Faith

Watching Church Online: The Next Best Thing to Being There?

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Is attending church online via a live stream the same thing as attending in person? The answer depends on whom you ask and what you’re looking for.

Technology has revolutionized nearly every endeavor these days, including giving worshippers the chance to watch church online.

But is attending a service via the internet really attending a service?

A 2017 article in Relevant carries the headline, “Why Can’t I Just Go to Church Online?” followed by the subhead, “Attending a physical church still matters.” I bet I know where this is going!

The article points out the many resources one can find online with respect to faith and religion. We can watch sermons from some of the world’s best-known ministers. You can listen to nearly any worship songs we like. We can download and read multiple translations of the Bible and a seemingly endless list of discussions about Biblical concepts.

Even the most traditional churches have adopted technology to allow their members and visitors to donate or tithe online. And they’ve added pages on social media to further attract visitors.

There are quite a few churches these days that also live-stream their services.

An article on Christian Post, also written in 2017, quotes a professor of Pastoral Ministries at the Dallas Theological Seminary. He insisted watching church online is not what church is supposed to be:

This shouldn’t be your normative experience of church or Sunday worship. You should be here.

So if online attendance is so bad, why would any church live-stream their service? If the option is so terrible, why would a church possibly make that option possible to begin with?

There are some who can only attend church online.

There are church members who are elderly, infirm, or disabled who may otherwise not be able to share a worship experience at all.

Others have limited transportation options that may prevent them from attending.

Some may work during worship services but can at least view the service while at their job.

There may be other valid reasons that could keep someone from attending an actual church service in person.

Making online services available for these folks does, of course, make it available for people without such limitations. But is that really the end of the world?

I ran into a problem when I tried to attend a service in person.

A friend invited me to a church service and I must say I made every effort to go. I left home with time to spare. Unfortunately, when I stopped by Starbucks for a cup of coffee on the way, I realized I’d forgotten my wallet.

I apologized to the barista, rushed back home for my wallet and hit the road again. 

This is a small but historic church in downtown Charleston. If you know anything about downtown Charleston, you know there are plenty of historic buildings there.

What there is not plenty of, however, is parking places. In the area of this church, there is dense housing and a nearby park. There were no parking spaces available on the street and the parking lot at the park was likewise full. 

The only empty spaces anywhere nearby were at businesses that had signs that warn towing is enforced 24 hours a day. Someone at the church told me it’s okay to park there since it’s Sunday morning and the business isn’t open.

But 24-hour enforcement, to me, means 24-hour enforcement. If the person who invited me turns out to be wrong, I’ll be out $300 to get my car back.

Sorry, that’s not happening.

I know some people who would immediately claim “spiritual warfare.” They might insist that it wasn’t a parking problem. To them, it’s Satan himself trying to keep me from attending the service.

I don’t know what to say to people like that. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe on some level that spiritual warfare exists. But I don’t think Satan cares enough to take up parking so I’d miss a church service. Particularly when the online option is there. (If Satan was really out to get me, wouldn’t he have caused an internet outage and the parking shortage?)

Fellowship is important…but it’s not always present.

I’ve attended a different church in the Charleston area that has multiple “campuses.” If you attend any location other than the “headquarters” church, you’ll end up watching a live video feed of the main pastor played back on a big screen.

The nearest “campus” of this church is not the main location. It features live worship music — that’s entirely too loud — performed by a band at the satellite location. But the sermon then plays live on the big screens for us to watch.

I’ve attended the main location as well.

The “fellowship” only really exists in the form of having fellow worshippers sitting around you. The only real interaction you get with these well-meaning folks is usually after the second or third worship song. That’s when the singer orders everyone to greet some random number of people around them with some generic affirmation.

Other than that, there’s so little interaction with each other that you might as well be watching online. You get just about the same experience.

Is watching church online ideal?

I don’t know that anyone actually has said it is. But what a growing number of people seem to say is it works for them.

Maybe that should speak to churches about how they treat people who walk in the door. It might suggest that something’s missing in that in-person visit.

There are some people who can’t or won’t make it to a church in person. Their reasons are their business. But I can’t help thinking that the online option is better than missing church altogether.

Have you ever attended a church service by watching online? Did you feel you missed out on anything?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.