Q. Do I need to go to church since I can find fellowship online?
A. What a great question! I've often wondered what the apostle Paul would think of our internet-driven world populated by blogs, chat rooms, and instant messaging. Imagine his letters to the various New Testament churches. Instead of the "letter to the church at Ephesus," he might have written "the multiple emails to the church at Ephesus." And rather than wait to address a problem when he was able to visit, Paul could have sent an instant message.
There are some tremendous advantages to the way the internet has expanded our communication abilities. It's given us relational access to people with whom we never would have crossed paths otherwise. In Paul's day, it's likely Christ-followers from Ephesus never spoke to any of the Christ-followers from Philippi. Today that connection is just a click away. Christians all over the world now can encourage and learn from each other.
But getting back to your question, it's important to note Christian fellowship and church services are two very different things.
Church services are, by design, not terribly effective at promoting fellowship or community in the relational sense. Instead, their purpose is for the larger group to have centralized biblical teaching and corporate worship.
Fellowship often happens when people are in smaller groups or involved in one-on-one relationships. It's in this context we work out our faith by becoming more loving, patient, kind, and truthful. And it's critical that the physical church provide space for this to happen. Part of what makes the body of Christ so unique is the corporate gathering. That was true in the New Testament churches, and it's true for churches today. The Bible disagrees with those who say they can follow God without attending church. Scripture tells us "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together as some do" (Hebrews 10:25). So, online Christian fellowship cannot be considered a viable alternative to church services.
Now, can online Christian fellowship be considered an alternative to the face-to-face fellowship churches provide? I would say yes and no.
Online Christian fellowship certainly can supplement the face-to-face variety. I think the apostle Paul would have loved to participate in immediate and frequent communication with the scattered believers of his day. And I know many people who have internet friends with whom they pray and share stories about how God is working in their lives. These ongoing relationships are great sources of joy and hope.
On the other hand, so much of what defines biblical fellowship is participation. Early church members ate together, admonished each other when they observed inappropriate behavior, and learned to love each other in ways that can only occur with face time.
It's much easier to love from a distance. I can be enormously patient with a person when I know I can click off from a conversation anytime I want. I can self-select what information I will and won't divulge, giving a false picture of who I am. Because online communication is fraught with potential for deceit or withholding, we need to be deeply aware it provides only a partial relationship.
Recognizing the limitations of online relationships can allow you to enjoy them for what they are—a sometimes-wonderful supplement to life lived in community. And these limitations should remind us of what a great gift we have in our local churches—both the corporate gatherings and the smaller fellowship groups. I hope you participate fully in a church and rub shoulders with people who will love you and shape you to be more like Jesus.
Nancy Ortberg is a church leadership consultant and popular speaker who lives in California with her husband, John, and their three children.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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July/August 2006, Vol. 28, No. 4, Page 32