With more churches offering worship services and sermons online, one pastor is making the case that actual attendance at a church is still critical.
Tim Stevens serves as a pastor at a growing megachurch that has four campuses, including an online one. And while he touts the reach of digital services, he wants to make it clear that "the church needs you" and "you need the church."
"If going to 'church' once a week was just about gaining what you need spiritually to make it through another week, then tuning in online would be just fine. You could get what you need on Christian radio, reading books, studying the Bible or watching your favorite TV preacher," Stevens, executive pastor of Granger Community Church, stated on his blog Wednesday.
"But the purpose of church is so much broader than that. It is about corporate worship, praying and studying the Bible together, serving one another and reaching out in mission together. This can't be done in isolation."
Stevens was forced to ponder about the role of the church and the significance of physical presence at one when a friend of his asked "Why go to a church service when you can watch online?"
The debate over online churches emerged in recent years as many megachurches began to broadcast their worship services live on the Internet. In addition to growing their flocks through multiple campuses, many expanded their following with a virtual crowd.
But that left some pastors questioning the effectiveness of online churches and whether they're biblical.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that allowing technology to serve as a substitute for participation in a local church is "dangerous."
"The fellowship of the saints is a vital means of grace for the disciple of Christ," he maintained in a recent commentary. "Believers need the accountability found only within the local church ... We need to confess our sins and declare forgiveness by the blood of Christ together. We need to be deployed for service in Christ's name together."
The mentality of many who "go to church" from their home and watch the worship team and pastor on a screen in isolation is that their presence doesn't matter, Stevens noted.
"Many times we think we won't be missed," he recognized. "I stay home and watch the service online, because in a church with 5,000 people, who will even notice that I'm not there?"
But such a mentality, he said, "is so short-sighted and inaccurate."
"You underestimate the significance of your presence when you think it doesn't matter. You undervalue the power of the Spirit of God residing within you when you believe staying home is just as good as showing up. You possibly miss what God wants to do through you and for you when you stay home," he highlighted.
The church – that is, the people of God – needs "your physical presence, words of encouragement, and acts of service," the Indiana pastor stressed.
"Your gifts, skills, ideas, service, leadership, resources, love – everything you have to offer – is a crucial part to a congregation thriving."
In the same way, "you need the 'church' more than you think you do."
"There is so much in Scripture about the relational aspects of the church – love one another, be devoted to one another, encourage one another, instruct one another, greet one another – and these can't be done as well in a virtual environment."
With all that said, Stevens does not downplay the significance of online church services.
Such digital services serve as a bridge for lonely, isolated people to eventually take a step into a community of faith, he noted. Additionally, online services reach people around the world, some of whom cannot participate in a church, and they also make it easier when trying to invite a friend to church.
Plus, you can stay connected to your church when away at college or on vacation, he added.