Settle in and allow me to explain.
Greg Gilbert wrote a helpful piece for pastors a little over a year ago. Some of his concluding words have stuck with me:
This is a hard year to be a pastor. There’s the pandemic. There’s the frustration, for many of us, of not being able to gather with the church as normal. There’s the vaguely ridiculous prospect of preaching to a congregation whose faces you can’t see because they’re all wearing masks. There’s the livestream you launched literally two weeks after you publicly called down God’s own curses on yourself if you ever consented to a “video venue.”
That last line made me laugh.
Pastors are principled people, and we should be. Do we have two services, each with different kinds of music, or not? Do we structure our church’s social and adult interactions along age lines or not? Do we turn the lights down in the auditorium and highlight the platform when the music starts or not? Do we even talk much about music, or do we highlight the congregation’s singing? Here’s another one: do we offer an option to “join us on our livestream”? Is that even possible? I suppose it depends on what we mean by that. Do we mean watching others go to church? Or do we mean join with the church online? Some hairs are worth splitting.
For some churches, starting a livestream was something akin to paving the parking lot. Sure, gravel works, but c’mon! Beyond the original COVID considerations, the livestream seems to do so much for us. It offers members some relief when they’re in a pinch: to watch if they’re home sick with kids, if they’re on the road with work, or if they’re homebound for an indefinite period of time. It also offers members flexibility: perhaps some to do church with the family at home here and there, or to spend a few more weekends at the lake house. Still for others it acquaints them with our church in a unique way who may be moving to town. For others still, it’s an evangelistic tool as they share the link with dear friends and family who might not know Christ, or at least yet. We care about all of these souls.
But something precious is getting lost in this, and lost for their sake.
Candidly, for our church a livestream presented a practice in conflict with our understanding of what it means to “come together as the church,” the greatest blessing Christ gives us next to himself (1Cor. 11:18). Livestream is less like paving the parking lot—an obvious use of technology to help people join us—and more like offering a parking lot venue for church on Sunday morning. Or, even more precisely, an option to go to church from the couch with your car in the driveway. We have to ask ourselves, is that even a thing?
This post is preemptive and instructive. We will discontinue the livestream in the near future, but we want to take some time to more personally shepherd some of you through the process and we’ll take a number of weeks to do that. We’ll send an email to the group that has received the weekly link when that time comes.
For now, I want to answer the question for all of us: why discontinue the livestream?
A Few Considerations
Jump to the next section for the heart of the matter. If you’re willing to hang with me, here are a few considerations that go into a decision like this.
First, every form of technology does something for us and to us. Our smartphones have done a lot for us and they have done a lot to us—to our posture and to our attention spans. Same with the wheel, nukes, silicon, and the internet. Do you have a TV in your family room? How about each of the kids’ bedrooms? There are benefits and unintended consequeces with every form and application of technology. A lot is left to wisdom as we lead our families. We love the church by thinking carefully about how technology will strengthen or weaken our life together.
Second, there is a difference between extraordinary and ordinary circumstances. We adopted the livestream in the crisis moment of the COVID shutdown as an emergency measure. The predictions were so dire we stopped gathering on Sundays for about two months. As we returned to meeting, we approached that season with several principles: first, we were minimally intrusive (we didn’t require masks or police conversations but we did separate pews); second, we didn’t require anything the government didn’t require (which was not a commitment to do everything the government might); third, we embraced a bias to stability (we didn’t shift plans that we’d have to shift back weeks later); fourth, we prioritized personal responsibility (asking you to stay home if you were vulnerable or sick); and fifth, we fostered an atmosphere of freedom (so we offered a video venue, livestream, invited masking but avoided other language that might imply a moral judgment on the matter, and we instructed you to resist making assumptions as a baseline for our interactions). The livestream helped make all of this work. It helped us negotiate the diverse circumstances and perspectives of our people. We were glad to serve our broader congregation in this way for a time. But crisis decisions do not drive our ministry philosophy. Neither are they a commitment to return to the same practices if there’s another go around.
Third, we are a church built on the Word not on “whatever works.” We are not a pragmatically driven church. We believe in being practical, but we are not driven by what seems to work, comparing ourselves to other churches. We say that God’s Word both fills and forms our church’s worship and life together. Sometimes this means we’re doing something lots of churches are doing. Sometimes this means we’re an outlier in town if we believe we can be more faithful with a different course. We don’t worry too much about it. We’re not competing with the factory across town. We’re working our part of the garden of the gospel’s growth in Greenville. May the Lord bless all of it.
Now to our reasons for discontinuing the livestream.
Gathering Means Gathering
We’ve been clear from the start that the livestream is not a gathering of the church and that it is a temporary measure. As we shared at November’s Elders Q&A, this is because God’s truth about the church and her gathering is precious to us.
Here are three of those precious truths.
First, the church gathering is covenantal, not individual.
There are all kinds of covenantal things going on when we meet on Sundays. In Acts 2:42–47 we find the first description of the church’s life together. There’s eating together, fellowship, helping one another, and hearing the Word together. The church is called to rejoice with one another, weep with one another, sing together, pray together, and be together. How kind is the Lord!
Flashing pixels can do a lot for us, but they can’t do most of this. A football fan can enjoy the game by TV from home, but a player has to be there to play. It did not escape many of us that over the last year our muscles for keeping track of one another were weakened. Haven’t seen someone for five weeks or five months? You could well assume they were on the livestream. A couple that goes to the lake house a few weeks in the summer now disappears for five or six weeks at a time. The new mom who stays home with her infant for several weeks on good advice instead stays home for several months. Then there’s the family that decides to do home-church once a month as a family. Or the worker who gets in late from travel on Saturdays and watches from home.
This may not be you, but in a church of our size all of this can go on. In short, the livestream is a technology that undermines the covenantal shape of our church. Singing together takes being together. So does everything else we’re called to do. Coming to church means more than hearing the Word, but speaking and singing the Word to one another, and manifesting the love of God by looking in one another’s eyes.
Second, the church gathering is public, not private.
I saw an advertisement recently outside a church that said, “Watch us online!” I don’t think they intended to express their theology of church in that sentence. But they did express ours! Let me explain.
I was speaking with a friend in the community recently about the Lord and about church. He had a fairly typical perspective: “To me, my relationship with God is between me and him. I don’t see the need for church.” We’ll have more conversations, I pray. But this sentiment of a privatized religion is pervasive in our day. It is true that faith and repentance is something for us to do individually. No one else can have a relationship with God for us and that’s the beauty of what Jesus accomplished as our high priest. Yet Jesus died to gather a people, not just individual people. Families are meant to be together and to eat together, and so it is with the church. Togetherness is essential to the blessing of both. How else will we find the kind of stirring encouragement for the hard days we’re in? “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24, 25). Jesus’ coming will be a public and encouraging event, just like the weekly gatherings of his people until that day.
“Watching online” is a subtle way of undermining the true public nature of the church gathering. We gather on the Lord’s Day and we eat and drink at the Lord’s table in the Lord’s name—in view of each other. The church is not something we see and hear, but a place and a people among whom we are publicly seen and heard.
Third, the church gathering is physical, not virtual.
Praise God, the church is “in human,” as one of my kids put it. Sometimes it is said that the church is not a building but a people. That’s definitely correct. Sometimes it is said that the church is not a meeting but a people. That is not quite correct. The church is by definition a people, yes, but a people that comes together. When Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” he was referring to the defined local church meeting in a literal place where he intends to show up (Matt. 18:20; cf. 16:18, 19; 18:17–19). As we know, the word for church literally means, assembly. In other words, the assembling of believers in covenant community on the Lord’s Day is the time and place where heaven is manifest in visible form on earth. Jesus really is with us in a special way when and where we gather in his name.
To put this in simple terms, a people that does not meet is not a church because it does not assemble as a church. To put this personally for each of us, it is impossible to “go to church” virtually, hence the cheeky title for this post. We don’t glorify God with many voices on Sunday, rather as we gather our voices something profound happens: “with one voice” we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro. 15:6). And that is the sound of the risen Lord touching down on earth.
There is a final legal consideration worth highlighting. When many churches during the pandemic, “did church online,” it should be no wonder that our governing authorities grew comfortable in some states restricting “in-person” gathered worship for many months on end. Churches were calling their people to “gather online.” This was well meaning, no doubt. But if Christians can fulfill their conscience-bound religious obligation to God and one another “virtually” by “meeting online,” then the state can’t be said to restrict their free exercise of religion at least on this point. In a D.C. lawsuit settled in favor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the judge agreed with their contention: “It is for the Church, not the District or this Court, to define for itself the meaning of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.’”
Put together, we can say this: the livestream is not in direct contradiction with Scripture as a practice. It is not sinful for another church to offer it. It would not be sinful for us to offer it if for the right reasons. However, its inherent nature as a digital and decentralized experience teaches and thereby nurtures a contradiction with the Scripture. That’s what it does to us. And that kind of cloudy or even wrong thinking weakens us in the long-term as a covenantal, public, and embodied community.
When You Have to Miss
It would not be right for us to say a livestream does nothing for us. Surely it does much for us. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything critical that can’t be done adequately enough or better in some ways without the live part. It is of immense importance for us to hear the Word of God preached. And we can thank God for the various digital ways in which we can get the Word out.
So, while we will avoid a functional replacement for our gathering, by all means we intend to resource you from the overflow of our gathering.
What can you do when you can’t be with us? Here are some ideas:
- First, listen to our Sunday at Heritage Spotify song playlist. Every week by Tuesday we load up the five or so songs we intend to sing and then add in about ten more Heritage songs to round out the playlist. Maybe there’s a song you need for the moment, in which case the Heritage Song Collection may help.
- Second, listen to the sermon when the audio posts by early afternoon either to the church Sermons page or to the Sermon Audio page.
- Third, and coming soon, watch the sermon video. We’re not far from posting a video of each sermon by mid-week to the web. “Stay tuned” for more details.
Will the feed still exist for archival purposes? As the saying goes, I could tell you, but I would have to kill you. Could there be dire circumstances in which we, on an invite-only basis, serve a saint? Hopefully you won’t have to find that out any time soon! What about sickness and travel? These have been a thing for 2,000 years. We’ll keep doing what the church has always done when for providential reasons we can’t gather with the saints. And when we’re away, we’ll feel it and we’ll long to be together again.
Finally, we want to recognize that some of you have built your life around this livestream option. We’d like to know your story and situation. Please reach out to me and let me know so we can help. I’ll work with your elder to come up with a plan for helping you transition. We mean to be patient and gentle in this process even as we are making this decided change.
Hope to see you soon!