In 2020, as the COVID pandemic and accompanying lockdowns spread across the world, my local church in Lagos—like many other churches around the world—took a crash course in using modern technology for streaming our church services. We had to learn about lighting and how to set it up. We discovered why certain cameras worked for video recording while others didn’t.
Like many churches, we’ve continued streaming our services.
Thankfully God has been merciful. The dark days of 2020 and early 2021 are increasingly a faint memory. Church life is mostly back to normal. We’re holding Sunday morning services like we did, back in 2019 B. C.—before COVID. There is just one difference. Like many churches, we’ve continued streaming or broadcasting our services live.
Reasons Churches Kept Their Cameras Rolling
I have asked many Christians and read various articles answering this question: why have so many churches continued streaming their services? Below are just some of the major reasons I’ve gathered for why many churches have continued broadcasting their services:
- There are still church members who’re unable to attend physical services for medical reasons
- Some Christians still feel uncomfortable being in crowded or closed places
- Online streaming allows the local church to serve a much larger audience, which is a means of evangelism
- Technology is here to stay and we must adapt for the 21st century.
There is truth in all of these responses. But they all neglect thinking about the downside to churches leaving their cameras on. In 2020 we didn’t have the time to think things through properly. Now, with the benefit of time, we must make sure that our reasonings are biblical, balanced and based on solid theological foundations.
The church must clearly distinguish between physical attendance and online ‘attendance.’
Of course it’s crucial that the church considers its vulnerable members when planning services. And the church must always make the greatest use possible of technology for evangelistic purposes. This might very well mean streaming church services. However, the church must also clearly distinguish between physical attendance and online “attendance,” ensuring that everyone knows that online is always a last option. I have two reasons for saying so.
1. You Can’t “One Another” Online
The New Testament has over 100 commands for Christians to “one another one another.” We are told to be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50); confess sins to one another (James 5:16); greet one another with a kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14); serve one another (Galatians 5:13); speak the truth to one another (Ephesians 4:25); and so on.
Underneath all these commands is the assumption that God expects that we Christians would be in regular physical contact with one another. It goes without saying that “attending” church online limits our ability to obey these commands.
Attending church online limits our ability to obey God’s “one another” commands.
Dane Ortlund put it succinctly when he said: “Staying home to ‘watch church’ is like staying home from a friend’s wedding to watch the ceremony virtually. And keeping your wedding gift with you. Your presence and solidarity and love and hugs and eye contact and singing are needed. It’s not just about passively receiving something. It’s about being an embodied part of the celebration. The whole event is diminished by your absence. And you have a gift to give.”
2. Worship Requires Our Full Attention
I lead a weekly church Bible study for my church. Since 2020 we’ve run a hybrid model, with some people attending physically and others using an online platform.
It is always telling that often when I ask a question—though my screen is showing me that there are 30 people online—nobody responds. You then call a name at random, but the person fails to answer or sends a message saying: “sorry, can’t speak right now.” At other points, someone will mistakenly unmute themselves and it’s obvious that they are in the middle of doing something entirely different from jointly studying the word of God, with the people of God.
Whenever we attend a church gathering online, we are open to being distracted.
My experience has shown me that every time we attend a church gathering online, we are open to being distracted. We wrongly believe that we can multitask. But this typically means that we don’t give the word of God the attention it deserves. Streaming church services will always have this limitation – or fundamental flaw. I strongly believe that all my Bible study members would be better served if they attend physically, even after considering the fact that Lagos has the worst traffic in the world!
And that isn’t only my view. Recently, one of the regular physical attendees had to travel out of town and after joining online for two weeks, his comment was: “online attending isn’t the same as physical attendance.” He understood that his experience was diminished.
All Things are Lawful, but Not Necessarily Edifying
“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Paul could have been warning us about the dangers of online streaming. The fact that we can leave the cameras on does not mean that it is always the wisest action. I acknowledge that every church is different, and circumstances may sway the leaders towards continuing to stream, but we need to think long and hard about what we are doing.
Is live streaming always the best way to cater to vulnerable members and online visitors? Before we answer, we need to be sure whatever our answer might be it should be consistent with our position before COVID. The church must always adapt. But the church must never forget its most important principles. These surely include the physical gathering of God’s people.