Meeting digitally as believers? - Food for thought on a current topic

Ernst-August Bremicker

Digitization is not just a trend in Corona times. However, the topic is socially fuelled by the spread of the virus. In many areas of daily life - especially in professional life - many people are often confronted with it. In more and more companies, face-to-face meetings are being supplemented or even completely replaced by online meetings. Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Teams or other programmes make it relatively easy for us.

Lessons, training courses, meetings and conferences are also increasingly taking place digitally. Virtual meetings make location-independent working, learning and communicating easier. The less you have to move from one place to another the better, it seems.

As is so often the case, social trends do not stop at the doors of Christian assemblies. Therefore, questions arise, some of which we will explore in this article. Against the background of Covid-19, the questions become even more emotive and urgent, especially if the previously known freedom of assembly is restricted. The answers are not presented in a dogmatic way, but in the form of some impulses for thought and reflection, which - I hope - will be given on a biblical basis and should stimulate further reflection.

Two things are clear:

a) The Bible is not a paragraph book that gives us a direct answer to every question in our life.

b) The topic of digitality did not play a role when the Bible was written. We will therefore not find the word itself and other relevant catchwords in the Bible.

Nevertheless, the Word of God gives us principles and fundamentals that are above social trends and are valid regardless of time. We just need to apply them to our respective times and conditions with wisdom and due caution. That is exactly what aim to achieve by answering four questions, the relevance of which is obvious:

  • Question 1: Can and should we as Christians use digital media to spread biblical truth?
  • Question 2: Can we come together digitally in the name of the Lord or is physical presence required?
  • Question 3: Is it possible (or even useful) for brethren to follow a local assembly meeting online from home?
  • Question 4: What options do we have at a time when the meetings are temporarily not possible due to external circumstances (e.g. a pandemic)?

 

Question 1: Can and should we as Christians use digital media to spread biblical truth?

I would like to answer this question upfront with “yes”, although it should be clear that there are always advantages and disadvantages. I am aware of the “risks and side effects” and they should definitely be taken into account.

Sometimes a statement from 1 Corinthians 2 is used as an argument against the use of digital media. Paul writes: “But we did not receive the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God in order to know the things which are given to us by God; which we also preach, not in words, taught by human wisdom, but in words, taught by the Spirit, communicating spiritual things by spiritual means” (v. 12:13). The verse from Ecclesiastes 10.1 is also sometimes quoted in this context: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour."

One must remember that 1 Corinthians 2 is about the inspired word of God and that "we" in the primary meaning  are the apostles who spoke and wrote down God's words under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, one could use this argument to prevent any kind of spreading of the truth that goes beyond direct oral preaching, because there was hardly any other means at the time of the first Christians (such as a Christian magazine).

The dissemination of biblical truth in a virtual way is in itself not a “dead fly” nor a “new cart” (2 Sam. 6,3). It depends on how the media are used and whether those who use them are guided by the Holy Spirit. This is true for the gospel as well as for the teaching of believers. Until recently, digital distribution (websites) of manuscripts or audio recordings of lectures and conferences were the main content. More recently, options such as podcasts, videos, live streams and interviews have been used increasingly. These channels have the advantage that you can often reach a large audience - even those that you could not reach before.

In addition, many (not only young) people today are very reluctant to read and some (people who are strangers to us) avoid attending an evangelistic event or meetings of believers. Possible inhibitions can thus be overcome online.

Another argument is that the digital possibilities make the mission work abroad much easier. Here, too, it is true that in this way you can reach people with God's message that you might otherwise never have reached. You can reach isolated brethren who are cut off from the outside world. You can hold conferences that would otherwise not be possible at all - or only with a great deal of effort.

However, there are not only opportunities, but also risks. These concern the sender and recipient of the message:

a) The sender: appearing in a live stream or a video address or even distributing a podcast always carries the risk of overestimating oneself and of being “in the foreground”. In addition, the corrective due to the presence of the brothers is largely absent and errors can thus spread much more quickly[1].

b) The recipient: One of the risks on the part of the audience is that the digital offer can reduce the “taste” of the local assembly meetings. There is a risk that the meetings unto the name of the Lord will be less attended and less valued (Heb 10:25). This possible "side effect" should not be underestimated. In individual cases it may even be that the live stream or the video message is preferred to the presentation of the word in the local meeting because the preacher on the Internet supposedly has the better message or can speak more grippingly. This should never be the case. The prophetic word in a meeting as an assembly has a very high value (1 Cor. 14).

 

    The simplest message in a gathering as assembly is always preferable to the best online sermon.

 

Question 2: Can we come together digitally unto the name of the Lord?

I would like to answer this question upfront with "no". We can't! It would be too simple to just point out that the Bible does not know such a virtual meeting. The word “coming together” does not in itself say anything about whether it happens real or virtually (I only refer to the English word “meeting”, where we naturally assume that it can be either “real / live” or “online”). Nevertheless, I would like to show that coming together in the Name of the Lord requires the actual (physical) presence of the participants. The arguments presented are both of a fundamental and practical nature.

a) A very important argument is that it is impossible for us to come together for the Lord's Supper online. Paul writes: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

According to biblical teaching the breaking of bread is linked to the meeting of the local assembly. For example, it is not possible for individual participants in a virtual meeting to break bread for themselves at home (i.e. in different houses). That would not correspond to the statement "... for we all partake of the one bread" in 1 Corinthians 10:17. This is not possible online!

    You can do a lot virtually, but you cannot eat and drink and proclaim the Lord's death this way.

b) Closely related to this is the collection of money from the believers. Sacrifices of praise are connected with sacrifices of doing good and communication (sharing) (Heb. 13:15, 16; cf. 1 Cor. 16: 2). Of course, you can also donate digitally today, but that is not the way Christian collections are made.

c) In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with the gathering for the preaching of the word. In verse 29 it says: "But let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge." This is much more difficult to implement in a digital get-together, and almost impossible in a live stream. Therefore, a live stream cannot replace a gathering for the preaching of the word.

d) 1 Corinthians 14:24 assumes the possibility that an unbeliever or someone unlearned will suddenly walk in (and then experience the Holy Spirit at work). The meetings of believers are not "closed rooms" but are open to anyone who wishes to come. In any case, this cannot be easily implemented digitally.

e) There is singing in the meetings of believers (1 Corinthians 14:15). Common praise is an essential element. As practice shows, this is more than difficult to implement digitally.

f) Gatherings are an expression of fellowship that can also only be practiced digitally to a very limited extent. How should you e.g. greet online with a "holy kiss"? It is precisely this point of personal interaction that is a major disadvantage of virtual meetings on the Internet (irrespective of the fact that a warm greeting in pandemic times can unfortunately only be practiced to a very limited extent).

Every now and then the question is asked whether the “place" where we gather, could perhaps be a “spiritual place"(Mt 18:20), so that it does not matter whether the meeting is "real " or "virtual". Indeed, the “where” in Matthew 18:20 has to do with the biblical basis of gathering and not with physical location. Unlike in the Old Testament, the believers of the time of grace do not come together in Jerusalem and not in a house of God (a special temple or church). It doesn't matter what location it is. Still, it has to be a locality.

    For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.

    Matthew 18:20

In the first epistle to the Corinthians the gathering of believers is mentioned eight times (chap. 11, 17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 12, 24; 14, 23, 26). This is explicitly linked to a place a few times - and this can only be a real place. It is worth reading up the details of the passages.

It is therefore clear that a coming together as an assembly (specifically: in the character of an assembly) only takes place when they actually come together.

Local gathering becomes visible when the believers actually (factually) gather and not when they meet hidden digitally somewhere in the global network. An “online meeting” cannot be an adequate substitute for coming together unto the name of the Lord.

The assembly should be a candlestick (Rev 1,20) and spread divine light. We can see that in a very practical way. You can usually only find an Internet address if you search for it specifically. A note on the street or the “churchgoers” on the way to the meeting stand out in a completely different way and are therefore a testimony that the world can perceive.

In addition, a permanent online presence in the network leads to isolation (personal contacts are not maintained), it promotes comfort (one does not set out to experience the Lord in the midst of his own) and harbours the risk of distraction (Checking his WhatsApp messages briefly in between, reading an e-mail or making a coffee, etc.). "Multitasking" is sometimes not bad, but in the spiritual realm it is not particularly useful and sometimes even harmful. One of the benefits of face-to-face meetings is that it is usually easier to leave distractions behind and focus on what really matters - the presence of the Lord. The disruptive factors are often greater online.

 

Question 3: Is it possible (or even useful) for brethren to follow a local assembly meeting online from home?

The answer to this question is: it is possible, but not necessarily desirable. As we have seen, the assembly is supposed to come together in reality, and only those who are present are gathered in the name of the Lord. If someone - for certain reasons such as e.g. illness or old age - cannot attend in person but follows the meeting online, he will most certainly have a blessing. He is not gathered with the others in the name of the Lord, however, and thus something crucial is missing.

For this reason, it would be better not to talk about someone attending or participating in the meeting online. Rather, he follows the gathering of the local assembly from outside.

Sometimes it is objected that it is better not to provide such online offers (broadcast of the meetings) in the first place. Admittedly, on the one hand, they again harbour the risk of encouraging an attitude of easily staying away from the face-to-face meeting, and one can only warn against that. It should also be remembered that the distraction factor at home in front of a screen is significantly greater than in a real meeting. On the other hand, we should not forget that in some places there are old and sick brothers and sisters who - perhaps for years - have not been able to attend the meetings. Do we want to deprive them of this opportunity and joy of following the meetings online? The counter-argument that you can visit them afterwards is of little use, because firstly - unfortunately - it is hardly practiced anymore and secondly, in practice it only applies to the ministry meeting or the Bible study. We also think of parents who have to stay at home with the children and thus have the opportunity to listen to the meeting. Job-related absence could also be mentioned at this point. We should be careful here in our judgment and “go softly” (Isa. 38:15).

Attendance at the meeting (in person) is to be sought in any case. But if there is no other way, we should have a wide heart and consider together before the Lord how to decide on a case-by-case basis. It is important that peace be kept in the assembly.

 

Question 4: What options do we have at a time when meetings cannot be held in the usual way due to external circumstances (e.g. a pandemic)?

We are grateful to the Lord that this situation has hardly occurred in Germany so far. And yet, especially at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, we saw that, for a brief time, meetings were discontinued in some places.

If the case should actually occur (which should be checked very carefully), and there are actually no other real possibilities of coming together as assembly, then there is basically nothing that speaks against meeting online as brethren , as a temporary solution.

However - and this should have become clear by now - such online meetings are not a gathering as an assembly according to Matthew 18:20 (and that is precisely why we have to check very carefully whether it is really impossible to meet as an assembly!). We can pray together, read the Word, and praise our Lord together online. All of this is a great blessing. Yet it is never a real substitute for meeting as a local assembly. We have to be aware of that.

The flow of an online meeting may be similar to that of a regular assembly meeting (apart from breaking bread). It is important that the brethren who speak (pray, read a word or text, give an exposition) do so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Those attending should try hard not to be distracted. And yet the fact remains that it is not an adequate substitute. Participants in such an online meeting will notice the difference very quickly.

In conclusion, I think of the Sunamite woman who, in a difficult time among God's people, confidently said: “I dwell among mine own people” (2 Kings 4:13). In the long run, this will not be possible in a virtual or digital way. With David we like to say: "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD [for us: to the meetings]" (Ps 122: 1).

We are to learn from Mordokai, from whom we read at the end of the book of Esther: "For Mordecai… was seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed" (Est 10: 3). Especially in difficult times with difficult questions, we should strive to be peacemakers.

 

Summary:

The gatherings as an assembly have a high priority and we do well to remind ourselves of this. Digital alternatives for spreading the biblical message can easily be used. However, they never replace real meetings of believers. However, if individual brethren cannot attend the meetings, digital solutions are definitely worth considering. Even in absolutely exceptional cases, it is not possible to come together digitally to the name of the Lord. Nonetheless, online meetings can provide a measure of comfort, edification, and fellowship - even if they are in no way a substitute for physical gathering. Our Lord's promise: "For where two or three are gathered unto my name, there am I in their midst" applies when believers meet, in person, as local assembly.

  


[1] This also applies in many cases to traditional and privately organized websites.