If the COVID pandemic taught us anything about the Western Church, it’s that ecclesiology is no longer a strong point. What was so strong for many ages has sadly devolved into something the average church member wouldn’t be able to give a good defense of.
As such, with the necessity of changing how church members gathered over the last year when we were faced with restrictions and public health orders, we saw some churches hold off doing anything online because of their beliefs about what the church is, and some, on the other end of the spectrum embrace this “new” way of doing church with more permanence, throwing around terms like “online congregation” and “online pastor”. Many churches are now actively hiring for the new position.
Treating online church as permanence is problematic. Within the normative principle you get plenty of space to define lots of different things as it has to do with church, but you don’t get to define it past where Scripture is clear.
The role of pastor/shepherd/overseer/whatever you like to call it, has irreducible complexity, meaning that it cannot be something that exists online-only.
Presence is non-negotiable for the pastor. This presence is not two dimensional, existing as a face and sound on a screen accessed from anywhere with reliable wi-fi. It can’t even be three dimensional but requires a fourth connection — between souls. How are shepherds to care for sheep if they cannot see body language, discern the words they are hearing, and follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit? It would do us well to remember that Jesus took on flesh and gave his presence to us (John 1:14) — not a hologram or face on a screen from heaven, but a flesh-covered deity. He touched, ate with, and walked alongside humanity as he taught them The Way. We as undershepherds must also provide our physical presence to our people.
Visitation of the Sick
James 5:14 tells us that the sick in our church should be visited by the elders, be prayed over, and anointed with oil. We see this instruction not only in that specific example, but throughout the Bible where the priests of God interact with the sin of the people, bringing sacrifice and making atonement on their behalf. The continuity we see in the role of pastor in the church has continued unabated until our lifetime.
Pastors are in the lives of the people and in the messiness of sin, suffering, and the pain of sickness. This cannot be done well remotely. The most exquisitely worded e-mail cannot be weighed against holding the hand of the dying, hugging the grieving, or simply sitting in-person with those who are suffering.
The exercise of discipline is not a popular one for the church in the West. It doesn’t make you very attractional to those who are thinking of joining when they know their attachment to your local church will cause them to be rightly and graciously held to account.
Maybe that is why online church is popular – the anonymity and ease to skate by unknown, thus allowing sin to destroy you, is hidden from the watching eye of the body of Christ. But it is not the way of Jesus’ church.
Discipline is a gift given to us from Jesus and he uses his church to exercise it. When Jesus tells us to go to our brother who has sinned and then bring others if he rejects us (Matt 18:15-16), I don’t think he meant having extra participants to a Zoom call.
For all of the great resources and teaching series out there, there’s no substitute for pastoral discipleship that happens around a table, a project, or face-to-face. This cannot be relegated to the online realm, to the online classroom, or to a strategy used divorced from true human interaction.
Discipleship is a contact sport, not a video game. Pastors, you must not settle for less than the gift of meeting your parishioners in the flesh to truly help them follow Jesus as you follow Jesus.
Finally, you still might be thinking, “All of these things can be done online.” Yes they can, but poorly. God has high demands of those he calls to shepherd and care for his people and not being serious about that responsibility brings with it serious consequences (woe to shepherds passage).
Let us be serious about pastoring by shepherding the flock of God physically among us and not be complacent in the online world.