Prioritize Your Local Church: Don’t Just Be a Highly Online Christian

From Randy: Brett McCracken, senior editor for The Gospel Coalition, wisely writes, “If you have two hours on a Sunday morning to spend somewhere, don’t spend it browsing or any website (however helpful it might be). Go to church.” Likewise, here at EPM we have always said that our ministry does not replace church ministries, but complements, strengthens, and facilitates them. Reading articles or watching videos on our website is no substitute for being part of your local church.

EPM will exist only as long as God wants it to. If it becomes evident that His purpose for EPM is finished, we will close our doors. The sun does not rise or set on this ministry. It is simply a tool at God’s disposal (2 Timothy 2:21), for Him to use how and as long as He chooses.  

On the other hand, the local church is a key component of God’s eternal plan. Jesus calls the church His bride. He died for her and says that ultimately the gates of hell won’t prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). Yes, local churches can close their doors, and in some cases, God leads them to. They can fail to honor Jesus. But knowing that full well, Jesus made churches a major part of His plan. But I believe that more than ever, God’s people must prioritize being part of a local church, even though the best one they can find will be imperfect, and once they join it, they will be part of its imperfection.

(No one is more aware than we are that in some cases there are unfortunate but legitimate reasons for needing to “access” church services online. We are in that position because of Nanci’s impaired breathing due to 30% of her lungs being removed and her extreme vulnerability to COVID and other diseases. But we do the best we can to participate with our church even when we are singing and hearing God’s Word and taking communion in our home.)

There’s lots of Christ-centered content to be found on the internet, and it certainly can complement our efforts to grow in our faith. But ultimately, we need more than online messages, worship,  comments, and articles. We need each other—as part of the body of Christ. I think Greek scholar and translator J.B. Phillips captured well Hebrews 10:23-25:

In this confidence let us hold on to the hope that we profess without the slightest hesitation—for he is utterly dependable—and let us think of one another and how we can encourage each other to love and do good deeds. And let us not hold aloof from our church meetings, as some do. Let us do all we can to help one another’s faith, and this the more earnestly as we see the final day drawing ever nearer.

TGC’s Manifesto: Prioritize Your Church!

Or the Dangers of Being a Highly Online Christian (HOC)

By Brett McCracken

Every week we make hundreds of choices about how to spend our time and where to give our attention. We’re overwhelmed with choices when we open our phones or computers: watch this clip, click on this ad, read this article, listen to this podcast, scroll through this story, swipe through this app.

The Gospel Coalition exists in this world—one of many voices inviting you each day to watch, read, or listen. We hope our content is spiritually enriching to you, especially because of the internet’s general lack of enrichment. But honestly, there’s an action we’d invite you to take that’s more vital to your spiritual health than almost anything you could click on (including here). What’s the action I’m talking about?

Be committed to a church.

TGC exists to support the church, never to replace it. If you have two hours on a Sunday morning to spend somewhere, don’t spend it browsing or any website (however helpful it might be). Go to church.

We plead: do not neglect the church (Heb. 10:25). Prioritize it. Commit to it. Invest there. Serve there. Grow alongside real, flesh-and-blood people. Embrace its unavoidably uncomfortable aspects.

The deeper all of us step into the internet age, the more we at TGC—an internet-based ministry—are convinced: a Christian is strongest when embedded within a healthy local church and driven by a love of and commitment to that church.

Formation Happens in Church

We are spiritually formed wherever we spend our time, for better or worse. If we’re spending most of our time reading Scripture and investing in the life of a church, we’ll be spiritually formed in one direction. If mostly on TikTok, Twitter, and Netflix, we’ll be formed in another direction.

Excess time online largely forms Christians for the worse. The more time we spend in bias-confirming online bubbles, on curated feeds full of voices that radicalize us in various directions, the more our desires are shaped by what our online tribe loves (more than what God loves). Highly Online Christians (HOCs) naturally start to grow less interested in things—such as Scripture and church—that don’t perfectly fit the narratives they ingest online. But in shunning the very things that can recenter them on solid ground, HOCs become further entrenched in a self-deception spiral of their own digital making.

Sadly, this is happening all over the world, simply because we’re spending more time online and less time in church communities. The natural result? Many churches are losing the battle to form Christians.

This is why the “rediscover church” plea is so urgent. The division and angst in our world—including the Christian world—is rapidly reaching a tipping point. But healing won’t come online. Progress might be made, though, if we all recommitted to the church. The church is God’s unique gift for his people’s flourishing. It’s the place where Christ-followers learn how to follow Christ. It’s where we learn and apply God’s Word, and participate in his mission. It’s the best place for ordering our loves toward God, tuning our hearts to sing his praise.

The church is where it all happens.

  • No YouTube video or Wikipedia entry can train us in virtue like the church can.
  • No Twitch stream or subreddit can create sustainable, edifying community like the church can.
  • No Twitter debate can help us love our enemies like the church can.
  • No activist hashtag can channel our righteous anger and longing to do justice—and love mercy—like the church can.
  • No Spotify worship playlist can replicate the glory of embodied, congregational singing.
  • No celebrity preacher’s blog or podcast can replicate the gift of a pastor you can sit across from, known and loved, even in your darkest moments.
  • No confessional “vulnerability” on social media—however many likes it receives—is as satisfying as intimate confession with members of your church family.

Are there lots of things online that are good and helpful for the Christian life? Absolutely. But none of it beats the church.

Yes, It’s Hard

But this is idealistic, you might think. My church is not a place where I feel safe or known. It’s not the primary place where I grow.

Fair enough. But even if the above statements don’t match your current church experience, they still describe the church as it can be. Committed membership in a church, while imperfect, is still your best shot to live a faithful Christian life.

Find the healthiest church you can, but never assume it will be perfect. It won’t be. It’ll be uncomfortable. If you go to the hospital for dehydration and the doctor puts an IV drip into your arm, that’s uncomfortable. But it’s also your lifeline. The discomfort gives way to renewal.

So it is with church. We’re dying on the vine in the digital age. Going to church isn’t the most comfortable thing, but it’s what we need to become healthy again:

  • Amid the disorienting chaos of the digital age, church helps orient us.
  • Amid the partisan tribalism, church—a diverse and global family—breaks down walls.
  • Amid the disembodied surrealism or virtual life, embodied church reconnects us to reality.
  • Amid the ephemeral, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed of life online, church connects us to history and situates us in a much bigger story—an eternal story.

Church Outlives Everything

Spend an hour on the internet (or five minutes on Twitter), and it can feel like the world is falling apart. Everything is framed with emotional urgency and “breaking news” gravitas. Ominous headlines describe another COVID-19 surge, another horrific act of violence, another insipid conspiracy theory shared on Facebook.

And if Twitter is your main reference point, you might think the church is falling apart too. But in my experience, spending less time online, and more time with my church, almost always tempers my sense of gloom and doom. Why? Because when I’m at church, I’m part of the one institution in this world that won’t eventually collapse.

I’m looking around at people—of every color and background—who will be my tribe eternally. I’m doing the thing—worshiping God—I’ll be doing forever. Church takes me out of the hazy fog of this fleeting life and brings me into the clear, oxygen-rich air of eternity. As my hands lift in praise and my lips touch the bread and the juice, it’s like the “memories of her future” that Amy Adams’s character experiences in Arrival. In church we have glimpses of heavenly life.

When the world’s foundations are crumbling, run to the church, whose one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Will the church disappoint you? Yes. You will have wounds and scars. We all do. This side of heaven the bride of Christ will always be blemished. Yet Christ is sanctifying her, and one day she will be spotless and radiant (Eph. 5:27).

Never forget, Christian, that “the church will outlive the universe,” as C. S. Lewis puts it.

There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life, is extinct and every one of us [in the church] is still alive. Immortality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men.

Never forget, Christian, the promise Jesus made to Peter, that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). Jesus never promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against that one Seattle megachurch, or one international apologetics ministry, or one gospel-centered coalition. Those things will come and go. The church will remain. The church is the only institution Jesus founded and the only one that will end in success. All other institutions, parachurch ministries, charities, and businesses will eventually end. The church will not.

Will TGC be around in 20 years? We hope so! But if not, that’s OK. In as many years as we are able, we want to help Christ’s church thrive in this complicated, challenging stretch of history.

We are not a church replacement. We are a church cheerleader and a church equipper. We want to help churches in the daunting task of digital discipleship. If pastors and church leaders are on the front lines of the battle to form Christians in the digital age, TGC is like a supply line attempting to help those in the battle-weary trenches as they fight for souls and ward off relentless attacks from various directions.

And it is a battle. Whatever platform or device you’re reading this on, it’s a spiritual battleground. Christians are being picked off right and left online.

Don’t let that be you. Shore up your defenses, breathe in replenishing oxygen, feed on the nourishment of God’s Word, and be built up by the body of Christ.

In other words: submit your life to a church.

This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition and is used with permission of the author.

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

Brett McCracken is a senior editor and director of communications at The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth WorldUncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian CommunityGray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, and Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.