Is Watching Church Online Really the Same as Going in Person?

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Millions of Americans no doubt find themselves increasingly stressed and pressed for time. And as intense technological advancement forges on, many of the things that were once more complex or time consuming are now becoming easier and quicker to do.

With these dynamics and changes afoot, an important question for Christians emerges: Is watching church on the internet or TV just as beneficial as showing up in person? After all, people are essentially hearing the same message without needing to dress, get the family ready or drive to the physical church location. In sum: It’s a huge time-saver.

But, as it turns out, famed evangelist Billy Graham recently said in a Q&A on his website that the answer to this question is actually a bit more complicated than boiling it all down to the issue of time consumption.

“I’ve always been pretty independent, and the idea of going through all the hassle of getting up and going to church has never attracted me,” someone wrote to the famed evangelist. “What’s wrong with just watching a church service on TV? I’d be hearing the same message I’d hear if I went, wouldn’t I?”

Graham responded that, while it’s the same message — and while he’s happy to see that God has enabled churches to use radio, TV and the internet for outreach — he said there’s actually much that’s missing when one watches a remote church service.

“I hope you’ll also stop and realize what you’ll be missing if you only watch a church service on television,” he responded. “First, you’ll miss the opportunity to be part of the congregation — to sing with others, to give to God’s work, and especially to get to know other believers and learn from them (and they from you).”

Graham also discussed the need for Christians to serve others together — something that doesn’t always happen in an online church environment, and appealed to Hebrews 10:24-25, which speaks to believers encouraging one another. The text reads, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

“A vital church isn’t just inward-looking; it also looks outward and seeks to serve others in the name of Jesus,” he said. You can read Graham’s entire response here.

With the increase of technology, questions surrounding online church — or even church on TV — continue to persist. Well-known Christian commentator Ed Stetzer dove deep into these very curiosities back in 2014, saying that churches really should have an online presence, though he added some important caveats.

“If a church is not online, then it is not actually engaging the culture,” Stetzer wrote at the time. “A church needs to be where the people gather and they are online and on social media sites.”

Stetzer continued, though, saying he believes a physical church is always a better option:

Yet, as I see it, a church (among other things) is a gathering of believers under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that practices two ordinances, seeks to advance His kingdom, and holds each other accountable in covenant.

I don’t think an only online church can do that. (Yes, I am aware of online baptisms and the Lord’s Supper, but we are discussing whether you should do that, not whether it is physically possible.)

Participants of online church may cite avoiding traffic or other rationale as their motivation, and there are times when this approach may be necessary for exceptional reasons. However, I think that they may simply be avoiding (intentionally or unintentionally) real community.

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