By Ps Lim Wei-en
It has been over 6 months since we last gathered physically for our regular worship services because of COVID-19 restrictions (we last did so on the weekend of 14/15 March). Since then, the church has “gone online” by way of online worship services, Zoom meetings, and the sharing of various church life matters through social media.
In recent weeks, due to a relaxation of the restrictions, a good number of us have been able to return to CBC for physical Holy Communion services. However, for majority of our regular worshippers, “church” remains an online experience, and will continue to be for a while yet.
How are we to think about the church in these times, especially in terms of the online experience? Let us explore this by asking three questions.
What have been the benefits of the church online experience?
The most obvious benefit of the church going online is that worshippers have been able to participate in the weekly worship services while keeping safe at home. Most CARE Groups also remained connected with one another, having migrated smoothly to meeting over online platforms. Likewise, various ministries (e.g. KFC, Teenacity, BCTI) have been able to reach their target segments of the church through their online courses or activities.
Another benefit is that the time saved from not needing to commute to a physical site has been directed to increased time spent with one another. Some CGs report being able to spend unhurried time doing a thorough Bible Study, as well as sharing their lives and praying with one another online, where previously they were unable to do so.
A third benefit is that the accessibility of these online platforms has invited participation in our church activities from a broader range of people. Over the past months, we have received seekers at our weekly online worship services as well as our online Alpha Course, some of whom are based overseas.
What have been the limitations the church online experience?
One limitation has been the lack of meaningful participation in the worship services. Many worshippers who view the services online have shared that this is all they have been doing – viewing the services. Without the presence of other believers in a physical, gathered setting, Sunday worship could well become a passive and private affair. Further, the omission of the Holy Communion as a segment of the online worship service (given our church’s practice of administering the Lord’s Supper only at physical, onsite services) has contributed to the passivity of the online worship experience.
Another limitation of doing church online is that over time, without any accompanying physical meetings, fellowship can become a very subdued affair. Indeed, some have testified to feeling more and more disconnected with others, despite regular participation in online church activities. God has made us embodied beings with a need for physical touch, and a propensity to be encouraged through face to face meetings (c.f. 2 John 12). Therefore, as beneficial as it is to read the Word, share our lives and pray with others online, practising these corporate disciplines in person is still something worth striving for.
A third and clear limitation of the church going online is that it has unintentionally excluded those who are either not technologically adept or who do not have the means or desire to connect with others online. For these ones, this season has felt like a time of exile, not unlike the experience of exiled Israel being unable to worship physically in Jerusalem (c.f. Psalm 137).
So what does this mean for us as a church, moving forward?
Given that it will take some time before the church can gather, as we once freely did, for onsite worship services, and given that we are living in a digital age where most people are now familiar with online platforms as a means to connect with each other, it seems the church will continue to maintain an online presence for the foreseeable future. The recent successful run of the Alpha Course online, through which several seekers came to know the Lord, has also shown us that we should not ignore opportunities for outreach and discipleship afforded by online platforms.
However, given the limitations of the church online experience as stated above, and the danger that virtual attendance can easily foster a consumer mentality (where we consume services for private benefit rather than participate in them for the building up of others), we should look forward to being part of the physically gathered church once again. The church online should exist to enhance, not replace the physical church. Online gatherings should supplement life-to-life physical gatherings, not be a substitute for it.
May God give us the wisdom to know how to use online platforms effectively for the building of his church, along with an increased yearning for gathered corporate worship and face to face communion with one another.