To Stream, or Not to Stream: Considering Sundays in Seclusion

by | Mar 25, 2020

It’s become clear over the past couple of weeks that the COVID-19 pandemic would leave nothing in our lives untouched—including our Sunday gatherings. Since our pastoral team’s decision to live-stream a time of singing and teaching for our church, I’ve heard concerns about this practice from both friends and at least one well-known podcast. As those who will give an account for the ones entrusted to our care, we must think carefully about how we discharge our pastoral responsibilities—and, importantly, not just the content of our ministry, but our methods—and never more so than in a time of crisis.

The question of live-streaming in the church touches upon a number of important issues ranging from ecclesiology (the nature of the church and corporate worship) to anthropology (the nature of humanity, how we experience reality, the nature of relationships) to pastoral ministry (how we care for the people of God). In this post, I’ll more modestly seek to answer three questions that impinge upon a pastor’s decision to stream (or not to stream).

Is It “Worship”?

This seemingly simple question actually unearths issues that strike at the very nature of the church. In a broad sense it surely is, just as under the new covenant “worship” language moves away from a special time or place to embrace all of a Christian’s life (Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15-16). If all of life is “worship” in this sense, then it’s a mistake to exclude our live-streams as a potentially God-glorifying response to his grace in Christ!

More to the point, is it corporate worship—that is, a reasonable approximation of the gathered worship of the local church?  Here we need quickly to say no, for a cluster of reasons.

Beyond the broad sense of worship, the New Testament highlights the importance of the local church gathered for corporate worship. Profound and powerful things are happening in our Sunday gatherings that do not happen when we are apart, or when we are “virtually” together on-line. It is in our gatherings that we give concrete expression to the true nature of the church as a body (1 Cor 12:12ff.) and as a temple (1 Cor 3:16f.)—a dwelling place for God himself by the Spirit (Eph 2:22). Indeed, the church, as the ekklesia of God, the successor and fulfillment of the “assembly (qahal) of Israel,” by its very nature assembles before the Lord—and the entailments are breathtaking. Through his word and the work of his Spirit God presences himself in a unique way among his gathered people (cf. 1 Cor 14:24-25).[1]  Christ himself ministers among us as each member, indwelt and gifted by the Spirit, serves and encourages and stirs up one another to love and good works (1 Cor 12:4-13). Through the preaching of God’s Word by an appointed shepherd who faithfully expounds Scripture, God himself speaks again, addressing his people, binding them together in community, and building them together as his dwelling place.

Undergirding all of this are creational—and new creational—realities that imbue our gatherings with special significance: the “incarnational” dynamic of preaching whereby the preacher models and embodies the message in such a way that enhances its credibility and power (it’s astonishing that, in Rom 1:11, Paul apparently attributed to his personal ministry a unique role that even having the letter to the Romans didn’t seem to fill!); the embodied nature of our humanity and relationships that technology cannot approximate—not to mention the embodied nature of our union with Christ which binds us together and through which we encounter Christ in each other. The Christian has far more reason than the psalmist to exclaim, “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”” (Psalm 122:1)

None of this is intended to minimize the potential blessings that can flow through our live streams. It should, though, give us a fresh appreciation for what happens when we gather—and to whet our appetites for the moment when we’re able to do so again.

So no, our live stream is not the same as our Sunday gathering, and when we live-stream songs and teaching from an empty auditorium, it is not our “Sunday worship” that comes through our people’s video monitors. But this is not the only question to consider.

Is It Fruitful?

This is more than a pragmatic question. Perhaps it’s better to frame it this way: “Can a live stream of singing and teaching accomplish certain pastoral priorities during this period of social upheaval?”

Our judgment as a pastoral team is that it indeed can—and our experience after two weeks of experimenting is that it has.

Every faithful pastor is seeking to care for his people in this unprecedented cultural moment. We have our own growing list of tactics to do so. But our live stream has had a number of particularly fruitful effects:

  • It has enabled us to deliver pastoral care in a way that is consistent across the majority of our membership in a single moment;
  • It has provided a platform by which to accomplish the biblical imperative of teaching God’s Word to our congregation—and in way specifically applied to the current season of fear and uncertainty;
  • It has enabled our pastoral team to maintain “contact” with our church as a whole as a supplement to the individual contact we’re seeking to maintain;
  • It has provided families a context to worship together, under the leadership of their pastors, in knowing solidarity with their friends.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that every church should be live-streaming on Sunday mornings. And there are certainly other ways to meet the needs of this moment in your church. Yet, when rightly conceived of and communicated, this tool has the potential to accomplish certain pastoral priorities, however imperfectly, in this unprecedented time of crisis. And I believe it can do so without doing damage to one’s ecclesiology, one’s perception of pastoral care, and one’s love for the local church. Which leads to a final question:

Is It Dangerous?

I’ve heard this concern raised in various forms by some very thoughtful friends. Here are a few of the most important ones:

  • Will this distort people’s doctrine of the church?

This is a fair question, and I suppose this would be possible in the absence of a number of factors. But when a church (or a family of churches) stresses the preeminence of the Sunday gathering in its life together, specifically as it shares the sacraments and sits under the right preaching of God’s Word; when vibrant relationships characterize a church’s fellowship and enhance its application of Scripture to its common life; when a church’s members are devoted to one another in love and committed to reaching their community with the gospel—I have little concern that a temporary live stream is going to distort a church’s understanding of its nature or diminish its members’ participation in its common life.

In the presence of solid ecclesiological convictions such as these, my guess is that, in the vast majority of cases, if a person’s commitment to the Sunday gathering erodes following this unique season, live-streaming would simply reveal a heart issue already present, not create it.

  • Are we setting a harmful precedent?

Again, a fair question, but I think it misses the fact that our current moment is unprecedented. There is no parallel in any of our lifetimes for the cultural upheaval we are experiencing. I’ve heard many comparisons with 9/11, but they miss a fundamental difference between that attack on our country and COVID-19 virus: in the wake of the Twin Towers attacks, our country pulled together—in concerts, rallies, and street parties. The coronavirus is pulling us apart—isolating us, erecting barriers, removing all contexts for community. We as pastors must do all we can—within the constraints placed upon us, applying wisdom, exercising love, and respecting civil authorities—to move toward our people, to know their condition, to keep watch over their souls, to facilitate interactions among them, and, above all, to provide what they need most of all—the Word of God, faithfully proclaimed and wisely applied to their lives at this moment of crisis.

As for our eldership, we believe that this technology, in the present moment, helps facilitate at least part of this pastoral obligation when other Biblical means are simply not possible. Providing pastoral care is never more important than in a crisis, and people are especially attentive to their pastors in a crisis—making it critical that we do not miss this moment to come alongside our people as intentionally as possible. We’ve been stunned by the gratefulness our folks have expressed at our efforts to this end.

I would add that, for us, this is a temporary means which we plan to discontinue when the crisis passes. And if we perceive that it is having deleterious effects, or that the benefits do not justify the efforts, or if we conclude that there are better ways to accomplish similar priorities, we will happily cease this practice. We are in no way enamored by or wed to this particular mechanism.

It’s Not the Same, But . . .

For anyone concerned about negative effects from a live stream, I’d offer this, admittedly imperfect, analogy. When I am away from my wife on a trip, I gratefully have the option of talking to her on the phone. It’s not ideal. I’m not present with her. It doesn’t communicate the whole-soul-&-body union which is of the essence of the marital relationship. Yet, I’m grateful for the inferior, temporary, yet meaningful interaction my iPhone offers. Moreover—and here’s where the core of the analogy kicks in—it does not change the nature of my marriage. After a few weeks on the road, with two dozen+ phone calls under my belt, I’m not less eager to be with my wife. I’m not tempted to think, “You know, being physically present with Julie is really not all that important. FaceTime suffices quite nicely.” Nothing about our marriage has changed, not least my desire to be again with my wife. Yet, I’m grateful that FaceTime has allowed me to talk to Julie, to catch up on home-life, to learn of things needing my attention, to be warmed and encouraged by my dear wife’s expressions of love and concern. It’s no substitute for being home, but it’s a blessing when being together is impossible.

That’s how I view our live streams. It’s not a Sunday meeting. It does not afford all the divine blessings God purposes for the gatherings of his people. Nor is it sufficient for the life of any church. Yet, when rightly conceived of and communicated, it has the potential to accomplish certain pastoral priorities, however imperfectly, in this unprecedented time of crisis.

Considerations Thus Far

We’ve only been at this for two Sundays—and we pray this will not last much longer—but here are a few considerations we’re trying to factor into our live stream.

  • The Word of God is central. Live-streaming has obvious limitations, but it is a means by which we can fulfill our chief responsibility to our congregation of feeding them God’s Word—faithfully exposited, personally applied. And we’ve been greatly encouraged by the galvanizing effect of providing our folks a common diet from Scripture during this season. Although it may not have all the dynamics that live preaching in the presence of one’s congregation has, preaching in this form is still the proclamation of God’s Word, which is powerful to open eyes, strengthen hearts, and transform lives—and extend meaningful pastoral care during this time of pastoral isolation.
  • It’s not our “Sunday worship.” For reasons both theological (see above) and practical, we’re not equating our live stream with our gathered worship. Even though they share certain elements, we want to honor the unique characteristics of each.

Some considerations are practical: e.g., we’re not singing as many songs as we would on a Sunday (however, we’ve had some families request more music, as their children join in with instruments and dance!). We’re trying to be sensitive to the dynamics of on-line communication. As much as possible, we also want to engage those listening in—we try to address those at home and avoid the impression that they’re merely observers of a “service” that’s happening elsewhere.

  • It can create a longing for our Sunday worship. Far from being a detriment to our Sunday gatherings, we’ve sought to seize these moments as a means of instructing our people about, and creating an appetite for, our Sunday gatherings once they resume. For example, on this past Sunday our opening instruction (akin to a Call to Worship, although we did not use that precise language) consisted of the following:

“We begin our time this morning—as we do when we gather as a church—with God’s Word—this morning from Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”” The psalmist remembers that moment when it was time for him and his fellow pilgrims to journey to Jerusalem. He was filled with joy at the prospect of going to the holy city—the location of the temple—the symbol of the presence of God on earth, and all that implied: protection, refuge, blessing, joy.  Christians experience a similar joy at the prospect of gathering together. We’re not able to do that this morning. While we are grateful for this format and what it can accomplish, it’s not the same! It’s not what the NT envisions for the gathering of God’s people: where we experience God’s presence & grace together; where Christ Himself ministers to us through each member as they are indwelt and gifted by the Spirit; where we experience the personal, powerful effect of God’s Word as it addresses us & binds us together. And so, we can relate to the longing in the psalmist’s words, for the time when we are again together. Yet until that time we rejoice!  This moment whets our appetite, for that moment. And until that moment, this remains true:  Because of the cross, God’s presence is not relegated to a building: by the Spirit, He’s come to dwell with us. And because He has, we can live every moment—especially moments of unprecedented uncertainty and fear–strengthened in Him; protected by Him; relying upon Him; rejoicing in Him.”

  • It affords an unusual evangelistic opportunity. We’ve been surprised to hear from our members that unsaved family members and friends who haven’t accepted an invitation to visit have chosen to join the live stream. Although we’ve not given evangelistic messages, this has proven to be a unique opportunity to offer non-believers the only true source of comfort and hope in a world turned upside down.

Our Only Confidence

I’ll say it one last time: I’m not suggesting that every church should be live-streaming on Sunday mornings!  A pastor may choose other means of caring for his people. This method might not be conducive to a particular church’s “culture.” This technology might be beyond the reach of a particular church. You may even conclude that live-streaming is either unacceptable or unwise. The point of this post is not to advocate for this mechanism, but to explore its biblical fidelity and potential fruitfulness as one means among many.

One thing is imperative. The current moment is forcing every pastor to prayerfully consider how best to “pay careful attention” to God’s flock and “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The inestimable price Jesus paid for his bride calls for our most prayerful dependence, careful thinking, and vigilant labors. Regardless of our response to the unique challenges we face, may our confidence never be in the methods we choose, but in Christ’s unshakable pledge: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

[1] See David Peterson, “Worship in the New Testament,” in Worship: Adoration and Action, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 77.