Online Church? Relationship Wins

Why even when we can watch other church’s livestreams, we still choose our own

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Kevin Makins

Eucharist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

If there is one thing I have appreciated this whole “Sunday online” season it is the ability to spy on every church I’ve ever known. Please tell me I’m not the only one who has spent many a Sunday jumping from livestream to livestream, like a secret agent sneaking into pews across the country. I’ve prayed with charismatics, contemplated with monks, listened to dozens of preachers, and what has struck me again and again is … how mediocre most of it is.

Wait, that sounds bad. Hear me out.

Most of us have, in our mind, an image of the “ideal” church: The one with perfect music, teaching and doctrine. In an internet age, most of us have come across a church that we think is so great we now compare every other congregation to it. We listen to their podcast, stalk their social media, and say, “If that church were near me I’d be there in a heartbeat.”

But most likely that “ideal church” isn’t close enough to get to every Sunday, and so we compromise. We settle for a nearby church that checks enough of the boxes. Sure, the church we land at isn’t perfect, but at some level we understand that it’s important to physically belong to a community, not just stream religious content on the internet.

Enter the COVID-19 crisis.

Suddenly there are no physically accessible gatherings, no church buildings to bike to, and no geographical reason to choose one Sunday service over another. Everything has moved online and is equally a click away.

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And yet, for reasons I find both baffling and profoundly encouraging, people are continuing to engage with their local church online.

Undoubtedly there is a “better” livestream experience on some other website. The megachurch has a production team and a well-lit set, the big city church has a celebrated preacher who has sold millions of books, and a handful of communities have Grammy-award-winning musicians who are now livestreaming their worship songs. Yet, despite all these amazing options, people continue to tune in to their local community’s hodgepodge mess, filmed on an outdated smartphone with subpar audio and hastily cut together by a volunteer learning to use iMovie for the first time, because the truth is people don’t actually want the “perfect church.”

What people really want to see is their friend reading Scripture, a familiar face orchestrating prayer, and their ordinary pastor speaking to their imperfect community, even if it’s mediated through flickering pixels and technical difficulties.

How beautiful that, even in a season of online church, relationships seem to win out.

So please don’t be mad when I say that I find your church’s livestream unimpressive. I just don’t have a relationship with the people praying, preaching or breaking the bread.

But when our Sunday video cuts to my sibling-in-Christ leading the prayers of the people, or a familiar name appears in the chat box, I beam up like a teenager with a crush. I know these people. I love these people. I am church with these people.

But if you were watching our church livestream you also would be thoroughly unimpressed.

That’s the beauty of church. Production, quality and preference may be a value to many people, but church is fundamentally about relationships.

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It’s not about watching the best church service; it’s about watching your church service.

Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.