In homes across the country, individuals and families are gathering around the TV on Sunday mornings for the semblance of a worship service. In what has become the new normal—at least for the time being—Christians have postponed meeting together for the safety of the church and the surrounding community. However, in an attempt to continue to shepherd their flocks, pastors have streamed a version of their churches' Sunday morning services online, which can be viewed at the normal service times to continue a sense of normality. While these online services provide numerous benefits (teaching pastors can edify churches, worship pastors can lead in songs of praise, the lost have opportunities to hear the message of the gospel in their own homes) and technology should be leveraged for the advancement of the gospel, churches must be careful to avoid the promotion of an attitude towards church that is inherently self-centered.
Virtual worship through song is perhaps the most dangerous element of “virtual church.” While this part of the virtual worship service has potential to elicit pockets of Christian worship throughout the community as families sing together, united technologically to the rest of their faith family, it also has potential to reinforce the idea that worship though song is merely a concert we enjoy rather than a time of praise in which we participate.
At a time in which millions of songs are available to us through the internet, we are used to consuming music as a matter of taste and preference; however, that is not how we are to approach worship through song. Ephesians 5:19 commands each one of us as believers to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (ESV). Notice the focus of worship. Notice that we are not commanded to have an experience that makes us feel good. Notice that we are not commanded to enjoy a show. Instead, we are commanded to sing songs of worship to build one another up and to glorify the Lord.
When you and I sing to the Lord with full conviction of the truthfulness of the lyrics, praising Him for His goodness, His power, and His love, we encourage other believers with reminders of the character of God and the work He has done in our lives. Moreover, we communicate the message of the gospel and evidence of its life-changing power to unbelievers in our midst. Worship is meant to be an overflow of our understanding of how good God really is, how deep and how long and how wide is the love with which He loves us, to the point when we are so overwhelmed by the infinite, eternal, unchanging nature of God that we cannot help but praise Him through song.
But with virtual worship through song, so many believers across the country are merely enjoying these songs of praise as consumers. In fact, many believers approached this portion of the worship service with an attitude of self-centeredness long before the services went online. Online services, then, are in danger of normalizing this consumeristic behavior, allowing believers to think that the most important part of the songs they sing is how the music makes them feel.
Technology has allowed the exhortation of God’s Word to spread further and faster than at any other point in human history. During this time of quarantine, pastors have been able to continue to teach the churches they serve from Scripture without missing a beat. With a vast library of accessible online sermons, however, it is easy for people to make the process of worship through the Word all about themselves.
Pastors bear the responsibility of expositing Scripture so that the entire body can grow in their understanding of God and their conformity to His will for their lives. While it is important that you as an individual grow in each of those areas, God has equipped pastors for the purpose of advancing the entire faith family in those areas. Sermons are, hopefully, not designed for you individually, but for your church corporately. As individuals listening to the messages, we are to understand and apply the Scripture being discussed to our lives, and to help each other better understand and apply the Scripture. But in our culture, we often ignore the corporate aspect of preaching, asking of Sunday sermons, “What should I get out of this message?” rather than asking, “What should we get out of it?”
There is nothing wrong with watching sermons from your favorite preachers for personal edification; however, the sermons you watch should not replace the weekly exhortation from a pastor at your church, nor should your approach to receiving the sermons be the same. We can use godly preaching from pastors across the globe to help us grow in our walk with the Lord, but we must utilize the Sunday sermons from a pastor at our home church to help our church body to grow collectively into the image of Jesus. Online services are in danger of making the process of receiving sermons from a pastor at our church no different than receiving sermons from any other preacher we may like, furthering consumeristic attitudes.
Church is not and never has been about us as individuals. It’s not about what we can get out of a Sunday morning service. It’s not about a personal experience. There is not a single aspect of a Sunday morning worship service that should be about you and me. It is all for the benefit of the church as a whole and for the glory of God—singing praises to God together, with which we also remind each other of the character of God and of what He has done for us as believers, and being exhorted as a church body to apply Scripture in a way that will help us to collectively grow in unity, Christlikeness, and evangelistic fervor. While conducting church online may be necessary for a time and posting church services online can broaden the reach of the church into the community and around the world, churches must be careful not to feed the individualistic tendencies with which we can approach church services. Whether through disclaimers, adequate teaching, or a reinvention of how we conduct church online, Christians cannot be allowed to continue to believe worship is all about them. The danger of “virtual church” is the proliferation of an individualism that already existed within the church. With the world slowly returning to a version of what once was normal, now is the time to remember as believers that we are to look out for one another, serve one another, comfort one another, teach one another, and to ultimately grow with one another, eagerly awaiting the day of Christ's return.