with the church. TAKE NOTE. On the surface, online worship may seem easier, but virtual worship actually makes things harder.
In researching the retention rates of virtual worship, the attendance dissipated faster from online than in-person worship. California governor issued the first stay-at-home order in the United States on Thursday, March 19, 2020 to combat the corona virus. Within days, most other states followed suit spreading panic and fear across the U.S. By Sunday March 22, most churches from California to New York went online to Facebook to live stream worship services. In researching viewership from over 50 churches all over the U.S. from March 22 to May 10, when many churches started re-opening the doors to the building, research showed that the average virtual attendance between this time period dropped 65% from where it started. At the beginning of live streaming, people’s fascination peaked to understand what virtual worship would be like, but within a 9-video period, the average church viewership had dropped 65%!
Physical church attendance on average might drop to this degree within 9 years, but certainly not within 9 weeks. Physical church attendance does not drop and fluctuate to this degree, so why would virtual attendance? It is easier for people to not be missed from the online perspective. So, people may not see the consequences as severe for not watching. People may be less inclined to stream in when no one knows if they are there or not. There is no getting dressed, no getting the kids ready, no getting everyone together to make the drive, no shaking hands, no pats on the back, no formality, and no ceremonial reverence. With less circumstance and effort put into the worship, people may feel less and less invested in the church.
Video worship is not wrong, but it is harder to do what God requires for worship than being in person. Members of the church will find virtual assembly harder to admonish, harder to encourage, harder to fellowship, harder to show reverence, harder to feel invested, harder to feel a part of the church, harder for the eldership to shepherd and oversee the members’ personal growth. Such assertions derive from perspectives of emotion and feelings, but ultimately what is not opinion, is that one gets out of worship and the church more, the more work and effort one puts into it. Paul writes, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). You reap what you sow!
On the surface, video worship may feel easier, but it is actually harder, so when Christians have the opportunity to come back to the physical worship, they need to make things easier on themselves, make their growth as a Christian easier and come back to the physical assembly. While the online medium is necessary for many at this time; when saints have the opportunity to come back together, they should take it! The faith and law of God provide a spiritual connection that goes beyond the physical, which makes it possible for Christians to worship together in their current situation. However, when the threat is gone, the growth in Christ and walk with the Lord will be easier when the church unites together physically.