We are all hoping that the long pandemic is ending and that a return to 'normal church' will soon be possible. I pray it will be so. Yet I think this pandemic will have a lasting impact and one reason is the way that digital or online church has come to shape our beliefs and practices.
During the pandemic we've seen two different ways in which digital church has been used. One way has been as a means of holding together a local church while physical attendance was not possible. It's hard to be troubled by that. The other way, however, is more problematic. While many of us have taken the opportunity to engage in some harmless curiosity about what happens in other churches, others have found themselves becoming committed to one or more digital versions of 'Saint Elsewhere'. The result is what I call ecclesiastical polygamy.
The word 'polygamy' is deliberate. Churches are not simply associations or clubs but local expressions of the profound spiritual bonds between those whom Christ has made his brothers and sisters. In God, we are family and, as such, we are to take our family relationships seriously. The allusion to marriage here is appropriate because in a properly functioning church there are many aspects of the sort of covenant relationship that marriage typifies: a unity created through bonds of friendship, support and prayer. Yet for many people the pandemic has weakened their commitment to their local church so that, faced with other numerous online options, their loyalty now lies elsewhere.
This situation, where many who were once faithful to a single local church now find themselves with a divided church loyalty, troubles me greatly. All Christians should be deeply committed to attending a local church as far as is possible. Certainly, in the New Testament the church – an ecclesia, an 'assembly' or a 'gathering' – is assumed to be where God's heavenly people gather on earth. The very real and physical nature of such gatherings is echoed throughout the New Testament. Above all, it is to be found in that very physical (touch it, taste it) bread and wine. This emphasis on the material world in Christianity is hardly remarkable. After all, if God came to us in flesh and blood, then it's no surprise that our worship should be equally physical.
What must be emphasised is that, whether in the form of ecclesiastical polygamy or merely the digitally distanced attendance of a local church, the online world is an inadequate soil in which to grow a strong Christian life. Let me give my reasons.
First, digital church is restricted in depth. Although some online teaching may be profound, the fact that digital church lacks the personal and physical dimensions of real church, means that it's inevitably superficial. It encourages participation as spectators sitting in the stands rather than as players on the pitch. To observe an online service is unavoidably to be an outsider; you can never be anything more than someone staring in through a glass window on a warm family gathering. People can only ever watch an online church; they cannot, in any authentic sense, belong to it. For all the virtues of digital church in a time of crisis, to grow and thrive over a lifetime requires that the believer be rooted in substance not shadows. One of the seductive attractions of digital church is how it glosses over the challenges of authentic Christian fellowship: the awkward individuals, the crying babies, the not-so-good coffee! Yet we need to remind people that it is precisely these rough edges of reality that God uses to shape us into the people he wants.
Second, digital church is restricted in discipline. Discipline – training, education, guidance and even rebuke – is vital for growth. Yet precisely because discipline is often hard and uncomfortable it is something that we prefer to avoid. The problem with the virtual world is that it's easy to escape any sort of challenge and application. Made uncomfortable by the sermon? Just reach for the remote and fast-forward. It's typical of polygamy: when you are pressured and uncomfortable in one relationship, you simply leave and go to another one. But discipline is God's way of making us grow; to avoid it is to ask for a stunted Christian life. Another troubling aspect of ecclesiastical polygamy is the way that it encourages theological confusion. For two years, some people have been switching between Anglicans and Baptists, Arminians and Calvinists, charismatics and conservatives, frequently driven by flavour-of-the-month celebrity preachers to the extent that they now no longer know what they believe. We need to educate people through some structured diet of worship and teaching into a confident and consistent faith.
Finally, digital church is restricted in duration. Digital church is merely an experience, not an existence. A true church in the biblical sense involves an enduring involvement on the part of congregations and leaders for every day and in every way. Church is not just for Sunday, but for life. Many of those who have become devoted followers of some attractive or compelling preacher online need to be reminded that he or she isn't going to pray for them, share their joys and sorrows or visit them in hospital. The commitment-lite aspect of the online world that so many find attractive works both ways: when no one knows you are there, no one is going to notice when you get in trouble or when you are sick. We need to encourage people not just to be observers of church but in every way to be committed to doing church.
I view all the good resources online as add-ons. The local church is the 'Sunday roast' with all the accompaniments; online is just the gravy, redcurrant jelly and mint sauce! If you need a little more gravy, go online, but make sure you have had your 'Sunday roast' at your local church.
Whether Christians have been engaged in ecclesiastical polygamy or merely been tempted by it, we should encourage them to find their way back to their local church, to get involved, to stay committed, to serve and support. The word needs to go out: it's time to come home and stay home.