In our right desire to reach more people with the gospel, we have made faith relevant, accessible, and easy. I am not advocating for unnecessary barriers to getting people to church at all. The question I am raising is this “What is the True Church.” Can I sit at home and with a bag of Cheetos and pull up an “online campus” on Facebook and “have church?”
Most people say yes. I say no.
The problem comes down to how we define the church. Historically the church has been understood as comprised by three realities.
- The Gospel is Proclaimed. – Very little controversy here. Are we preaching the gospel of Christ or are we meeting to swap recipes and sell each other essential oils? As good as those things may be if we are not proclaiming the gospel of our sin and Christ sufficiency we may be a lot of things, but we are not being the church. This can be done over the internet very easily. The reason that we believe that online church is a viable way to live in community is that we have over personalized our faith and have reduced the church to gospel proclamation. Gospel proclamation can and should happen over the internet, but we must not believe that the transmission and the reception of the gospel message alone constitute a church.
- Where the Sacraments are given – This is where the idea of online church breaks down. You can not partake of communion by yourself, and you should not be baptized in private either. The sacraments of communion and baptism are communal graces for our good and God’s glory. This is something that can’t happen over the internet and shouldn’t happen in private. In most churches, the sacrament of communion doesn’t happen as often as it should. We must continually be reminded of what Christ has done and look forward in anticipation of the marriage supper of the lamb. This cannot be done over the computer and can not be done alone.
- When church discipline is administered Across all types of church and denominations of the church this aspect of the true church is most lacking. In wanting to not offend members and be sensitive to seekers we have lost this aspect of the church altogether. This is something that can’t be done over the Internet but must be done in the context of relationship. The goal of church discipline is not primarily to teach someone a lesson but to walk alongside them and continually apply the gospel to their hearts and minds until they see their need and Christs sufficiency.Are online church services helpful and convenient? Yes. Should we provide them as a way to temporarily connect those who are sick or away from their church family? Yes. Is online church, church? No. Can you love Jesus but not love his Church. Biblically speaking I don’t think you can. My encouragement to you is to find an imperfect local body of believers, get to know them and allow them to get to know you. You need to hear the gospel proclaimed weekly but you also need people in your life walking with you to loving apply the gospel to your heart. Find a church where you can commune spiritually and physically with local believers and hear the gospel proclaimed and applied. Love the church. Be the church.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Huxley painted a grim picture of what our world would look like not with, sadness, pain, discomfort or solitude. He showed us his picture of a world in which happiness was the greatest goal. The results were shocking and a bit more like modern American than even Huxley imagined was possible 80 years after his book was published.
In reading Brave New World I started thinking that we need to ask better questions. Did you have fun is a question that should be asked in church but only till kids are 3 or 4 after that we need to change the questions we ask because we are reinforcing the idea that fun and happiness are the highest good.
The idea of did you have fun in church is unfortunately not limited to Children’s ministry. The model of church where fun is practiced and happiness is the greatest good has so thoroughly saturated our culture that if we are not vigilant it will even take over our sacred spaces with its pervasive grip.
I am not a curmudgeon I don’t think that church should be joyless on the contrary it should be the most joy-filled place on the planet. The issues are when we make fun the vehicle that brings us to a place of ultimate happiness. In church, everything we do should be infused with fun and whimsy but it should not be the basis of what we do. Asking a 9-year-old if they had fun is missing the mark. You are catechizing your kids into a brave new world where fun is the means to our ultimate good being our own personal happiness.
It seems that every time we turn around there is another famous, semi-Christian famous, wanna-be-famous person sticking a skewer in the heart of Christian Orthodoxy. A couple of weeks ago the latest person to come out for the redefinition of Christian marriage was Eugene Peterson. He is also the latest person to come out and then affirm the Biblical view of marriage. I have grown to really respect Peterson over the years and I am not here to let Peterson have it. I think there was a lack of clarity in even his retraction yet I am comforted by his understanding of scripture and his years of faithful teaching. I do think this “Peterson” moment is instructive for us in a couple of ways. 1. You will be asked what you believe no matter who you are. 2. You will be asked to clarify why you believe what you believe.
Healthy things grow, is one of the things I used to say to describe something successful. I once thought that something must be healthy because it is experiencing some measure of success. I would see more families come to our church or see and organization flushing and would say: healthy things grow because of their growth I assumed a) they were a healthy organization b) their growth was a sign of God’s blessing. While this may be true in some cases overall assuming healthy things grow is not helpful at all. Here is why.
If you regularly attend church conferences you will no doubt hear the rallying cry for excellence in the church. In some ways this is a good thing. I am all for pastors working hard and doing all they can do to reach people with the greatest message ever told. Where excellence starts to kill the church is when we make our church a polished flawless exhibition that we invite people to be impressed by.
When the church takes its cue from the business world and perfects its processes so that it can extend its reach and solidify its brand we have lost our way.
When excellence drives us to be efficient with people so we can be innovative with problems we are no longer the church we are simply a 501c3.