“The church, as an ancient society which has been flourishing and growing through the ebb and flow of history, has always adopted and embraced technology (e.g., the printing press and its use in propagating the Bible and the message of reformation).”
“Its successes justify its continued and creative use as an additional channel of engagement alongside the physical church gathering.”
In 2005 Thomas L. Friedman authored a book, The World is Flat, in appreciation of the world as a level playing field in the wake of globalisation. He argued that globalisation meant people gained an equal opportunity in a global market irrespective of their historical and geographical backgrounds. As these “forces of change” have moved and continue to move across the world turning it into a global village, the people of different industries and vocations have been forced to adopt to the evolving technologies or face extinction or, worse still, irrelevance.
The church, as an ancient society which has been flourishing and growing through the ebbs and flow of history, has always adopted and embraced technology (e.g., the printing press and its use in propagating the Bible and the message of reformation). Paul Tillich comments that technology is a fundamental dimension of every age; its impact on all spheres of human society (including the church) is inevitable.
Yet nothing in the recent times has pushed the church to embrace technology at such a broad scale as the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, the worldwide lockdown which brought the world to a standstill disrupted the church too, at least initially. And then almost the entire church worldwide, at least those with access to internet facilities, rallied to conduct their services, Bible studies, cell group meetings, children’s ministry, and prayer meetings using the online collaboration tools like Zoom. Even the most technically challenged leaders climbed over the steep learning curve to ensure that their church had a steady supply of the Word. Two years down the track, when the harshest days of the pandemic seem to be past, there looms the inevitable debate—is the “digital church” a real, biblical church?
While musing about this topic, it would be good to provide a definition of what a church is. It is clichéd, yet important to remember, that the church is not a building but the organic union of the believers of Jesus Christ, existing universally, yet finding its expression locally through gatherings (Eph 1:22–23; 2:20–21; 4:11–16; 1 Cor 12:12; Col 2:19; Rom 12:4–5). The church is not limited to one denomination or organisation. The Apostle Paul compares it to a body—a living organism whose members are connected, functioning smoothly, and building itself up. While tracing its origin to the day of Pentecost, the Bible portrays its existence eternally even into the new creation.
Being organic and living, the church in every era has taken on new expressions and praxis when faced with new challenges and has also adapted local expressions in every land where believers come together. When the church is persecuted, it moves underground and flourishes there (as studies have shown in the nations of China, Iran, Korea, etc.). Church history records course corrections and new paths through reformations and revivals as people intentionally respond to excesses of practice and doctrine. And in the times of the recent pandemic, in the days of forced lockdown, the church went digital!
The Bible avoids prescriptive or normative instructions regarding specifics of form of worship or assembly but speaks quite voluminously about the intent and purpose of the church. These are to: glorify God (2 Thess 1:12); be the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15); witness to Christ by proclaiming the gospel and forging Christ-followers (Matt 28:18–20); edify members (one to another) and build people up to grow stronger and become equipped for service (Eph 4:11–16); and, most importantly, provide fellowship between the believers (Acts 2:42), for we are not designed for isolation, but to be joined with one another.
Indeed, there are many limitations for the “virtual church”. The risk of churchless Christianity was a challenge even before the Zoom churches; it is an even greater challenge now. The digital church can promote a consumeristic attitude in Christians, with less focus on personal discipleship and accountability. It could never replace the physical gathering of the saints, which we are exhorted not to forsake (Heb 10:25): we are strongly encouraged to maintain mutual fellowship, growth, participation, and accountability.
But despite all this, the digital church experience has fulfilled almost all the purposes of a real church during a tough time for humanity. It has edified people with hope in Christ in a time which otherwise would have caused severe despair and despondency. Its successes justify its continued and creative use as an additional channel of engagement alongside the physical church gathering.
In the words of William Pollard, “The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow”. Living in disruptive and uncertain times, what is to be the new normal for the church? Adaptability, responsiveness, and embrace a hybridity of means through which God is glorified (1 Cor 10:31) ensures our witness grows stronger and the church, through all means possible (1 Cor 9:22), becomes edified and prepared. Irrespective of the disruptions of an apocalyptic scale, the Lord is still building His Church and indeed, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.