The Dark Side for the Church During Its Online Hiatus
There are voices in the larger evangelical world that are finding the silver lining, and even celebrating, the shift of American Christianity en masse to online worship services. Attractional church growth guru, Carey Nieuhwhof, has claimed, with much enthusiasm, that “church growth” spiked 300% last month as people began sitting on couches and around kitchen tables on Sunday mornings.
I’m highly skeptical.
In my mind, any fruitful metric of “church growth” which is exclusively tied to digital content ceases to have much legitimacy. Neiuhwhof champions the idea that online worship removes the obstacles to church attendance because “church” is simply a click away and therefore “digital church has a much lower barrier to participation”. The problem is that “participation” of online worship lowers the bar to such an extent as to beg the question of whether this “church” is attracting consumers (to digital content) or raising up worshipers (of the Triune God).
As Mike Frost writes, “If you’re winning people to a ten or fifteen minute viewing of a prepackaged worship and teaching experience, devoid of community, mission, correction, reconciliation or justice, you’re not growing the church. You’re fostering religious consumers.”
Online Worship ≠ Church
We already live in a cultural moment where a person kayaks on the river or takes a run on the beach on a Sunday morning and posts a picture to Instagram with #church. Evangelicalism’s long confused love affair with its muddled ecclesiology seems to be at a potential tipping point during the coronavirus crisis. Tim Challies asks, “If we all stream our services, will anyone ever come back?” The fact that this is now a question reveals evangelicalism’s shaky foundation: the church’s orientation has been inverted with man at the center, as churches bend over backwards to “attract new customers” with exciting content, quick fixes for felt needs, and instant community.
Our own church has labeled its online hiatus an “online worship experience”. No mention is made of the word “church." Because what we are trying to simulate during these days is just that – a simulation of the real thing. We would be wise not to confuse the simulation with the real thing, or believe that the simulation could ever replace the actual.
A church that worships the Triune God recognizes that humanity was made for relational connection (God is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit). Disciples who follow the Incarnate One are meant to incarnate truth and grace in a community of real relationships. An individualized, fuzzy spirituality devoid of the body of Christ is not a recipe for church but for navel-gazing “experience-ism”, an increasingly common and cheap substitute for church in our particular moment in time.
Participation or Consumption?
From sizing up my own “participation” of online worship and hearing about the experiences of others, the axiom “the medium is the message” seems dangerously close to reality. On our TV or computers, we are accustomed to short bursts of engagement thru constantly searching for (entertaining or educational) content that suits our fancy. Our attention is minimal and the engagement is impersonal. We can hide behind a screen where we are never fully known. We pause the service as kids or pets or more exciting content (perhaps on a second device?) interrupt our disengaged participation again and again.
Sure, wearing pajamas to “church” seems like a cool idea until you filter this participation thru the prophet Isaiah’s weighty encounter with the holiness of Yahweh (in Isaiah 6) or meditate on the beloved disciple John falling down “as though dead” before the glory of God in his magnificent vision of God (Rev. 1:17).
I, for one, won’t be celebrating our pivot to online worship services but practicing lament as the body of Christ grieves a significant loss.
Jason A. Carter (Ph.D., The University of Edinburgh) is Lead Pastor of Trinity Wellsprings Church (Satellite Beach, FL), blogs at "Gospel-Centered Shepherding", and is the author of Inside the Whirlwind: The Book of Job through African Eyes.
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