The Bible is quite clear in its expectation that being a Christian is a community experience. From the Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to “Our Father who is in heaven,” to Paul’s frequent references to the church as a single body with Christ as the head, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a shared, communal sacrament, the Scriptures take it for granted that our faith entails horizontal relationships as well as vertical. And not just any sort of relationships, but relationships within an organized local church. So Paul considered it a matter of utmost important to appoint elders over local congregations (cf Acts 14:23, I Tim 3, Titus 1); the same local congregations to which he collectively addressed his epistles. The author of Hebrews made it even more explicit, warning his readers against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).
The Bible expects—or rather, directs—that the normal Christian life is a life embedded within a local church body. That is particularly important for us to remember in our individualistic American context, with an internet full of rich, compelling, biblical preaching available for streaming to our heart’s content. When I can listen to Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson with the click of a button, why bother with a local church where the preaching is (let’s face it) probably not as good?
The most obvious response to the siren song of “internet church” is to point out the way it kills essential elements of Christian living like fellowship, mutual service, and corporate worship, but today I want to consider a different problem with the idea that teaching over the internet can replace membership in a local church. Even if we grant that you can probably find an online preacher who is a more compelling and skillful expositor than any pastor within 50 miles of where you live, there are still several reasons why you will not be as well taught by “internet church” as you would be as a member of a Bible-believing local congregation.
A Local Church Teaches Beyond the Sermon
The trouble with words, even careful words well-delivered by a wise man, is that they can carry many different shades of meaning. How many well-intentioned Christians have taken good, true teachings about challenging topics like raising children or living in a fallen world and put them into practice in all the wrong ways? Of course, you wouldn’t fall into those kinds of misunderstandings—no, you would fall into other, different kinds of misunderstandings based on your own background and assumptions. We all need corrections and clarifications which one-way communication over the internet cannot provide.
I would rather be taught by a pastor with mediocre gifts in a local church where I could ask him questions after the sermon, get counsel from elders, and talk with other wise, godly Christians in the congregation around me, rather than try to learn and grow from just 30 minutes per week listening to the disembodied voice of the most gifted preacher on the planet.
A Local Church Teaches By Example
As any parent knows, most learning comes through watching rather than listening. When it comes to practical questions of Christian living, all the sermons and how-to books in the world will do us little good unless we are also living alongside and watching other godly Christians who are walking the same paths that we are.
Are you troubled by Paul’s words when he instructs women to “be subject to your own husbands” in Ephesians 5? Rather than trying to work out the exact shape of Christian submission in the abstract, start by observing the healthy, godly marriages around you in the church. Unsure what Proverbs 13:24’s call to discipline your child should look like in practice? You may benefit less from a three-point sermon than from spending time with a Christian family whose children are well-behaved and happy.
We worship the God of creation and incarnation, which means that ultimately there is no such thing as purely abstract theology. Every belief, every theological proposition, has a real-life, practical application—and real-life, practical applications are best learned by doing-alongside rather than merely listening. Learning Christian theology exclusively through the speakers of your computer makes as much sense as trying to learn to be a surgeon via audiobooks.
A Local Church Knows You
I’ve been a teacher for a decade, both online and in the classroom. While I love the convenience of online classes and believe they serve a useful purpose, I speak from experience when I say that the best online class cannot compete with the best classroom experience. An online class is necessarily one-size-fits-all. The online teacher doesn’t really know his students the way a classroom teacher can, so he cannot speak to their particular needs and questions in the same way.
The same is true in a church. A local church can teach you better because a local church knows you better. Both from the pulpit and in private conversations throughout the rest of the week, a local body of believers can address the unique challenges and questions and needs and concerns of their individual members in a way that no internet pastor can equal. When Bob and Suzy are struggling in their marriage, they don’t need to hear a sermon on marriage; they need to talk with an elder or pastor who knows Bob and knows Suzy and knows their marriage and what it needs.
Of course, none of this is intended to denigrate the value of gifted teachers who edify the church in print and online. The Bible tells us that God especially equips some of his children to teach, and we should thank God that modern technology allows those gifts to bless so many throughout the global church. But we must also guard against the temptation to allow the glitter of brilliant and godly teaching to distract us from the more important riches which God gives through his local church.