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Online vs locally assembled church

There are a lot of discussions on the web on whether online church is a violation of Heb 10:25 or not, a forsaking of the assembly or not. I am of the persuasion that God’s concern is about worshipping in Spirit and truth rather than the location of worship (John 4:21). I think all the functions of the church like building each other up, praying for each other, laying hands on the sick, baptism in water can all happen with a combination of an interactive online church and meeting in smaller groups. One objection to this I have heard is that God’s presence is greater when more people gather together in one place for worship. Matt 18:20 and Acts 2:1 is cited as support. Is God’s presence lesser when there is not a “where” that two or three are gathered or when fewer people are gathered, assuming everyone’s desire is to keep Christ at the center? What are the thoughts of this community from scripture? Thank you!

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Hey @Lakshmismehta, I’m sure you’ve already given this some deep thought… My initial reaction to this type of question is that it is a misunderstanding of how to apply Scripture. Hebrews 10:25 was a warning to people who were forsaking fellowship; not advice for how to behave during a pandemic.

The reality is that Scripture does not address every situation we find ourselves in and when that occurs we have to go back to the two great commandments and use godly wisdom: how do we love God and love neighbor in this situation? And where Scripture is silent, we should not prescribe an answer as if it is the only right answer. We can give reasons for believing our approach is the best way to love God and neighbor, but we cannot use a proof text to show our answer is better.

Galatians 5:14 - For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Mark 12:30-31 - “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Regarding God’s presence, I think it is again an error to say “God is always more present when we are gathered”. I think that misses 2 points:

  1. God is always more interested in our heart than in religious ceremony / ritual
  2. God is a living God - He knows there is a pandemic - He can be present with us wherever we are at and however we are gathered.

Psalms 51:16-17 - You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.

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I have always felt that this verse is a little misleading. I know that church discipline is the context by isn’t Jesus with us if we are alone?
As too the idea of assembly I prefer a ‘church’ as opposed to a virtual setting but I must admit we do a zoom Sunday School lesson and I have come to enjoy it but given the choice I like bricks and mortar.

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I would say that on site services are the ideal - online services, while understandable in crisis conditions, are less than optimal.

Some of the church’s purposes could be handled online better than others, but all of them will face limitations to a degree. I could see a class growing in biblical understanding as the members all stream a Sunday School teacher’s lesson in their homes (assuming they’re all “computer literate” enough to do this - my mother certainly isn’t!) But a lot of service opportunities, such as singing in the choir, serving as an usher, working in the nursery, being a church greeter, etc. would seem to require a physical presence.

Could you “fellowship” with someone online? Well, to a degree - people who already know each other could spend time online together. But the spontaneous interactions that happen between people in passing, the new connections that seem to happen “by accident”, much of the “human touch” would seem to suffer some loss.

The question about whether God is more “with us” in a group is actually more understandable than at first might appear. God dwells in every believer. So the more that believers come together with all of their complementary strengths and weaknesses serving one another, the more we can see God at work strengthening us through the connections in His body; the more we can see love in action as we meet each others’ needs - Ephesians 4:16.

There’s nothing wrong with me praying alone. But when I pray with others and hear them speaking to God from their hearts, I learn things, I understand things, I feel things that I would have never experienced in isolation. Christians were never meant to be in isolation. The more connected we can be to one another, the more we all benefit from one another. And being in physical proximity opens up opportunities that virtual connections can’t always make available.

So, while I can understand the precautions being observed by temporarily having services online, I think most of us would recognize that it’s not how we really want to do church for the rest of our lives.

I hope these thoughts will help with this issue.

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I don’t know what to say…

For me, I feel God’s Spirit all the time, frequently throughout the day, even when I am by myself. I will put on praise and worship music and be brought to tears because of the Holy Spirit. I realize this might be a PoV that is concerning for some as some Christians are Cessationists.

Personally, I think meeting together in person is better. That does not mean that I think it needs to be that way every time. For example, our church met online today because it was raining out and we have had an outside services with masks and social distancing.

The most concerning thing about this though, is that, at least where I live, people do not take covid seriously. People put their masks under their chin until they get in proximity to other people. People are inconsistent with how they social distance and all that sort of thing. I am remiss to say, I think this just means that no one is perfect at following the “law” (in air quotes), meaning, people are not going to go along with something just because they are told to. I would even go so far as to say that is the Gospel truth!

Anyways, I believe God can work in many different ways. MANY different ways! We cannot put God in a box and say, “See here, this is how God works. I have found the answer.”

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We know that when 2 or more are together in His name, He is there. I feel on-line cuts short our together presence as a body. What I feel hurts even worse is not being able to join in communion together with other members of the church. I am finishing up my core module this week. I am a believer in the importance and sanctity of the church body of believers.

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Thanks to everyone for taking the time to answer the question with very helpful insights!

Thank you for this important reminder! I see much anxiety in church when this principle is overlooked. If we interpret ‘contextually’ rather than ‘literally’, we see that Heb 10:25 is silent on the issue of ‘in-person’ assembly. The thrust of the entire book of Hebrews to keep the faith fits your interpretation. Online churchgoers at this time of pandemic are not willfully forsaking christian fellowship and would actually prefer in-person assembly if they could. Even if only one of the possible interpretations is actually right, its only when we don’t do what we know we must, that our actions can be counted as sin (James 4:16).

This reasoning resonates with me! Ps 51 reference is helpful. I have had experiences of God guiding and answering prayers said over the phone though the experience of praying together in person may feel better.

Thank you for pointing out the context of Mat 18:20. I thought it applied both to church discipline and prayer. But I see your point! As God can be present even with one believer praying, the promise in Matt 18:20 seems to be about God’s approval when there is consensus among godly witnesses regarding discipline. This would give added protection to the erring member. I too cant wait for church to resume as usual! Though I think that online systems can fulfill the criteria of church with some creativity, it is only a temporary solution and in the long run can influence our habits unfavorably and promote misunderstandings.

Thanks for this insight on how frequent in person meetings can allow more of the working of the holy spirit. When we meet online, we may need to encourage more proactive measures to maintain those interactions which would naturally happen at church. I don’t know about the lost service opportunities. I wonder if the service opportunities can be re-defined to fulfill the needs of the temporary online meetings.

I think this is the reason for many opting to stay out of in-person church these days. On the other hand, if choice is removed we cannot have true worship. Thanks for the input!

I hear you! Even if someone were to participate in an online communion guided by a pastor that is simultaneously observed in many places, its just not the same! This is especially true for someone living alone.

Once again, so thankful for everyone’s input! As I have thought through this, the real danger of temporary online church seems to be about it becoming permanent in the minds of people and the loss of intimacy in fellowship. May God’s protection be on all our churches from Covid and from every scheme of the enemy against the church.

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Hello @Lakshmismehta, thank you for the question. It is definitely an important question to ponder especially during this pandemic time and the post pandemic season as well.

I personally think that it is always good to gather as believers to worship the Lord. As we read in Acts 2: 42-47, which is the model of the early church, the believers always gathered in one place to listen to the apostles and broke bread as well.

But as @SeanO said it is not an advice to be followed during the time of a pandemic.

I really appreciate this question because I think this might be a question for many believers during the post pandemic time. Since most of the believers are worshipping from their houses through internet currently, some may question if it is necessary to be physically present after the pandemic.

I think that if the circumstances allow, it is a must for the believers to gather. In this case John 4:21 does not apply.

Let me know what you think.

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Hello @Moses,

Appreciate the opportunity for clarification.

Absolutely! I agree 100%. The functions of the church can be performed much better in person than online under normal circumstances. At the time of the pandemic however, because safety of the congregation is a concern in larger gatherings, online or smaller size meetings with appropriate precautions help us remain faithful to the spirit of the law of believers assembling together, while keeping risks at bay. The work of the Lord must continue even at the time of the pandemic! If we see signs of spiritual decline and unmet needs because of online meetings, I think we must get out of our comfort zones and do whatever it takes to meet the needs of the church. Using John 4:21 as a cover for not being involved in church would be a misapplication.

I hope that clarifies my position.

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Yes it does. I appreciate your response. @Lakshmismehta

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Sometimes I think our thoughts about what the Church is may be incorrect, at least in part. Is there any place in Scripture where the Church is described as a physical location or a building? Is there a passage that encourages great sums of money to be spent on physical structures? Are mega churches better than small churches? Didn’t early Church members meet at each other’s homes?

In any case I think online worship is fine and may be all that is available to some in order to have corporate worship.

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@mgilliam, those are very good questions! Thank you for your reply. The meaning of church as a gathering of members of one body with the head as Christ and each one fulfilling their gifting for the edification of the whole body is something that can’t be lost whether we meet online, at a home or in a church building. If the larger meaning/purpose of a church is lost , then discussion on the value of online vs local meetings seems trivial.

Perhaps starting a new topic for discussion on what church is could be helpful to this community. I have been in all sizes of churches - thousands, hundreds and tens in number. Personally, I think its easier to know the people we worship within a smaller church and prefer it but I do think there is a place for bigger gatherings to handle larger tasks. Whether housechurches in the new testament are examples or commands and what flexibility is allowed in following the biblical pattern is something I am still trying to understand. In Acts 5:42, we see both small and large gatherings of believers.

Thanks for your encouragement and questions.

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