Lockdown Church Services: To Stream or Not to Stream?

For the longest time, Safaricom’s well known tagline was “the better option.” It was a rather effective tagline during a nascent era of fierce competition between telecommunication companies. It meant that no matter where you went, and no matter what you needed from a telco, Safaricom was always going to be your “better option.”

Things obviously changed with time, and one might theorize that as the number of subscribers grew exponentially, and as the company started facing customer care challenges, the tagline eventually degenerated into a turn of phrase, “the bitter option.”

Could this be the reason why the tagline was later updated to “Twaweza?” Was the company shedding the baggage of phonetic similarity between bitter and better? Maybe. However, I think it’s more likely that a savvy marketing consultant pointed out the fact that even though the word “better” was putting Safaricom on top of everyone else, it was at the same time creating awareness for the competition; you can’t talk about a “better option” without inadvertently highlighting the existence of other valid ones.

Likewise, when we’re trying to discern what Romans 12 calls “the good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” we cannot avoid how complex the reality usually is: there are often multiple valid options and many paths to consider taking. That said, whenever God’s people choose the better option, then the Bible not only acknowledges, but actually praises and distinguishes such highness of pursuit. I’ll give you 3 examples:

“Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. — Proverbs 31:29-30

and:

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. — Acts 17:11

and:

But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. — 1 Corinthians 12:31

The excellent woman in Proverbs 31 could have merely been charming and dutiful, but the works for which she is praised indicate a higher pursuit: pleasing God Himself. The Bereans could have simply believed what they were told by Paul and Silas, but instead, they reverently let the Old Testament be the judge. As for the church of Corinth, it was okay that they desired “high” miraculous gifts, but the fatherly Apostle Paul points them to the highest underlying motive they could ever aspire to: love.

Our Utmost for His Highest

How then do we stack up as local churches when faced with the reality of not being able to meet face to face? We obviously won’t flout lockdown rules and put the health of our brethren at risk; love does no wrong to a neighbor (Romans 13:10). We won’t disobey the government which in this regard has given a righteous and reasonable decree for the good of its people, will we? The reality is that during lockdown, we simply can’t physically meet as we normally do. 

What then are our options?

Well, it goes without saying that churches are very different: from creed, to size, locality, order of worship, and a dozen other arbitrary criteria by which we may classify congregations. However, what I’d like to specifically focus on is the apparent fork in the road for those congregations where the majority of members have access to the internet.

On the one hand, we have those who see the web as a means to continue to “do church,” while on the other hand are those who see Covid-19 particularly as a providence of God that should be treated purely as such, meaning that church services are to be mournfully forsaken in the meantime as the congregation focuses on informal mutual fellowship. One example of the latter is articulated below:

So, should we live stream or not? 

Much like the strong and weak brothers portrayed in Romans 14, both of these camps have the noble motive of seeking to please God. It’s not a matter of right and wrong (that is, sinful or not sinful). I don’t think either that it’s simply a matter of wisdom; I think it is more precisely a matter of conscience, and particularly that of the leadership in a local church.

So what should leaders consider as they ponder the path under their feet? Given the two main options available to churches which meet the criteria of congregational internet accessibility, which of these is the better option? Please reflect with me on the following 7 biblical arguments for live streaming as opposed to setting aside church services on Sunday altogether.

1. The preaching argument

Thank God for local churches. There simply isn’t anything in the universe like it: a group of people whose hearts have been united to one another through Christ under the preaching of His word as it’s proclaimed by pastors, and as the group is served by deacons. It is a true family, where God is Heavenly Father and Christ is our firstborn Brother. There is no replacing this, and I understand why it’s primarily for this reason that churches may choose not to live stream; good shepherds are careful not to replace true fellowship with the seemingly easier choice sometimes referred to as Bedside Baptist.

This is commendable and noble. 

However, we must not forget that the church is like a double-edged sword. As a bulwark and buttress of truth, a local church exists not only to perform surgery on the flock, but equally to pierce the hearts of those yet unconverted. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 from verse 23:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

This shows that even after Paul has emphasized over and over again that spiritual gifts must be used for the edification of the church (that is, believers in a local congregation), he doesn’t forget that the other side of the coin is the preaching of the gospel from the pulpit (implied by his emphasis on one-by-one speaking) to the unconverted.

And how are they to hear without someone preaching? — Romans 10:14

Even though all disciples are to share the gospel, the activity of preaching is primarily the responsibility of pastors, and they must do all they can to keep that going not only for the flock, but also for the lost.

Here’s a helpful way of thinking about it: Paul “endured everything for the sake of the elect,” as he says in 2 Timothy 2:10. When a pandemic strikes, shouldn’t we seek out the one elect sheep that’s yet unreached instead of turning inward towards the 99? 

Thank God that a rural church was open during a snowstorm on a random Sunday morning in January 1850, causing a young Charles Spurgeon to stumble upon a lay preacher’s sermon—and because of it, the Prince of Preachers came to be saved. Likewise, let your solid church service be live streamed if only so that it may be found by those who are looking for hope at a time when the charisma of prosperity churches has all but been silenced by COVID.

2. The medium argument

I think the best way to put this point across is to just begin with the Scripture. Apostle John writes:

Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. — 2 John 1:12

Here, John “the elder” (as he thus identifies himself in the opening of the book, a word which is an exact synonym of pastor, ) is writing “to the elect lady and her children,” which is probably a small house church. Keep in mind that this was his second letter, as the first had been written generally to the churches in Asia Minor. What then am I getting at here?

The unmistakable fact stated in his writing is that he’d rather minister to his hearers face to face. And yet, he is writing! Were the face to face option available, he would have taken it above all else. But in its absence, he didn’t close that chapter and wait till he could meet them again. Taking the immediate next best option, he used an available medium, a letter, while being careful to express why he would still prefer face to face. 

His words didn’t stop him from writing 2 John, again. As if that wasn’t enough, it didn’t it stop him from writing 3 John either, where he says once more in the 14th verse:

I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

I dare say that if Paul or John or any other minister of the word had the internet today, they’d be milking it for what it’s worth: the benefit of the global and local church. We have little reason not to, for God’s true children can never get used to being away from each other. On the contrary, the longing only increases, more so as the best available medium is used to edify the church and equip the saints for the work of ministry, whether that’s through a letter or a live streamed sermon.

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face … — 1 Thessalonians 2:17

3. The in-spirit argument

But does this actually work? Is there any real fellowship, any real worship, to be experienced by members of a congregation when they are far apart? Can a collective singing and reading and preaching experience actually occur, or is any such attempt just a figment of the imagination in each individual’s mind?

We find in Paul’s words a surprisingly fitting precedent:

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

— 1 Corinthians 5:3-5

Now this is a difficult passage for some, because most churches have no real membership where such an excommunication meeting would even be imaginable. The context is that Paul, being a spiritual leader and founder of the Corinthian church, wrote to them to deal with various serious issues, including blatant sexual immorality. Here, he recognizes that members of a church must carry out discipline, and thus, being one of them, reassures them that he is amongst them in spirit when they come together as a church to perform this unenviable task. It’s not the Holy Spirit he is referring to, but his own.

Do you see the immensity of this? Here before us is one of the most sober embodiments of the local church: a disciplinary physical gathering. And in it, Paul shows us how we can be one in spirit even when apart. Again, this is never meant to be a replacement of meeting physically, but a very real provision that we ought to maximize on when the separation is beyond our control.

4. The historicity argument

A couple of verses cry out for our attention, demanding that together, they be considered of utmost importance under present circumstances.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. — Hebrews 13:7

and:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. … As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

— 2 Timothy 4:1-2,5

We are to learn from faithful men of God who lived in the past. We are to consider the outcome of their entire way of life and imitate their faith. And what is the yardstick that Paul provides to Timothy? That they preach the word, in season and out of season. These men don’t just feed their flock of members, they know that their ministry remains unfulfilled unless they faithfully “do the work of an evangelist.” This particular emphasis on evangelism must not to be overlooked.

We have for our benefit today countless pastoral letters and prayers and sermons and hymns from church history, necessitated by the toughest of times, from wars, to persecutions, to plagues. Those historic words bear such undeniable potency and gravitas because they were an overflow from the hearts of God’s people in the midst of great uncertainty and distress. We therefore have to ask, how will future generations react when they look back at AD 2020? Will they find real sermons preached by real preachers on the Sundays when the lockdown was ongoing, pounding the pulpit against all odds with nothing but a camera lens and tripod where a dozen families used to formerly sit attentively? Or will they call this the COVID-19 Dark Age where entire congregations along with their pastors retreated out of sight and out of mind, abandoning that ever-besieged city set on a hill?

5. The slippery slope argument

It is with good reason that a lot of churches have shied away from live streaming Sunday services: they do not support the “online church” movement that has gained popularity over the past few years, with some churches having multiple “campuses” equipped with massive screens projecting images of the “senior” pastor preaching from the “main” campus. 

It is noble to esteem truly personal and integrated fellowship. However, failing to acknowledge special circumstances—within the provisions and boundaries of God’s word—can result in a stand that is very much Protestant but not entirely Biblical.

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.

— 1 Corinthians 4:6

When we go beyond what is written, we risk unnecessarily drawing our lines deeper and further in the sand when uneasy questions are asked of us. For example: if live streaming makes people used to an unnatural way of experiencing church, why should any church consistently post an archive of recorded sermons online? Isn’t it possible for someone to simply choose listening to the previous week’s sermon every Sunday instead of going to church? Isn’t that inherently enabling an unhealthy experience of church? These are valid questions, and they need to either be biblically answered, or churches should take down sermon archives, which is entirely unnecessary unless they choose to die on the hill of no live streamed services.

6. The weak brother argument

Even though Covid is new to everyone, data from the first half of the year indicates that its effects are more life-threatening towards senior citizens and those with pre-existing medical conditions, like diabetes. What this means for churches is that even though governments will eventually lift restrictions on gathering, the virus will likely still be in circulation for an unknown period of time. It could be months, it could be years.

Is a Christian couple in their sixties expected to simply “be strong” and show up even though they may be wary of contracting the virus? And what about the teenager that suffers from anxiety attacks? Should they just “have faith” and not “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some?” Are these people unbelieving sinners? No, not necessarily. They’re simply weak, as we all are in various seasons.

There are those among us who will be physically weak, while others will have inadequacies in spiritual strength. Some, will be both. What are we to do for their sake, regardless of whether the source of their weakness is physical?

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.

— Romans 15:1-2

I trust it is already apparent that one significantly effective way for an urban church to do so in 2020, is to live stream Sunday services.

7. The stewardship argument

Finally, let’s hear what Paul says to Timothy in the 4th chapter of his first recorded letter to the young pastor:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

— 1 Tim 4:13-16

This is one of the most beautiful and yet sobering sections of Scripture for pastors. First, Timothy is told to devote himself not just to private teaching and exhortation, but to the public reading of Scripture. This is what happens every Lord’s Day and during mid-week Bible studies and prayer meetings where the doors of the church are flung open and all are allowed to come in and listen. 

Second, the pastor is told to not neglect the gift he was given which enables him to do the things mentioned in the previous verse. The opposite of neglecting a gift is to steward it, and you steward a gift by using it faithfully. Preachers preach.

Third, the pastor is instructed to do this in such a way that “all may see your progress.” Has this verse been true of pastors this year? Has there been progress in exercising their gifts in public and private ministry, and can it be said that this progress has been visible to all?

Lastly, there’s the weighty exhortation for the pastor to keep a close watch on himself and on the teaching. “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” During COVID, have the hearers heard anything? Have the actions and decisions of the pastorate been based on teaching that has “no reason to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth?”

It is a serious matter altogether, for the very salvation of both the one missing from the pulpit and the other absent from the pew, depends upon it.

In conclusion

2020 has been a difficult year, and the Lord knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. Many of us, whether as individuals or families or churches, have been doing our best to stay afloat in a world turned upside down. The Lord knows, and I empathize.

These 7 points shared above strongly push the conscience towards a more intentional stewardship of the internet as a resource not only for private discipleship and fellowship, but more specifically, for regular public preaching on Sundays. The aim is not to vilify or condemn, but to do my own part as one with the impetus to write, and as a saved sinner who loves the body of Christ and wishes to see our local churches abound in faith and hope and love. I welcome public biblical cross-examination, but more earnestly, I pray that the Holy Spirit will impress upon every shepherd and saint what is the highest and most praiseworthy path to take.

The way is narrow.

The journey is smoother in single file.

In the footsteps of the Apostles and the Prophets may we place our own, and may Christ be all and in all.

Amen.

This article was first published in the Grace & Truth Magazine, Issue #133.