The Church Irreplaceable

Why God’s People Must Gather

Remember way back in the day, in an era long since passed, when going to church was routine and expected and easy to take for granted? Are you struggling to remember? Well, I can’t fault you; 2019 does seem like forever ago. In case your memory is fuzzy, a global pandemic turned up — which is why most of us spent months of Sundays in sweatpants, attempting to sing melodies in tune and praying the sermon would stop buffering. And some of us are still there.

It all feels strange, especially for those of us who’ve had longstanding suspicions toward “Internet church.” The idea that we can replace the embodied assembling of God’s people with any pixelated stand-in makes us uneasy. This season has demanded a level of ecclesial adaptability that I, at least, hadn’t before envisioned.

“Zoom is wonderful, but it is not the second mediator between God and men.”

Has all the practical upheaval, then, caused me to reassess the value — indeed, the necessity — of in-person gatherings? Not at all. If anything, this season has made me more convinced that online “church” can never substitute for the real thing. Zoom is wonderful, but it is not the second mediator between God and men.

And I imagine I’m not alone in this judgment.

Often Gift, Never Replacement

As Christians, we should receive God’s gift of technology with gratitude. Yes, we should be circumspect about technology, but we should also be slow to discount its advantages and potential. Whether prerecorded videos or livestreamed services or small-group meetings over Zoom, these digital platforms make good things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. A prosthetic limb is generally better than no limb; likewise, digital forms of fellowship and worship are usually preferable to none at all.

But just as we should be slow to gripe about technology, we should also be slow to settle for it — particularly when it comes to church. Some things in life simply cannot be digitized, and this shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. After all, we serve a God who enfleshed himself in our midst (John 1:14). And Jesus’s flesh-and-bloodness was not simply added flair; it was essential to his redemptive mission. Unlike ancient Gnostics, we insist on bodily incarnation; unlike Muslims, we insist on bodily crucifixion; unlike Protestant liberals, we insist on bodily resurrection.

We do not worship a pixelated Savior, nor did he redeem us to be a pixelated people. Technology in the life of the church is often a gift. God just never intended it to be a replacement.

Where Two or Three Are Logged In?

It’s not uncommon to hear the reminder that the church is a people, not a place. And that’s true as far as it goes. Certainly it’s a needed corrective for those inclined to equate church with a building. But the handy dictum is not quite complete. The local church is not less than a people, true, but it is more: it is a people who gather together in a place. A church without any gathering place — that is, one that never assembles — is not a church. At least not according to Jesus.

No doubt, Matthew 18:20 is one of our Lord’s sweetest promises: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But notice, first, that the believers he’s talking about are physically together. They share, at least for this significant moment, a place. This gathering is not incidental, either; it shapes the identity of the gatherers. The gathering of the people, you could say, gives definition to the people of the gathering.

“We do not worship a pixelated Savior, nor did he redeem us to be a pixelated people.”

Moreover, in light of the preceding verses, Jesus is not discussing two or three believers swapping prayer requests at Starbucks. He’s envisioning a whole congregation, assembled to put someone out of their fellowship as the culminating act of church discipline (Matthew 18:17). And he promises those believers — the ones gathered to exercise the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 18:18) — that he will be with them.

This is remarkable. However unimpressive a gospel-believing church may appear to the world, Jesus authorizes its assembled members to speak and act in his name, with his insignia — to tend the boundaries of his church and declare on heaven’s behalf who belongs to him (Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:4).

Those One Anothers

Consider also the nature of the New Testament’s Epistles. They are not divine love letters to you, the individual Christian, nor are they penned to generic crowds of believers. Most are written to whole congregations who have covenanted together to help each other follow Jesus. So, there is a corporate assumption humming beneath each command we hear.

Much has been written about the Bible’s “one another” commands, and for good reason: there are nearly sixty of them permeating the pages of the New Testament. Consider these:

  • Love one another (John 13:35).
  • Welcome one another (Romans 15:7).
  • Care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25).
  • Agree with one another (2 Corinthians 13:11).
  • Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
  • Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32).
  • Teach one another (Colossians 3:16).
  • Do good to one another (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
  • Confess to one another (James 5:16).
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9).

Scanning this list in our technological age should spark gratitude in our hearts, for even in a time of isolation we can carry out aspects of these commands. It is possible, thank God, to love from a distance. And yet it’s nowhere near the same, is it? Two lovers who are parted by war and forced to write letters will not likely say, when peacetime arrives, “Let’s just keep writing to each other, shall we?”

Despite the blessings of a digital age, the Christian life — which is to say, the churched life — is undeniably diminished when we are apart. Obeying the “one another” commands from a distance is like writing letters in wartime. It may have to do for a while, but it is no substitute for the real thing.

Ministry of Attendance

Scripture’s expectation that believers physically gather is not arbitrary. It is designed for our spiritual survival. Hear the author of Hebrews:

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)

Listen carefully and you will hear an implied question after the phrase “love and good works” — the question how? How, practically, do we stir up one another to godly living? Answer: show up to church! The writer of Hebrews is convinced that the soaring subject of the whole chapter — the breathtaking glory of the gospel — is embodied and worked out in the rhythm of gatherings, week after week after week, of your church family.

One of my favorite responsibilities as an elder is conducting membership interviews. I always encourage the individual joining the church not to try to do everything, but to devote the first several months to just one ministry: the ministry of attendance. I explain, “The best way you can know and serve and love us, and we can know and serve and love you, is simply if you’re present when we gather.”

Why, though, do I call it the ministry of attendance and not just, say, the discipline of attendance? Because ministry is the right word for it! Look again at the verse: “. . . not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Hear the not-this-but-that structure? “Not neglecting to meet together, but” — what’s the alternative to staying home? — “encouraging one another.” Showing up to church is serving others; to gather is to encourage. How could it be otherwise? You cannot regularly encourage those you only sporadically see.

“Showing up to church is serving others; to gather is to encourage.”

Without the ministry of attendance, we cannot be known; if we are not known, we cannot be encouraged; if we are not encouraged, we will not endure. We gather, then, in order to mutually encourage, and we encourage in order to mutually endure. This summons has everything to do with making it to the end: “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).

Sanctified Intuitions

Intuitions change over time; they do with each passing generation. The unthinkable becomes possible, and after a while the possible becomes desirable. By no means is this process always bad. But to the degree our intuitions have been formed to think of church as a weekly product or event — a spiritual drive-thru service or edifying performance from a stage — we will be comfortable with digital versions. (For an insightful look at this dynamic, see the introduction to Jonathan Leeman’s book One Assembly.)

Let’s be honest: if church is fundamentally what happens up front, why not stick with sweatpants and Internet worship? But to the degree our intuitions are being formed and re-formed according to God’s word — to the degree we think of corporate worship as a family gathering — then tuning in from our living rooms will start to feel as dissatisfying as livestreaming family dinner.