What's Wrong With Virtual Church?

The importance of a physical gathering

Over a year ago, we moved all our church meetings onto Zoom. During the lockdown, it was that or nothing, and we have appreciated the way that this virtual experience has at least enabled us to stay connected.

Who can deny the convenience and efficiency of this way of meeting? You don’t have get the kids up and dressed, no need to put on make-up or shave. You can enjoy your coffee, even breakfast, while you watch, and save time by avoiding the commute. On top of that, it’s accessible. Some who are unable to attend or who’ve never attended a church before have tuned in, and we’ve seen spiritual fruit from it.

So what are we to make of virtual church? Should it continue when it is no longer required by Covid precautions?

God’s lovely dwelling place that our hearts long for and our flesh cries out for—that place is now found in Jesus.
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What is virtual?

We qualify this form of worship with the word “virtual.” That word has come to mean “occurring by means of a computer or the internet,” but that is a derived meaning, an extension of its more common definition. Until recently, the word “virtual” referred to something that was close to, but not fully, the real thing. In other words, “virtual” worship isn’t fully real—it’s “close but not quite.” So what are we missing? What isn’t real about our virtual worship?

In other words, something that is virtual isn’t the real thing—it’s “close but not quite.” So what isn’t real about what we are doing? What are we missing in our virtual worship?

Obviously, we are without real physical presence. And because we are embodied souls, physical presence matters. I think of the Good Morning America segment that set up a military family to visit their deployed husband and dad by video, but then surprised them when he appeared in person. The contrast between those two forms of “presence” was overwhelming.

Though we often think of worship as a purely spiritual activity, I want to trace a biblical theology of worship that connects worship to the physical realities of place.

How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Psalm 84:1-2

In the mind of the psalmist, the presence of the Lord that is central to true worship is associated with a particular place where God dwells, where sacrifices are brought and where atonement is accomplished. That place was the tabernacle and later the temple on Mount Zion.

Where is that meeting place of God and man for us as Christians? In Jesus Christ, God came in the flesh (not virtually!) to dwell, to tabernacle, among us (Jn 1:14).

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. John 2: 19, 21

Jesus Himself is now that place in which heaven intersects with earth; Jesus is now the place where God meets with human beings. He is Immanuel—God with us. No one comes to the Father except through Him. Shouldn’t we now read that Psalm with new eyes? God’s lovely dwelling place that our hearts long for and our flesh cries out for—that place is now found in Jesus.

The work of Jesus and the Spirit

But how do we enter this place of meeting with God? Before He ascended, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to make Himself present in this world. By the Spirit, Jesus comes to us.

We speak of “inviting Jesus into our hearts”—that’s not exactly how the Bible puts it, but that’s what happens. By the work of the Spirit, we are joined to Him. Christ comes to live in us personally (Eph 3:17; Gal 2:20). Paul speaks of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). And instead of inviting the nations to come to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, we now are sent out with the message of Jesus to the nations.

We can now meet with God through Jesus by the Spirit in any place.

That’s why this virtual worship can work as well as it does. There is no sacred place. The time has come when we “will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...” (Jn 4:21). But in the Spirit and truth that comes through Jesus Christ, we can now worship God in our living rooms.

[W]e are also born into a family, a new community, the body of Christ.
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The place where God meets with us is no longer in the temple in Jerusalem; it is in Jesus Christ. And we are united to Christ by the Spirit. But that work of the Spirit also has a corporate dimension.

The Spirit that unites us to Christ also unites us to one another in Christ’s body, the Church (Eph 5:23, 29; Col 1:18, 24). Paul writes, “we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Cor 12:13). That Spirit-baptism is displayed through the physical element of water, and that body becomes visible to the world when we gather physically as a church.

The church is a gathering

Gathering as a church is almost a redundancy, for that’s what the Greek word translated as “church” means—it is “a gathering, an assembly.” As Christians, we are born again individually, personally, when we turn in faith to Christ, but we are also born into a family, a new community, the body of Christ. And that body finds visible expression in the gathered assembly the Bible calls a “church.”

And though Paul can speak of our individual bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, he more often speaks of that corporate body, the church, as a temple. To the Ephesians, he writes:

“You [all—plural] are members of [God’s] household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you [all—plural] too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:19-22).

And again to the Corinthians: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? . . . God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17).

This temple is a corporate reality—together we are that dwelling place of God. The church, the gathered people of God coming together in the name of Jesus, becomes that place where God is found. Isn’t this what Jesus was referring to when He said, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt 18:20)?

When we as a church gather together for worship, we are not just individuals who happen to be in the same room, each pursuing his or her own communion with God. We become the body of Christ. And it is as church—as that gathered people of God—that we become a special place, a place in which an outsider might say, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:25). That reality can never be replicated in the virtual world of the internet.

[P]hysicality is significant in our worship of God together.
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What we experience in virtual worship is but a shadow of the real thing. The internet allows us to share two-dimensional images, voices and thoughts, at a distance. But we are not angels—that is, disembodied spirits; we are flesh and blood human beings. Bodily existence is essential to our humanity. The apostle Paul can speak of being with the Corinthians “in spirit” (1 Cor 5:3-4), but he longs to visit them in person, as he recognizes the inadequacy of that kind of presence (11:34). John ends both his second and third letters with this same thought: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 13-14). Virtual presence is close to, but not fully, the real thing.

Physical presence and its future fulfillment

We are three-dimensional, embodied souls, existing in finite space—and that physicality is significant in our worship of God together. Don’t we call it “corporate worship,” using a word that comes from the Latin corpus, which means "body" or "flesh"? Our bodies matter in our worship.

Don’t we bow our heads when we pray (and sometimes kneel)? Don’t we stand and sometimes clap and raise our hands when we sing? (At least some of us do.) And when we sing, don’t we need to hear each other’s voices?

I encounter God through the real life, bodily presence of other believers as we gather in a real place. And physical presence is visibly displayed and experienced when we use the physical elements of the Lord’s Supper—the bread and the cup—to enact tangibly both our communion with Christ and our fellowship with one another. We simply can’t get that same presence through a video screen.

But I need to make one more move. We’ve gone from Old Testament worship to the work of Christ, then to the union effected by the Spirit, and then to us gathering as a church. But the Bible tells us there’s more to come. For our gathering together as a church for worship—as precious as it is—is itself a pale reflection, a partial glimpse, of something far greater. We gather in anticipation of that heavenly assembly which the Lord will bring about in His time.

Our corporate worship now can only point us to that glorious future...
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Now there remains a great gulf between where God dwells in heaven our earthly existence. Our God makes a way for us to meet with Him, that’s true, and that meeting is real, but it is still only partial and provisional—might we even say “virtual.”

The present work of the Spirit uniting us to Christ and to one another is only a deposit, a down payment, of the glory that is still to come. What we experience now, even at its best, is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, just “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Our corporate worship now can only point us to that glorious future—when we will come fully and completely to the ultimate Mount Zion—to that heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, to the “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb 12:22). Isn’t that what we should be longing for?

I pray that our absence from each other during this pandemic will stir within us a longing for that greater gathering of God’s people when our feeble praise will find its full expression. In the meantime, let’s not settle for the virtual representation of what is itself a virtual experience. Virtual, internet worship can deceive us into thinking we are experiencing the real thing. Our God wants us together—in our flesh and blood bodies, for together we are his dwelling place on earth.

How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Psalm 84:1-2

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