Online Church Is Great, But It’s Not Enough

smart-phone-in-churchThe church needs to be more digital. For Small Churches especially, the digital world can level the playing field, giving us a broader reach and wider ministry.

We need more churches taking advantage of online services, podcasts, livestreaming, social media, blogging, you name it.

But church will never be digital. Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face. Digital reality cannot replace actual reality.

Yes, we should have online church. The speed, convenience and world-wide reach of the internet is a wonderful tool. The digital world is a great place to network about faith. I know. I do a lot of it. But networking isn’t church.

Church requires that flesh-and-blood people actually hang out in the same physical space together. It’s so important that I truly believe hanging out is holy. You may know it as fellowship.


Not the Post I Planned to Write

Today’s post ended up very differently than it started out. I had the post all mapped out in my head. Then I did something dangerous.

I thought and prayed about it for a while. 

My original title was, “What If the Church Was Invented Today?” It was sparked by a new commercial for the Nissan Leaf all-electric car. The ad was built around the question “What if the car was invented today?” The answer, not surprisingly, was that there’s no way we would be running our cars on fossil fuels. It would be a unimaginable as a computers having a gas tank. It ended with the tag line, “The question isn’t why electric?, it’s why gas?”

We need to ask those kinds of questions about how we do church. Questions like, “Why are we doing it this way?” don’t undermine the church, they’re essential for our future.

But, just like you can change some things in cars (gas to electric), there are some things you can’t change (having only two wheels) if you still want to call it a car instead of a motorcycle.

The same goes for the church. Some things must always be questioned and many things must change. But certain fundamentals can’t change if we still want to call it church.


The Church Is Analog

A digital church wouldn’t require the hassle of getting out of the house any more. We wouldn’t have to remember people’s names (something I’ve always been bad at), since we’d know them by their avatar. In fact, we wouldn’t need to interact with people at all.

This led me to ask myself a few essential questions like, “do I really believe that’s a good idea?” and, “is there any chance that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said ‘I will build my church’?”

The answer was a small yes – and a big NO.

The small yes was based on the reality that, of course a newly-born church would be more digital than it currently is. And the church of today needs to use technological tools far better than we currently do. Including the awesome online church opportunities offered by ministries like After all, you can’t go into all the world without using all the tools at our disposal.

But the big NO led me to an affirmation in the opposite direction.

The church isn’t digital. The church is analog.


Church Shouldn’t Be TOO Easy

Tom Peters is a major voice in business writing. He’s most well-known for the ground-breaking book In Search of ExcellenceThough a huge supporter of technological communication, he believes the digital world makes flesh-and-blood meetings more important, not less. He often advises business executives to “fly across the country for a five-minute meeting.”

I think the same advice applies to church. It matters that worship and fellowship intrudes on our schedule. Church should cost us something. Things that cost nothing, mean nothing.

Of course, there are too many churches that erect unnecessary roadblocks to worship. We’re far more guilty of making the church too exclusive than we are of making it too inclusive.

But the answer to that problem isn’t to swing the pendulum so far to the other side that we think watching a Chris Tomlin worship video on YouTube is an adequate substitute for worshiping Jesus in the physical presence of fellow believers.


Jesus Put Skin On – So Should We

Recent studies have shown that people who talk about doing things are less likely to actually do them because when we talk about it, we trick our minds into thinking we’ve actually done something about it.

The same goes for the internet. When we surf through a few church websites, watch a worship song on YouTube and comment on a Christian blog, we feel like we’ve done more church than we actually have.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, “I don’t go to church to worship Jesus. I go to church to worship Jesus with other people. Because I need to worship Jesus in the company of others. We all do.”

God became incarnate in Jesus, not because he didn’t have enough information about the human condition. Despite having infinitely more knowledge than the internet will ever pretend to have, God became human and “made his dwelling among us” because that’s how God became real to us. With a name, a face and a life lived among us.

If God needed to do that with us, we need to do that with each other.

Being in the same room matters. It’s where church becomes real.


So what do you think? How can we do digital better without losing the value of analog church?

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4 thoughts on “Online Church Is Great, But It’s Not Enough”

  1. Hi brother Karl,
    I do a lot of teaching and leadership training at Barclay College though the internet. I have coffee with students and leaders all over the world through Skype and WebEx nearly every week. When I think of “doing church” digitally the only thing I cannot recreate in the cyber world that is typically practiced in the brick -n- mortar establishment, is a hand shake and a hug. 🙂 Am I missing something? What say you? Blessings on your day!

    1. Hi, Adrian. Great question. What you’re doing sounds awesome. But to answer your question, there’s a lot that’s missing when we don’t have physical, face-to-face church, just like there’s a lot missing when two people who love each other can only meet over the internet.

      Physical proximity adds to the intimacy. Facial cues can be read, which expose emotions and needs that often stay hidden online. Just like the internet introduces us to people we can’t meet at home, being in the same room introduces us to people we wouldn’t seek out online. Without physical proximity we can’t anoint each other with oil, baptize new believers, lay hands on for prayer, share a home-cooked meal, meet the grandma who doesn’t own a computer… the list continues.

  2. One church I served as an intentional interim had a unique habit. Although the official start time was 9 a.m., people typically started showing up about 8:40 to visit. Although coffee and pastries were set out I’m sure that wasn’t the draw.

    One Sunday morning about 9:10 or so the worship leader approached me and said, “Isn’t it about time to start church?” I pointed out what was happening in the room and said, “I think it started about 30 minutes ago.”

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