Can disciples gather online?

So we’ve seen that disciples have a new identity that isn’t individual but corporate, that isn’t founded on our achievement but on Christ’s death and resurrection. That we’re reconciled not just to God (which ought to blow our minds) but to one another no matter our stripe or type, creed or race. That the church is where the rubber of reconciliation hits the road of reality. That we cannot claim to be reconciled to God and fail to be reconciled to one another in reality without denying something of God’s plan of salvation. If we do we are being less that God wants us to be, we’re living sub-gospel.

We’ve seen that Church is hard. It is not a place of polished perfection but a place where we are united together in God’s family despite our differences, and that such commitment takes work because it requires us to keep grasping more and more of the gospel of grace. And applying it not just to ourselves but to others as we commit to growing together. Church must be a place where we engage with one another in Christ with the gospel for the glory of God!

God’s plan for the church is glorious. God commands us as Christians to gather, for our good and his glory.

Now here’s the question that is so pertinent at the moment. Can we do this virtually? Is online church really church?

We live in the midst of a global pandemic. Many people are shielding on medical grounds. Others feel especially amidst the current lockdown that it is not wise to gather, others feel strongly that we must gather. It is a conscience matter, and we will disagree but I hope disagree with grace (hint, hint). But at the same time we must be able to disagree, that means talking about why we feel the way we do, why we disagree, and doing so to discover why others feel how they do not merely in order to bludgeon someone into adopting our position.

But I also wonder if this pandemic is exposing the result of faulty thinking about church. If we aren’t reaping now the seeds that have been sown over time?

If church is about the quality of the event, the polished and professional presentation of the preaching, the excellent worship, then being online isn’t really so different. Maybe we are partly reaping what we’ve sown, if faith has become a privatised pursuit with occasional input from a teaching pastor then gathering isn’t really necessary. If we’ve never encouraged people to develop deep discipling relationships when they have gathered then being online is really no different. If all the teaching and one anothering has come from a select few at the front rather than the majority in the pew alongside of then being online has little impact.

But if church is a household, if it is God’s family, if that has been our priority then gathering matters. Though if that has been the case we may feel the impact of the restrictions on our gathering more than others.

Grace Church has always tried to work hard at fostering discipling relationships, we never did it perfectly, and I’ve always longed to see more of it taking place. But we tried to set up the ebb and flow of church life to encourage shared life, to provide opportunities for discipling relationships to grow where we each built one another up. Monthly prayer breakfasts where whole families gathered to eat, chat and pray. Refreshments both before and after the service, and even in the break in the middle. Application question to work through afterwards over coffee whilst the children were still being discipled in Sunday School. Monthly Church lunches after the morning service. Weekly shared meals before midweek bible studies that were chaotic, full, fun and frantic all at the same time.

It was never perfect, and you can’t make people encourage one another, but you can set norms by what you prioritise, what you give space and time to. I miss all those things, I long for the day when the face mask are removed, when we don’t need to stand 2 metres apart, when we can have a coffee and chat and pray together, when we can sit and eat and share where we are in our discipleship.

But despite all the restrictions there is still value in meeting together. For a start it is an act of obedience to God. It is a reminder that this is my family is not just those I am living with but God’s household. It is a call to care for those outside my four walls. And it creates a longing for the day when the restrains are lifted.

But what about online church? Where does it fit? We don’t gather when we do online church, even when we do so on zoom, not really. Following Jesus is an embodied reality not an online one. But it is necessary, for some, for a season and God in his grace will use it for his glory. But I would plead with my brothers and sisters who are not gathering at the moment to ask themselves if they are being consistent? And to ensure they long for the day when they can again gather.

A COVID-secure Church is far safer than a shop. So if we argue we shouldn’t gather to worship as churches we need to be consistent in our attitude to other things. If we worship online do we shop online? If we don’t gather with others to worship because of its too dangerous then we ought to take a similar approach to the far more risky gathering to shop. Or maybe, just maybe, we are revealing something about our priorities, about the necessity of shopping and the way we’ve drifted into presuming the unnecessary nature of gathering to worship God.

If we’re not gathering are we being consistent? Or are the things we will do whilst not gathering showing something about our priorities? Or values?

I’m also very aware as a dad that my children are learning from may actions all the time. That my actions speak far louder than my words. Are they seeing the priority of gathering as the people of God? Are they seeing me do what I can to engage with my brothers and sister in church? Am I talking about my sense of loss in not gathering?

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