The Live-stream and the Potential Death of the Church: Understanding the Importance of Our Intuitions
By Kevin McKay
The title is meant to be provocative, but I think there’s some truth in the statement. At the beginning of the COVID crisis many Christian leaders were fearlessly moving their church services online, saying, “A live-stream service will never become a substitute for the actual gathering.” Or, “Everybody knows that a live-stream is inferior to being there in person.” I’m not worried about a live-stream service becoming a superior experience to the gathering or a substitute. I’m worried about it changing our intuitions regarding the church.
Over the years we’ve had people visit our church curious as to why the body life seems to be so different and strong compared to their previous experience at a church with similar a statement of faith and philosophy of ministry. My first question for them is usually, “Do they have multiple services or sites?” That’s because church structures shape our intuitions about the church, and our intuitions are powerful. Before we dive into the power of our intuitions, it’s helpful and perhaps necessary to first touch on the biblical argument for physically gathering together as a church. If some of this is new, then you’ll likely have many objections. (Keep in mind that the idea of a second service, and especially an online service, is relatively new in history. It only came about in the 19th century under the influence of the technological advances of the industrial revolution, and when it comes to technology, we must remember that it’s never morally neutral). This won’t be an exhaustive argument. If you want more than a brief introduction here, then check out Jonathan Leeman’s book, “One Assembly.” It’s worth reading, because the argument has more to do with your walk with Christ than you probably realize. I’m just going to try and briefly scrape the surface of why the church actually, meaning physically, gathers.
The Importance of Assemblies Assembling
The church is fundamentally an assembly of people. That’s what the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means: assembly. In fact, the word for ekklesia in classical Greek was necessarily tied to a place for the people to gather, because the people gathered together to accomplish what they could only accomplish together in the assembly. There’s of course a sense in which the church is simply the people of God everywhere, but biblically speaking, there’s something unique going on when the church gathers. For example, it’s only when the church gathers together, (even if it’s as small as 2 or 3), that Jesus gives His authority to carry out church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20). Think of what happens when we take the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 Paul suggests that if we’re eating that same meal in our own homes, then we’re not actually eating the Lord’s Supper at that point. He argues in 10:14-17 that when we’re assembled together and eating that meal, the Spirit of Christ is actually joining us together and making us one body. The many become one (17). No doubt, that’s why Paul tells this same church to put out the immoral brother among them by withholding this meal from them when they assemble together. It’s not just the meal that matters. Physical touch, whether it be the holy greeting or the laying on of hands, was an important part of Christ’s power, presence, and authority in the church (Acts 13:3; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Tim. 4:14). Given these spiritual realities, and the fundamental necessity for assembling together in order to actually be an assembly with the spiritual authority of Christ, it’s not surprising that whenever we see the church mentioned in the book of Acts it says the people gathered, together, in one place (Acts 2:41).
To gather at separate times, or in separate places, is to have a non-gathered gathering. It doesn’t make sense. In fact, it changes the very nature of the thing itself, and therefore it
effects how we fundamentally view it and relate to it. In other words, redefining the church leads to reshaping the church. The spiritual implications are bigger than we
The Importance Of Our Intuitions
We do lots of things in life without thinking about it. Our intuitions about all sorts of areas of our lives are shaped by daily experiences we don’t bother to stop and examine. We just live them. It’s our culture, and culture is a powerful reality we can’t escape. But think about how we might describe our culture. It’s consumeristic. It’s heavily influenced by celebrities. It’s entertainment driven. We value high quality products, efficiency, and convenience. This is the environment we live in and the air we breathe. It’s no wonder that a multi-service, multi-site, live-streaming church makes sense in this environment. It’s intuitive. But think about the subtle cracks that just started forming in the foundation of the ekklesia. Suddenly, the assembly isn’t assembled. Church, in the proper sense never happened. Or, you could say, that multiple churches gathered. But either way, members get their church experience at different times, and maybe in different places. They don’t get to sing or pray or hear sermons with the ekklesia. The only experience “the church” enjoys is the building and the performance. Listen to how Jonathan Leeman expresses this subtle intuition on display in the life of the body.
“Church ends. We head to a restaurant. We bump into another member from the church and say, “Did you make it to church?” or “Wasn’t church great?” By “make it to church,” we don’t mean all the members, in spite of our theology, because members never actually met as one. We mean the people up front or the building. “Wasn’t church great,” too, means the people up front. The people up front are what we all shared. The membership (church) didn’t do anything together” (One Assembly, 31).
So when we redefine our understanding of church around the building, or the leaders who put on the service, you reshape the life of the people who consider themselves to be a part of that church. It’s all being built around the leaders or the experience. The work of the ministry is removed from people. The beauty of church is reduced to the quality of the product it produces.
Let’s examine this subtle change in our intuition and think about the phrase “church service.” That sounds like it can be unhelpful, because it can potentially suggest that the church has a product for me to consume. A service is being put on and offered. That’s a very natural mindset for us to operate in given our cultural environment. So staying home and viewing a live “service” suggests that I can get something, though perhaps inferior, but similar in kind to what an in person service would give me. That’s dangerously problematic. We’re called to gather out of love for God and one another. We prioritize our time and energy in such a way that it allows us to show up on Sunday, not as a spectator or consumer of worship, but as participants and providers of the church worship. The people on the platform might be leading the worship, but in reality it’s the whole congregation is doing the spiritual work of praying, singing, reading, and listening. Even in the preaching, the church is glorifying God together as we collectively shut our mouths to open our ears. We all have this ministry of presence as the body of Christ that speaks volumes to everyone in the room. It’s the participation of bowed heads, verbal amens, raised voices to God and one another in song, attentive faces, Bible pages turning, the visible assembly of many different types of people together again for the 500 hundredth time, and many more such things ALL inhabited by spiritual presence of Christ.
It’s the reality of Christ’s presence in the gathered assembly that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:25 when he says that the secrets of [the unbeliever’s] heart will be revealed, and as a result he will fall facedown and worship God, proclaiming, “God is really among you.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones testified to the Spirit’s power in the church gathering when a young woman from a spiritist background showed up at his church and said,
“The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat amongst the people, I was conscious of a supernatural power. I was conscious of the same sort of supernatural power as I was accustomed to in our spiritist meetings, but there was one big difference; I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.”
(Iain Murray, Messenger of Grace, 16)
Lloyd-Jones understood her conversion to have come through the unique experience of being in the gathered assembly of Christ’s people under His powerful presence. This is why Lloyd-Jones was even hesitant to let his sermons be recorded on audio. He believed the human voice, delivering the message, is very secondary to the presence of Christ in the gathering and no human means can reproduce that presence. So not only is gathering with God’s people superior to clicking on a live-stream of the service, but it’s something altogether different. I fear that to intuitively live with the notion that “online church” is doing something similar in the world, or even for the individual Christian, does more harm than people have yet been able to realize. Sadly, technology keeps advancing while our ecclesiology has been diminishing. I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to a live-stream. I realize that it’s helpful for maintaining the same schedule that the church keeps. A live picture of the preacher preaching is better than just the audio. However, we must weigh the costs against the benefits. Many churches find second and third services to be easier, cheaper, and more convenient than planting another church. The convenience of a live-stream will blind many Christians to the worthwhile effort of physically preparing and arriving at the church gathering. What are the costs that come with the inevitable spiritual atrophy of
bad church intuitions? Taking up your cross and following Jesus isn’t convenient and it isn’t about you. We want to fight that natural intuition of our flesh. We want to maintain a
love for God and His people that would prioritize gathering. If we allow ourselves to operate as a church with our natural inclinations to self when we come together as a church, then the life in the body will no doubt weaken, and so will the effectiveness of our mission.
Not many people hold to these once universally held biblical convictions regarding the assembly: however, I pray that more people will see the good in a commitment to physically gathering together. If not, I fear that multi-services, multi-sites, and live-streaming, might be death by a thousand services. In love for God and one another, let’s do all that we can to prioritize assembling ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25).
If you want to immediately think about this some more, then check out this recent interview between Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever.