I'm going to kick a hornet's nest today and "zig" when others may "zag" when it comes to churches live-streaming their worship services. Suffice to say: I don't think it should be a permanent fixture.
Before I posit my reasons, I want to offer a couple of qualifiers. First, during the 14 Sundays we didn't gather at Alliance Bible Church in 2020, we filmed our "worship services" ahead of time and posted them online. Once we resumed in June of 2020, we began live-streaming our services to serve as a "stopgap" measure. My message to our congregation was to embrace this as a "short-term compromise not a long-term convenience." So my perspective is not as a backseat driver. Even though our livestream will end in May, we did practice this for 11 months. Second, I fully support churches and pastors and Christians doing everything they can to broadcast the gospel into as many ears as possible through whatever means is available to them: sermon videos, podcasts, Zoom calls, etc. For years our church has recorded sermon audio and video and posted those on Sunday afternoons or Monday mornings. No problem.
I just don't think live-streaming the worship service ought to be a permanent fixture. Why?
First, we have to deal honestly with the glaring fact that the only authoritative teaching we have on the church - the Bible - recognizes just one legitimate manifestation of church and that's a flesh and blood gathering. This is, in fact, what the word "church" means. One of the most frequent comments I have heard from people in my church over the past year is this: "It's just not the same. Watching church on TV just isn't the same." Why is that? Because, quite literally, IT ISN'T THE SAME! It may be wholesome TV, but it's not church. In my view, live-streaming blurs the lines on this and creates a scenario where one-to-one correspondence can creep in such that livestream is now viewed as a reasonable substitute. We don't serve our people well if this is our unintended message to them.
Second, there's an often overlooked passage of Scripture (Eph. 5:15-21) that should generate committed church attendance. In summary, we're commanded to continually be filled with the Spirit. It's not optional. It's commanded. However, that's not something we do to or for ourselves. That's something God does. But he does so through means. What means? "Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always...submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." In other words, God uses the various spiritual activities of the flesh and blood gathering to continually fill his people with the Spirit. Our souls are just too valuable to feed them a diet of digital "church" or, for that matter, sporadic church attendance. Again, live-streaming blurs the lines on this and can, but shouldn't, present itself as a reasonable substitute.
Third, these two reasons help explain why it is the newly birthed Jerusalem church was so committed to the flesh and blood gathering. "Every day they met together in the temple courts." You couldn't keep these people apart. And remember, they were being led by the very apostles who had spent many hours with Jesus. I have to assume they were committed to gathering so often because Jesus wanted them to.
Fourth, having said all this, not every church in the first century mediterranean world was consistent with their flesh and blood church attendance. The writer of Hebrews exhorts the church saying...
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. - Hebrews 10:24-25
The first thing to notice is that this church leader spots a problem: some have stopped gathering with the saints, and that's not good. The second thing to note is their absence isn't good for those who do gather because when you gather you gather to spur each other on toward love and good deeds and encourage each other. You need to be in church because those gathered need your presence. When you're not there, you rob them. And third, the overarching theme of Hebrews is the perseverance of the saints; Christians making it across the finish line. It's striking this exhortation to keep meeting together comes within a book devoted to cheering believers on to the finish line of the Christian life, as if the former contributes to the latter.
Fifth, imagine the new heavens and the new earth have dawned. The eternal age is here. But you're not there. Instead, you're watching a livestream of the new heavens and new earth. Will you be satisfied with that? I suspect not. Then why are you satisfied watching a livestream? Or why are you satisfied offering a substitute? Or why do we posit livestream as an acceptable alternative? If we're hearing the Bible correctly, then we'll note the closest thing to heaven on earth right now is the gathered church - not Disney.
Sixth, I've heard an argument in favor of live-streaming that goes something like this. "Well, I'm not always able to make it to church. We get sick. We take a family vacation, etc. It's really nice to be able to watch it when we're not able to be there in person." It sounds compassionate to be able offer the livestream under such circumstances. But I question whether that's true. There's a greater good we can accomplish by not offering livestream under such circumstances. What greater good is that? Creating a longing for the gathering of God's people, experiencing the pain of missing it, and the resolve to attend to it whenever humanly possible. What I don't want to hear is, "Our family got sick and we couldn't come to church, but we caught the livestream and while it isn't perfect, it's at least passable." What I would rather hear from someone is: "Our family got sick and we couldn't come to church...and we desperately missed it and are so glad to be back!"
I believe it was Oppenheimer who said something like, "Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should." The development and use of technology is one such arena whose unintended consequences really need to be scrutinized. In ways we don't fully appreciate, it is a silent killer. In this case specifically, I'm convinced it actually erects additional hurdles to genuine discipleship. Having said that, I suspect I will be in the minority in my view on this. That's OK. It's not worth dividing over. Some churches have and will continue to livestream. May the Lord work all those things out to his glory.