At exactly one year ago, in February 2020, following reports of Covid-19 cases in several places of worship, several churches in Singapore began to move their worship services online.
This came just in time: a month later, in the wake of sharply increasing cases, all worship services and religious gatherings were suspended.
Since then, many churches—and members—have got used to online gatherings. Many services are streamed live online or shared on YouTube, small groups meet via video conferencing, and Bible study and prayer meetings are also conducted virtually.
And while some restrictions have been lifted, and religious institutions are currently allowed to have up to 250 worshippers in separate zones and with safety measures, many believers are probably still “going to church” without leaving their homes.
Not surprisingly, this raises some questions about church services. Is the digital church a temporary response to Covid-19, or is it here to stay? Would a hybrid church—with both onsite services and online live-streaming—become a future model? What is a real church—digital or physical?
Recently, the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) invited Dr Pete Phillips, Director of the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology, to speak on this topic. Here’s what I have gleaned from the session:
1. Digital vs physical: Which is a real church?
The physical world feels more real because it allows physical interaction. No wonder it took a while for many to get used to attending church online.
Ironically, now that on-site services have resumed to some extent, some have reported feeling let down by the physical services. Though they can be there in person, they cannot interact meaningfully with fellow believers, and they feel distant from the proceedings. Some even say they prefer to interact in the virtual space, as it’s less threatening and disappointing.
Naturally, it prompts the question: So what is a real church? Is it a physical or digital church?
This dilemma is understandable: Just as the virtual world can feel unreal, the physical world may not necessarily feel real, either. Just as you can feel alone in a crowd, people can be present in body, but absent in mind and spirit. It is equally possible to be physically present in church, but not have any real engagement with God and with fellow believers.
So, the question is: What, then, is real?
2. What makes a church real
The Bible doesn’t describe church in terms of physical spaces. Instead, it defines the church as a community of believers, with God dwelling in each one of us (Colossians 1:27). God can engage with His people in any place—whether it’s in a physical church building, or online.
Jesus himself explained this truth when He was talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21–24):
“Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . 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. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Ultimately, what makes a church “real” is the engagement between believers and God, and between people.
So, whether we are meeting on-site or online, we need to be intentional in encouraging real engagement between people, and in creating a space where people can experience God as a member of the body of Christ.
3. Making church count
Each of us can play a part in making church real—for ourselves and for others. Here are some ways that can help us to be engaged meaningfully with God and fellow believers, whether online or on-site.
- Tune in early: We can prepare our hearts and minds to be fully present by arriving or tuning in early, and spend some time in quiet prayer, confessing our sins and giving thanks to God for His grace and goodness in the past week.
- Participate wholeheartedly: Have a Bible with you. Look up the Bible reading and references during the sermon, and take down notes. Express your praise and worship with raised hands or closed eyes, sing along if you are at home, or lip-sync if you are at an on-site service.
- Reach out compassionately: Arrange to meet others for fellowship before or after service, or stay socially connected through WhatsApp or a simple phone call. We can encourage each other to follow Christ, to do good works, and to be holy by reading the Bible together, chatting about the recent sermon, and praying together.
The church can be real, whether we are on-site or online. Given both the need to stay safe and our own desire to meet, the church faces both a challenge and opportunity: we can blend both physical and digital, so as to bring the different elements of corporate worship and fellowship together. That way, we can help people in both the pews and on their sofas to walk together, as fellow disciples of Christ.