Virtual Church?

Can the Church Militant Carry Out Its Mission Online?

In the United States, many of us are now approaching a month of isolation—either mandated or self-imposed. For the church, this bears some particular difficulties.

A few churches have insisted on continuing in-person services, in particular on Easter Sunday.[1] Most have switched to some combination of pre-recorded services, live-streaming, and zoom gatherings. In Kentucky, a number of churches had been anticipating in-person gatherings for Easter, but changed their minds after meetings with state troopers.[2] Even drive-in services in that state have seen police presence, after reports that people weren’t staying in their cars. One church, in defiance of state regulations, held services anyway. When the congregants emerged, they found police had attached orders to self-isolate on their cars, and taken their license plate numbers. One county in California is under heat for prohibiting singing during recorded church services (to prevent the spread of infected droplets), unless the clergy or vocalists are recording from their homes.[3] The media reported gleefully on the COVID-19 death of a pastor who insisted on continuing in-person gatherings[4]; on the other side of the world, 60% of South Korea’s cases were linked to a single megachurch meeting.[5]

The COVID-19 pandemic truly represents some unique challenges for Christians, who are commanded in the Bible to continue to draw together—“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another . . . ” (Acts 10:24, ESV). The Body of Christ is kept whole through regular meeting, confession, exhortation, and celebration of the sacraments. These are very real reasons to desire to keep meeting. Communion is another reality. While some have adopted communion at home[6], others decry this as heresy. But alongside the commands to gather are also the commands to obey governing authorities, as in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” There are also the commands to protect the weak and honor the elderly.

These are times for careful introspection, careful prayer and consideration, and attention to how the commands of our Lord interact. I believe it is also a time for careful watchfulness. Historically, it is in times of crisis that we give up liberties for the sake of safety, liberties which are then not easily regained. Yet it is also a time for compassionate self-sacrifice for the sake of others, which includes limiting our own activities so that those most vulnerable to this disease can remain healthy.

A pastor friend recently expressed his concern that after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, the elderly in particular may not return to church—they may be too afraid of illness still. Others worry that people will be so accustomed to virtual services, they will forsake physical gathering. Why get up on Sunday morning when you can just watch church on TV from your couch, coffee in hand, wearing pajamas? Some I have spoken with consider these changes a good thing for the church, a wake-up call to the blessings that virtual spaces offer. It is indeed possible that many more may be reached right now, in this time of isolation, quiet, and a plethora of online church resources.

It is in times of struggle that the church is refined, and that it grows. Those who are committed to Christ will mature, and those who are on the fence may fall away. Some new believers may be reached.

This too shall pass, and when it does, certainly our churches will face new challenges and difficulties. A few new practices or patterns may emerge. The difficulty will come in emerging from this time of isolation, in recognizing when it is OK to safely resume physically meeting together, how to do so, and also in knowing what resources to keep available online for those who have difficulty gathering together every week or for those who may be afraid for a long time to come.

If we are wise about it and balance the desire to gather with the desire to protect our brethren, I believe our churches may emerge stronger from this time of solitude.


[1] Zeeshan Aleem, “Why some churches are holding in-person Easter services in defiance of federal guidelines,” VOX (April 12, 2020), available at https://www.vox.com/covid-19-coronavirus-us-response-trump/2020/4/12/21218126/why-some-churches-are-holding-in-person-easter-services-in-defiance-of-federal-guidelines.

[2] Sarah Ladd, “Easter churchgoers defiant after Kentucky troopers write down their license plate numbers,” Louisville Courier Journal (April 12, 2020), available at https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2020/04/12/kentucky-churches-hold-in-person-easter-services-despite-order/5127260002/.

[3] Caleb Parke, “California county's order criticized for limiting online worship: ‘No singing,’” Fox (April 15, 2020), available at https://www.foxnews.com/us/coronavirus-california-church-online-order-county-worship-limit.

[4] Neil Vigdor, “Pastor Who Defied Social Distancing Dies After Contracting Covid-19, Church Says,” New York Times (April 14, 2020), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/us/bishop-gerald-glenn-coronavirus.html.

[5] Dennis Normille, “Coronavirus cases have dropped sharply in South Korea. What’s the secret to its success?” Science (March 17, 2020), available at https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/coronavirus-cases-have-dropped-sharply-south-korea-whats-secret-its-success.

[6] Chuck Fieldman and Kimberly Fornek, “Remote Easter services, with homemade communion bread and virtual choirs, bring congregations together,” Chicago Tribune (April 14, 2020), available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/hinsdale/ct-dhd-online-easter-tl-0416-20200413-7aisrm7ouvcdbohhz4di4ju3q4-story.html.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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