A couple of qualifiers, before I begin this post:
First: This is not a post about the Corona Virus. I am not going to debate the virus. I am not saying that it isn't a real virus and I am not saying that it isn't deadly. What I am saying is that this virus isn't as deadly (to certain strands of the population) as they told us it was going to be. We are not at Threat Level Midnight here... I have yet to drive past the hospital and see body bags lined up outside because the coroner can't keep up. There haven't been, at least in my area, bulldozers piling disease ridden corpses into mass graves. I am not aware of any CDC workers or military personnel showing up in large yellow hazmat suits, looking like giant thumbs, setting up tents and sorting the sick and the healthy into camps for the purpose of transporting them in those large, tarp-covered military trucks to unknown locations, never to be seen again.
But, like I said, this isn't really a post about the virus. Can we, for the sake of this conversation, put that topic in a sterile container and place it on the shelf? We'll label it "exhibit A". It will only be there for just a few minutes. We can reference it, but let's leave it on the shelf. It isn't the focus of this post.
Second: This is not a post about masks. (Read the previous paragraphs and grab that mental image of the government thumbs.) I don't want to debate masking, or double masking, or triple masking, or N95 masking, or whatever... I don't want to talk about Fauci and I don't need any links to studies that have been done, either for or against masks. Quite frankly, the masking or unmasking isn't going to be important to the overall point that I hope to make. You can keep your own mask on or take it off or whatever you would like to do, but can we place the topic of masks in a separate sanitized container on that same shelf of misfit topics? We'll label it "Exhibit B" and progress?
Third: This is not a political post. If you read this post and you think that it has anything to do with Donald Trump (pro or con), then either your reading skills are off or my writing skills are askew and I will need to eschew obfuscation and espouse elucidation a little bit better... Actually, I don't think that his name coming to your mind has anything to do with my writing skills or your reading skills. I think it might be because you have Trump glasses on (either the kind that hates him or the kind that loves him), and everything you read right now either sounds like a conspiratorial support for the bad orange man or a declaration of constitutional rights under the banner of truth, justice, and the MAGA way.
Fourth: This is not a political post. I may have rambled too much in the previous paragraph, so I will just say it again: This is absolutely not a political post... Not. At. All.
I apologize for that lengthy preamble... but there is something important that needs to be said, and I don't want those side issues to distract from this important central point. It is a point that has been on my mind and in my heart for a long time, but it was lingering in the back recesses of each. It was in the shadows of my thoughts, not fully developed and unwilling to reveal itself, but it was building strength and has now stood forth from the shadows, reminiscent of Tolkien's Gandalf Greyhame coming to his friends in their hour of need, now as Gandalf the White.
What is that thought? What is the point of this wordy post? Simple Really: Remote Church isn't Church. (You probably already knew that from the title, didn't you?)
Rudimentary Remote Church
Many years ago, I became acquainted with a rudimentary version of remote church. It wasn't called that, of course, but that is precisely what it was. I encountered this remote church with an older couple that hadn't actually set foot in a church building in several years, but still considered themselves true Christians, faithful to God and fulfilling all of the important elements of regular church attendance. How, you may ask? Simple really... They weren't highly technical people or on the cutting edge of a new phenomenon... they had simply encountered Charles Stanley on Cable TV.
[Do I need to add another point to my preamble? Should it say that this isn't a post about Charles Stanley? I mean... I love Charles Stanley. Some of my earliest encounters with the truths of God's word came through the preaching and teaching of Charles Stanley on cassette tapes. So absolutely no offense to Charles Stanley or his fans! ...this post isn't about him.]
There it was: Remote Church. Not called that, but there it was... pajamas and all! They were sure to be there each and every week. It had been a game-changer for this couple. They could be completely faithful to listen to that sermon... even if they weren't at home... from their beach house to their Gatlinburg, TN vacation rental. And (at the time) with a programmable VCR, they were able to "attend" whenever it best suited them. Faithful to Church they felt that they were, but all handled remotely.
These weren't the first people that I encountered that attended Charles Stanley's church from their lazy boy chairs in Illinois. I also met some Chuck Swindoll attenders and John MacArthur Attenders. Then there came the James MacDonald People... but then came the biggest church group of all... The Church of YouTube! This church is widely attended today! And the great thing about it, you can find the exact right preacher to be talking about the exact right thing that you exactly want to hear!
With the influx of new technologies, my next encounter with remote church came in the form of it's step-cousin: The Satellite Church. Now we were blending some things. We could still get the fellowship, at least on some level, but our best speakers... the best of the best... our celebrity pastors could stand at the forefront of our church expansions, drawing the crowds in all-new locations. Remote church wasn't fully formed yet, but through satellite churches the groundwork was being laid for true remote church.
I know that there are quite a few churches that have gone remote in the last year for completely different reasons. (Consider Exhibit A and Exhibit B.) The little church, where I am the pastor, attempted this, along with the vast majority of other churches that are operating under some basic shared tenets of scriptural authority, common sense, and a basic care of other human beings. I understand why many of us chose this route near the beginning, because it was a way for us to stay safely connected in the face of, what we had been told at the time, was a potentially ravaging plague. With the limited knowledge that there was a new deadly disease out there, we followed the initial bits of advice from the experts with microphones and the directives of our governing officials and we shut everything down.
As a pastor, I didn’t initially have any issues with this. I knew Romans 13:1, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." (ESV) Our governing authorities weren't making any apparent attacks on the church, there was, what seemed to be, a general call for caution.
I also considered previous generations of pastors and how they handled similar situations. For example, the Puritan Pastor: Richard Baxter, wrote on this exact topic. He says, "If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him."
These things seemed right and good to me, so through some prayer and wise counsel, our little church called off our in-person services and went into, what is now called, “full remote.” I sent out video sermons on Sunday for several weeks, as we watched and waited for this imminent threat to unfold.
I started searching for a middle ground. Where I live, a state line became quite helpful. In Indiana, we had the option of gathering together again, even though in Illinois the restrictions were still tight. We found a community center that we could rent on a Sunday morning and we met. I called out to the citizens of heaven in our area, and we met together.
Those were some sweet Sundays. The joy of being back around people was tangible. It filled the air and lit up faces... unmasked faces. There were smiles. There were ... hugs. There was singing! Oh! The Joy of singing with a group of believers! The Joyful Noises coming out of us was like the echoed ringing of heavenly voices. (Not really, but it felt like it.)
The Greek word that is translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία or with English letters ekklēsía. Thayer’s Greek Dictionary defines this word as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” In fact, in the times that it is used in the New Testament, it is sometimes translated "assembly" instead of "church."
This definition makes sense if you understand that this particular word did not originate in the Christian community, but was used previously for… like the definition says, “a gathering of citizens.” You can even see this word used in this non-Christian-specific fashion in the New Testament. One example is in Acts 19:32, where that same Greek word is translated “assembly” and isn’t referring to the Christians at all, but to the Citizens of Ephesus who were actually called out to discuss this new Christian thing that was happening in their community.
The Apostle Paul says elsewhere that we are citizens of heaven. (See Eph. 2:19 or Phil. 3:20.) Consider that for a moment, we are heavenly citizens. We have a citizenship that has been granted to us, that is not of this world or of its kingdoms. And as citizens, under the kingship of Jesus Christ, we are called out of this world to meet with him, and we are called to do this on a regular basis. In fact, Christ, as the the head of the Church (this called-out assembly) will guide and direct its meetings.
Remote Church is an Oxymoron.
On a very fundamental level, church cannot be remote. You cannot be called out as an assembly of people and be away from each other. It just isn't possible and it doesn't make any sense. Have the last 2,000 years of assemblies made accommodations under extenuating circumstances? Absolutely. But that isn't really the issue here. Adjustments and accommodations still contain the essential elements of what you are adjusting or accommodating. Cable-TV church, some Satellite churches, all YouTube church, and most of our remote churches do nothing to maintain the essential elements of God's church, his assembly of called-out citizens.
In remote church, there is the mirage of real church. There are the elements, that many think are the essential elements, on full display. There is a pastor preaching. There is some music being played. Singing can happen, if one chooses to. And other citizens are in view, they can either be seen directly, or we can see the little icons noting the viewership that is present. Don't misunderstand, these are all important things, but it isn't really church without an assembling together of those citizens: a real assembly.
We need to be able to look into each other's eyes, and smell each other's breath. Facial expressions when certain topics are breached is better communication than any typed emoji. We need to feel a pastor making eye-contact with us and we ought not to be able to choose the next sermon in the play list because this one isn't grabbing our attention. The sound of the older gentleman singing just behind me and to the right is just as important as the child singing off to the left... with the mingling of those voices in all of their off-key glory being the true joy and triumph of any music leader that is worth their salt.
But what about?
How shall I say this next part?
I mean, I'm not an idiot. I know that many of these churches out there are choosing the remote option for reasons that they believe are for the good of their members. I get that. But like I said at the beginning, that isn't the point of this blog post. My point is that, for whatever reason you choose to go the route that you've gone... just stop thinking that remote church is church.
My wife likes to watch this show about people who survived differing experiences, that ought to have left them for dead. A survival story that has come up more than once is the story of the person or persons who have, for whatever reason, become stranded in their vehicle on a mountain road during a blizzard. (This has happened to people way more than I would have ever imagined.) Continuing to go to remote church is very much like these stories that I've heard.
Imagine a guy who gets stranded in his car... mountain road and blizzard included. He lets the car run every once in a while to stay warm. He tries to melt snow so that he can have water, you can't live long without water. For food, he has found the thin mints in the dash, so he rations them. On the one hand, he's living. He has food and water. He isn't frozen yet, but the decision is looming... Hope for rescue or risk a freezing trek through the storm?
If you were in that situation, there would be one thing for sure: you can't keep doing this.
You've eaten your last thin mint. The fuel gauge is hovering just above the E. The sounds of rescue parties have turned out to be double-masked buffoons, speaking those infamous scary words, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
It is time.
If you live anywhere near Danville, IL come to Edgewood Church. We are braving the elements here. There is risk, no doubt about it, but it isn't foolish risk. It isn't nincompoopish risk... but there are also no guarantees. If you visit, don't be frightened in your spiritually skeletal state. You can keep your mask on until you feel comfortable, but be warned: You will see faces. You will have a hand stuck out toward you.(That is for a hand-shake, a tradition that we all used to do.) And you might get hugged.
You will hear preaching and teaching. It won't be curated to your liking, but I promise it will be from the Word of God. You will sing and hear singing. You might get bumped by a toddler on their way to class. We are a small church, but have tripled in size in the last 6 months... mostly because... I believe... we are simply having church: Real Church.