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Should Churches Do Sunday Sermon Videos & Zoom Meetings OR Wait Until the can Meet Again? Reflecting on a 9Marks Pastors' Talk
Here are three quotes/ideas from my brother and one of my pastoral mentors, Mark Dever, on why their church has chosen not to do online sermons on Sundays:
"It's not a sin. . . . I do think it's imprudent, particularly because we have people today saying, 'that's what "church" is' or 'that can be "church."' . . . An uncountable number of things happen when we assemble together as a congregation and I don't want to do anything that suggests that we can substitute for that."
You don't have a duty to [attend a zoom meeting] the way you have a duty to go to the church's gathering. "It's not going to feed you in the same way that your regular fellowship at your congregation does. It's not that there's not good to take from that. There will be good to take from edifying literature. There might be good to take from a nap. But there is a uniqueness that is not going to be reproduced or in any significant way partially accomplished by doing something other than assembling with the church that you covenanted to be with."
"I don't know if this is going to pass more quickly or take more time than the Spanish flu, but I do think there will be a keen sense of appreciation the next time we are able to assemble as a church."
There is so much I agree with regarding Mark's comments including the uniqueness of a Sunday gathering, how gathering together in a single assembly is part of the essence of a church, and how there is a huge danger among Christians today who think they can obey Hebrews 10.24-25 and be a church merely by watching Sunday gatherings and sermons broadcast online or on TV. Yes and amen to all of that.
The question for me is whether conducting a zoom meeting or livestreaming a sermon to our 105 church members is imprudent. I praise God it is not sinful as best I or Mark can tell. But is it unwise? I want to do what is wisest and most edifying for the saints of Bethany Baptist Church (BBC). Mark seems to be saying it is unwise for BBC to do a zoom meeting and watch a livestream sermon at the same time from our separate locations because (1) it likely suggests that we can substitute for the supremely valuable Sunday gatherings with our online efforts, (2) an online zoom meeting with everyone watching the sermon together will not in any significant way partially accomplish what a gathered congregation would accomplish and (3) it may weaken the keen sense of appreciation the next time we're able to assemble as a church.
First, some agreements. I agree that doing a zoom call and a live stream Sunday sermon will weaken the keen sense of appreciation the next time we're able to assemble. What a sweet day it will be when we're able to see one another and greet one another with warm and physical affection! Meeting on zoom and live-streaming a sermon does weaken our anticipation of gathering again.
Second, I agree that Sunday zoom meetings and live streamed Sunday sermons may suggest and subconsciously shape our intuitions to think that these online efforts adequately substitute for Sunday gatherings. Zoom meetings do not adequately substitute for Sunday gatherings. Doing zoom meetings with prayers of praise and confession, announcements, singing, and preaching make it feel like this is a valid substitute for our Sunday gatherings. This feeling of "valid substitution" is a wrong feeling. It's an erroneous and anti-biblical thought. But we must be aware that doing zoom meetings and fresh Sunday sermons forms (and deforms) our intuitions in this wrong direction. The inevitable spiritual deformation is an unintended consequence that must be seriously weighed. The problem is that it's hard to measure how deeply this deformation goes in the souls of each member and in the congregation as a whole.
Mark suggests that an online zoom meeting with everyone watching the sermon together will not in any significant way partially accomplish what a gathered congregation would accomplish. Here's where I disagree to the point of deciding to do fresh Sunday sermons and zoom meetings: a fresh sermon and a zoom meeting can partially accomplish what a Sunday gathering accomplishes. I say "partially." And that partial accomplishment is not enough of an accomplishment to substitute for or replace the Sunday gathering! What can zoom meetings and fresh Sunday sermons partially accomplish?
(1) It's been encouraging to sing knowing that others are singing the same truth at the same time in their homes. When we sang "you give and take away, Lord blessed be your name!" two Sundays ago that truth hit me harder than it would have if I was just singing it with my family in our living room. Seeing some faces on zoom while we were all singing that song helped me feel that truth. To be sure, that's a partial accomplishment. I wish I could hear their voices in their physical presence! But singing at the same time while seeing their faces brought an edifying weight to the truth sung.
(2) On Sundays we all meditate on the same text and the same exposition. The Word preached shapes a large chunk of our members at the same time. It's not the same as sitting in the same room with all of the physical and corporate dynamics God uses. But it is partially edifying. If expository preaching is far and away the most important of the 9 marks of a healthy church (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 3rd edition, 42) then to get a partial benefit is better than getting no benefit. The brothers at T4G were right in my view to give us the partial benefit of streaming the sermons and panels even though that could never fully replace being together in Louisville. It was an inadequate, less than ideal, and partial way of bringing some grace through faith to a group of people rather than no grace through faith if nothing happened at all.
(3) For BBC, seeing each other's faces on zoom is better than merely watching a livestream video. We can see each other listening to the Word. There is a participatory nature to the event rather than watching a live stream. Some say that makes it even more dangerous in replacing Sunday gatherings because it is participatory. I can grant that, but we want the encouragement and connection that comes from participating rather than merely passively watching. This encouragement and connection is partial, inadequate, abnormal, and less than ideal. But it is encouragement. Praying together on Sunday nights has shaped me and my children when they hear other members pray. Praying a prayer of praise or confession in the morning has prompted my heart toward praise and contrition in ways I have not been provoked for a few weeks when we weren't doing it.
(4) For members who are living alone, lonely, or facing serious emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual challenges during this pandemic, I want them to have the option of getting a partial encouragement through the means of zoom meetings and video sermons. I can call them personally. I can pray with them. I and other members should do that. But there is also a peculiar blessing to a large church of church members singing the same songs and hearing the same sermon and responding online at the same time that ministers to our people in ways that our other efforts cannot. This ministry falls far short of a Sunday gathering and cannot adequately replace it, but it is of some help and in my view something here is better than nothing.
I doubt Mark would disagree that there are these benefits from zoom meetings and online sermons. I think the sticking point for prudence versus imprudence for me is this: Do these benefits outweigh the subconscious forming of your 105 members toward the legitimacy of substituting a Sunday gathering for a zoom meeting and sermon video? My answer as of now is yes. Others think the unintended shaping of their members intuitions to dismiss physical Sunday gatherings is too great. I think for multi-site and multi-service churches that is the case. I don't think for 9marks minded churches like Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) or BBC that risk is too high. But that's where prudence comes in. May the Lord help me see the folly and imprudence of my reasoning for the good of BBC.
I miss our church gatherings and long for the day we can meet again. I'd probably miss it more if we weren't doing zoom meetings. I don't think zoom meetings adequately or legitimately substitute for Sunday gatherings. But our practice inevitably misshapes the intuitions of our people to some degree on whether this is a "valid substitution." Maybe some of our people will incorrectly think a zoom meeting adequately accomplishes what a Sunday gathering does.
When CHBC had a downstairs video feed during construction that had a chunk of members in a different room, they acknowledged that as abnormal, less than ideal, and temporary. Some churches make these exceptions then retain them when the abnormal situation has passed. CHBC correctly ceased the abnormal practice. Did it shape some members toward another room for live-streaming being a normally acceptable church practice? Perhaps. I think so. But CHBC immediately ceasing the practice when construction was complete helped to largely minimize those intuitions being shaped in the wrong direction. Their resuming of one assembly in the same room reshaped and solidified their biblically regulated convictions.
That's what we plan to do at BBC. In this peculiar providence there are deformed ways of discipling one another. This season is abnormal. When things go back to normal we will immediately cease these zoom meetings as the partial way for some to encourage each other on Sundays for the complete way God designed us to encourage each other by physically gathering together on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. As of now I believe that resuming regular gatherings and ceasing zoom meetings and online streaming of sermons will help reshape our members' intuitions in the weeks and months to come. May the Lord bring that day soon.
One other important point: These zoom meetings and fresh Sunday sermon videos are not biblically mandated for our people to participate in. They are not commanded to meet on zoom or watch the same online sermon. Hebrews 10.24-25 obligates Christians to gather, but the zoom meetings are not Sunday gatherings. They are commanded, however, even in these days of social distancing, to love one another as Christ loves them, to encourage each other, care for one another, gospelize one another, and disciple one another toward Jesus. They may use the zoom meetings and Sunday sermons for part of that. They may not. It's their choice. But I'd rather give them the option of using the the zoom meetings to partially love, encourage, and share life with one another than not even letting them have that option.