By Douglas Estes
The first known online church was founded 35 years ago, in a time before live streaming and Instagram. In a sense, though, online church is really not new.
From the persecution of the early Church to the outbreak of the Black Death to the battlefields of World War I to the modern political climate in Iran, the dispersed people of God have faced countless situations requiring them to meet at a distance, by extension, or online. These situations are not our typical experience in the West, where we often perceive the Church as an institution rather than a gathering.
Although our institutional inclinations may make us a little skeptical of online church (and house churches and parachurches and anything outside our norm), here are five reasons why online church is actually more biblical than it sounds.
#1 Online church is not in the Bible
Let’s get this out of the way first: online church is not in the Bible. Neither are megachurches. Nor cathedrals. Nor Baptist churches. Nor Reformed churches. Nor virtually any form or type of church that existed after Acts 2 (or perhaps Revelation 1–3).
This is because the Bible never actually defines church.
In Paul Minear’s classic work Images of the Church in the New Testament , he identifies 96 metaphors in the Bible that depict what church is. None of those images are definitions, and none convey the whole truth of church. They are snapshots, so that when put together they depict the church in all God’s greatness.
Today, small country churches are one snapshot, online churches another. These images are powerful metaphors that illustrate how believers are to relate to God and to each other. If online church meets to help believers encounter God, then it meets a biblical image of church.
#2 Online church creates space for worship
Another thing not in the Bible? Church buildings. We use them because they create space for people to worship. I have served on short-term mission teams where I had to teach on Sunday morning in less-than-ideal conditions—sometimes outside, sans building. Yes, I am glad we have buildings. Do they distract us from our mission? Sometimes.
Church online helps us to leverage technology to go out instead of just come in.
The same is true of online church. But like church buildings, live streaming platforms simply offer opportunities for worship. Just as some people will worship in traditional buildings, some in modern warehouses, and some in coffee shops, others will worship in streaming platforms.
As the church, we want to offer as many different formats as possible to help people worship wherever and whenever they can.
#3 Online church stimulates genuine fellowship
Because the Bible never defines church and instead relies on images to help people visualize what the church is meant to be, there is a temptation to proof text certain verses, such as Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” This verse, of course, is part of a larger conversation about the authority of believers; it’s not a parameter for church and can’t be used to argue for or against online church. But what it does do is establish an important criterion: God works when his people are working together.
As a pastor, getting people to work together is harder than it seems! In an online church environment, pastors can’t take fellowship for granted. They can’t assume that because two members said “Hi” that they are relating as the body in a healthy way. Whether online or in-person, churches that want genuine fellowship must be intentional.
#4 Online church encourages multiplication
Wittingly or not, institutional approaches to church implicitly suggest that there is a “limit” to what church is. The chairs in our worship center tell us with precision—or so we think—the size and scope of our ministry. In John 4, Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman that “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
We don’t need to proof text this to make church nebulous. Jesus’ point in this passage is simply that after the Spirit’s coming, ethnic and geographic parameters will not constrain God’s people. This is critical so that the Church can be the church to the entire world. Online church tells us: “The world is your worship center.”
#5 Online church flips the script on community
In our church culture, when people want to worship, they come to church. Whether we realize it or not, coming to church is an image of the Church created by our institutional approach to church. However, it is not an image of the church in the New Testament.
In fact, there are many images of the Church in the NT that are not about coming but are about going: for example, the Church is to be a letter from Christ (2 Cor 3:2–3), the branches of the vine (John 15), the ark (1 Pet 3:18–22), ambassadors (2 Cor 5:18–21), the dispersed (1 Pet 1:1), and the road (Acts 9:2). These images capture a simple idea: the Church is to go into the world, not come into a building.
We know from the Bible that the Church of the New Testament leveraged technology to reach people. Jesus taught from a ship, Paul walked on Roman-built roads, and John wrote the life of Jesus on papyrus.
Church online helps us to leverage technology to go out instead of just come in. House churches, megachurches, and online churches are all forms of church that allow us to worship together in different customs. The Church is at a place in its history where it can leverage technology to experience real community in real-time while at a distance.
Just as the power to construct cathedrals altered the look of church—but did not change what church can and should be—neither will internet technology upend the Church’s identity and mission. Rather, it will strengthen it.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
This post is adapted from “5 Reasons Online Church Is More Biblical Than It Sounds: A Brief Framework for Digital Ministry” by Douglas Estes in the May 2020 edition of Ministry Team magazine.
Douglas Estes wrote SimChurch (Zondervan, 2008), the first book about online ecclesiology, and he continues to advocate for the positive use of technology in more recent works, such as Braving the Future (Herald, 2018). Douglas pastored for almost 16 years and is now a professor at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos (Lexham Press).