What if you opened your newspaper one day and read the following headlines?
- Success: NHS moves local hospital online.
- Fire station shuts its doors, but services still running online.
- Doors of the police station closed, but police officers still available 24/7 online.
- Ministry of Defence moving 80% of armed forces online.
- London Transport to move all buses, trains, and the tube online.
- Good News: The Premier League will be re-starting online.
You’d scratch your head and conclude that people had lost hold of the reality that we are “in the body” (Heb 13:3). I think it’s fair to say that when evangelicals attempt to move the church “online” the same thing is going on.
When the government introduced the language of “gay marriage” and “marriage equality”, Christians reacted by saying: “that’s playing with words”. “Gay marriage” isn’t about equality; it’s about re-defining what marriage actually is, from a bodily union between a man and a woman, to an emotional “relationship” between two free-floating individuals who are “in love”. But when we talk of “online church” aren’t we playing the same game? It’s playing with words, re-defining “church” into something other than a gathering of people.
“But church isn’t like a fire-brigade”, you say. “it’s spiritual”. That, my friend, is border-line gnosticism, an ancient heresy that sees the body as bad and the spirit as good. There is an irreducible physical dimension to our humanity, and therefore to our salvation and to church. When hellfire moves online (Matt 10:28), when the resurrection of the dead is cancelled (Dan 12:2), when God decides to run a virtual Judgment Day (John 5:29), when the rotting corpse of Christ is discovered (1 Cor 15:42-49), or it turns out that the Word didn’t become flesh (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2-3), then we can think about taking the church online. If all we have to offer is a privatised, online salvation then, go ahead, let’s move the church online.
But the people of England don’t need an online salvation, any more than they need an online hospital, a virtual fire brigade, or an internet police force. They need a flesh and blood salvation, from a Saviour who suffered in the flesh (Rom 8:3), for our sins committed in the body (2 Cor 5:10), and who joins them to his body (1 Cor 12:13).
Can a hospital use online services for the good of its patients? Sure. Can a police force utilise the internet? Sure. This isn’t an anti-tech rant. I’m all for the church using the internet wisely. But let’s drop the Orwellian “Newspeak” of “online church”. Let’s not let our technology “reinvent” (i.e. butcher) the body of Christ. And let’s open our eyes and see what is and isn’t actually happening at the moment.
For unprecedented reasons, and for an unprecedented length of time, the church of Christ has not been able to gather. While we mustn’t take short-cuts, and will have to work our way through a lot of red-tape, our priority must be to assemble the people of God together in the flesh for worship. Our world needs an online church as much as it needs an online fire brigade.