Church today takes on many forms, from the traditional collection of members meeting regularly in a building to house churches that gather in a living room or even churches in coffee shops, restaurants or other public places. But can a church go online and still keep the biblical requirements for church?
Paul Alan Clifford from Trinity Digital Media talks about what it takes to properly put together an online campus in a recent episode of his Tech No Babel show. Watch it below and then see what the Bible requires for a group to claim the status of church listed after the video.
6 Requirements for Church
It’s an interesting idea and a traditional church pastor like me struggles with the idea. How can you do church without a building and a regularly Sunday morning worship serviced where people gather in one place to sing, pray and listen to preaching or teaching from the Bible? That’s not the list the Bible offers for the requirements for church.
There’s no one passage that neatly lists them, but here’s what I think the Bible says a church should look like.
Pastoral Leadership – Ephesians 4 talks about how God gave the church equipping gifts, including pastors and teachers. Without a pastor, we don’t have a church. Some churches lose their pastor, but they look for a replacement and often call an interim until they find one. An online church must have an equipping pastor.
Community – In Hebrews 10:25 we read that we should not forsake the assembling of the community. Can a group of people engage in community if they can’t see one another face-to-face? I have a group of friends that I’ve never met in person, but they’re still important to me. I’ve shared private prayer needs with them. I laugh when they tell jokes. I feel the pain of their struggles. We are friends and fellow believers. We share community. Why can’t people do that online for one another in a church?
Disciple-making – Jesus commanded all people to go and make disciples in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Any online church that’s not effectively teaching people to observe all that Jesus commanded them isn’t a church.
Evangelism – As a part of making disciples we’re told to “do the work of the evangelist” in 2 Timothy 4:5 meaning we as believers must share the Gospel with others. Without evangelism you don’t have church.
Ministering – Some people call this service or care-giving. Whatever you call it, its loving others and meeting their needs. The early church appointed deacons for this purpose. Without people sharing and meeting the needs of others, you don’t have a church. Deacons organize this, but everyone’s responsible to minister to the other members of the church and their community outside the church. This, more than possibly anything else, grew the local Jerusalem church in the early days of its history in Acts.
Worship – This seems like the easiest one to fulfill online. After all most online churches stream “worship services” to their online community. Are the viewers really worshipping? Viewing a stream seems quite passive. If the online participants worship, then they can claim to have a church. If not, then it’s not. I’ve watched streamed worship services and it feels like watching a TV program, not actively participating in a church. It seems like the easiest element to fulfill, but might be the hardest.
As I look over the list above, one thing stands out; many churches fail to measure up to the Biblical requirements of church whether online or offline. How many churches fail to make disciples, effectively share the Gospel, never really meet needs and don’t sincerely worship. Instead they’re performing a series of habitual activities that resemble worship but without any power?
If a congregation doesn’t include these six things, then it’s not a church. If it does, then who cares whether all the people meet in the same building or online.
How to Do Online Church
As Paul Alan Clifford says in the episode of Tech No Babel posted above, a dedicated pastor can help the online campus achieve the status of church. That’s not possible for some churches. Adding new staff for this group may not make sense financially. However, they could add the duties to someone already on staff. This only works if the person prioritizes the online members. Their needs can’t tumble to the bottom of the to-do list every day.
Getting a volunteer whose mature and needs some experience is a better solution for an online church pastor. Maybe a church has a person whose got the gifts and skills to become an effective pastor, but not the training or theological education. Here’s a great way to let them learn on the job as an apprentice of the church’s pastor. Serve as the online pastor and meet the needs of the online attendees by calling on the online members through digital means. Pray for them and even teach them through a YouTube channel or video chat.
Second, setup a way for these members to enjoy community. Use Google Hangouts or Skype. Find some way for them to get together regularly for online fellowship, prayer and even group Bible study online. If possible, schedule some in-person time for those living close to one another.
Finally, encourage them to minister to people’s online needs for the sake of the kingdom. Tech savvy members can volunteer to help people with tech needs. This is the digital version of raking leaves for a senior citizen. In the process they’re sharing the love of Christ in a tangible way. They can also share prayer needs in a private moderated online forum of some kind like a Facebook Group or a Google Community on Google+.
Who Should Attend Online Church
Despite all we’ve said, I don’t think its a good idea for a person to make an online church their exclusive church. People need a hug sometimes. So who should attend one of these online churches? Here’s a few. Add your own to comments below.
Shut-ins – train them to use the tools and even get them a computer or tablet to make it possible.
Temporary attendees – people away at college, in the hospital for an extended time, or shut-in temporarily make great candidates for an online campus.
Potential members – someone might want to get involved with a church, but they don’t want to commit yet. They could find the church’s website and get involved in a non-threatening way. This person may be extremely shy and threatened by interaction with people they don’t know.
Inmates – Paul had a great ministry to people in prison since he found himself in one a few times. A church could do the same digitally.
Sunday workers – many people work on Sundays and can’t attend our services. Get them involved online so they can still grow until their job changes.
Dr. Kevin Purcell is pastor of High Peak Baptist Church, an author and writer at Church Tech Today (www.churchtechtoday.com). He used to write for a number of other Christian and secular technology and mobile tech sites. Now he's one of the hosts of the Theotek Podcast, which you can find by checking the menu above or over at www.facebook.com/theotekpodcast.