John Wesley and Online Church
Cards on the table. I lead a church that has held online services for the past five years. During that time, there is barely a theological objection to online church that I have not had thrust in my face by its critics, so I have become rather used to ignoring them. However, there really
some serious questions raised by online church which I believe we need to grapple with together in this coronavirus season. My friend Matt Hosier argues that “To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.” So do we believe that, or do we not? If we believe it, then we need to be very careful over what terminology we use during this strange season for fear of changing our theology of church on the fly. The triumph of pragmatism over inner doubt has rarely been good news throughout Church History, which is one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul warns us in Romans 14:23 that “The person who doubts is condemned by his actions, because … everything that does not come from faith is sin.” On the other hand, if we truly believe that online church can be genuine church, then we can see this as one of the most important lessons that God is wanting to teach us about the nature of church during this coronavirus crisis.
In the early days of leading online church services, I was like a travelling salesman for Online Church, quick to trumpet its advantages and slow to admit any of its flaws. But its flaws are real.
Flaw #1 is that we are embodied people. Genuine relationships require genuine physical interaction. That’s why we find ourselves missing our loved ones, even at the very moment that we are Skyping and FaceTiming with them! It doesn’t matter how much we remind ourselves that our technology is wonderful – we still know that a certain something is lacking in our interactions with one another!
Flaw #2 is that the Christian sacraments are physical. When the Reformers broke away from the mainstream Church during the Reformation, they agreed on a definition of what Church is, and what it isn’t. The seventh article of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 defined the true Church as any place where “the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” But how can we baptise people online? How can we share bread and wine with one another online? These are the kinds of questions that church leaders need to ask urgently right now, because if we haven’t got an answer to those questions then we haven’t got church at all.
Flaw #3 is that Online Church can foster inauthenticity and a lack of accountability. Christian fellowship, by definition, requires transparency. We are told in 1 John 1:7 that it is all about walking in the light with one another. It’s far too easy to attend Online Church as a Christian Catfish, pretending that you are a follower of Jesus while keeping the reality of your lifestyle far from view. The past five years of Online Church have really brought home to me why the twenty-ninth article of the Belgic Confession of 1561 added an extra stipulation to the Augsburg Confession. “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instated by Christ; and if church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin … then the true Church may certainly be recognised.”
If you are one of the many people who have challenged me over the years that Everyday Church Online isn’t really church, then it might come as a bit of a surprise to you that I’m admitting its three biggest flaws at the very moment when the worldwide Church is experiencing its online revolution. But let me continue, because I believe that Online Church really can be Church. I’m convinced that church leaders who think carefully can lead the kind of Online Church that truly pleases God.
1) Online Church can be real Church because we are spiritual people. Let me put it this way: If a person in your small group told you that they went online and engaged in a pagan worship service during which they bowed down to an idol, wouldn’t you want to challenge them in the strongest terms never to do so again? Of course you would. Then why should you doubt that worshipping God online is any less real? Idolatry online is as real as idolatry in person, flirting online is as real as flirting in person, and worshipping God online is as real as worshipping God in a church building. Jesus taught that true worship is much more about our spirits than about our geography: “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).
Ah, but some people respond, it’s all very well connecting up with God through an online worship service but what about connecting in with one another? How can we worship God together when we are merely meeting online? Well, let me ask you: what does Paul means when he tells the church at Colossae: “Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit” (Colossians 2:5)? What does he mean when he assures the church at Corinth that “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit … when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)? If Paul insists that his absence from a church building does not prevent him from participating in a worship service through the Holy Spirit – even without the aid of the internet! – then why should we? Besides, those who argue most strongly that Online Church lacks community seem to me to have a rose-tinted view of what happens each Sunday at our bricks-and-mortar venues. It is definitely possible to attend Online Church without embracing community, but so is it possible to attend a bricks-and-mortar building without embracing community by arriving late and scuttling off during the final song.
2) Online Church can be real Church because the sacraments can still be rightly administered. It may require a little bit of thinking to navigate this new world order, just as it did for the writers of the Augsburg and Belgic Confessions during the Reformation, but it’s not actually too hard to be creative. When a lady gave her life to Jesus through one of our services at Everyday Church Online, we flew her over to London from Germany so that we could baptise her in water and broadcast the event online. Last Sunday, I preached on the meaning of communion and invited people to eat bread and drink together at all of our online services. Communion can become routine and functional at our physical church services, so I found the online experience quite refreshing. I believe that the experience of Online Church is actually helping us to appreciate the physicality of communion in fresh ways.
We are discovering something that previous generations have known instinctively – that some people either cannot or simply will not step across the threshold of a church building. For centuries, church leaders have visited the infirm and the housebound to administer the bread and wine to them in their own homes. Online Church goes a step further. It reaches people who might not even receive a visit. When I think of the men from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have messaged the team at Everyday Church Online to tell us that they have given their lives to Jesus and to ask for advice on how to follow him, I am grateful for Online Church. When I think of all the Muslims and atheists and spiritual wanderers who have surfed their way into one of our services, I am grateful for Online Church – and I believe that Jesus is too. After all, he gets excited in Matthew 8:5-13 when he finds a Roman centurion who has faith that his prayers will heal a servant several miles away without his needing to travel there in person. I believe that Jesus is excited about this present revolutionary moment in Church History too!
3) Online Church is real Church because it can foster greater openness with one another. Although it is easy to pretend online, we all know how easy it is to pretend in our face-to-face interactions with one another on a Sunday. One of the great surprises of the internet era has been people’s willingness to start up conversations with strangers and to reveal their deepest thoughts to one another online. People who walk the other way when they see their neighbour in the supermarket feel no such social hangs-ups when they are online. People who refuse to engage with the prayer team at a bricks-and-mortar church service are willing to open up without inhibition to the prayer team at Online Church. If you don’t think the truth about people comes out on the internet, then you haven’t been reading enough blog comments. There is a reason why they were eventually switched off on Think Theology!
This is not the time for pragmatism, but nor is it the time to be purists, patting ourselves on the back for spotting the flaws of Online Church without spotting its amazing opportunity. I believe that this is one of the things that God wants to teach his Church throughout this strange and disorientating coronavirus crisis. I believe that we are living through a moment that is akin to one when George Whitefield and John Wesley discovered the enormous power of open-air preaching to take the Church into the streets and fields of eighteenth-century Britain. John Wesley confessed later that “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church”, but he soon came to the same conclusion as George Whitefield: “Blessed be God! I have now broken the ice! I believe I was never more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. Some may censure me, but if I thus pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.”
Blessed be God. He has broken the ice for us too. I believe that we will look back on these weeks as the revolutionary moment in which the Western Church became Online Church. People who were used to gathering together freely in person were prevented from doing so, and in that moment they discovered a whole world outside their walls that was waiting for them to step outside.
I believe that the Saviour who told his followers to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel” (Mark 16:15) is overjoyed with what is happening with his Church around the world today. Because the internet is no longer a den of robbers, a safe haven for gamblers and porn addicts and binge-watchers of boxsets. Instead, it has become a house of prayer for all nations.
The John Wesley and George Whitefield quotes in this blog can be found in John Wesley’s Journal (31st March, 1739) and in George Whitefield’s Journal (17th February, 1739).