2020 was the loneliest year of my life.
COVID-19 tore through my budding friendships as a freshman in college, a sickle uprooting all I had spent months carefully cultivating. Friends moved away while school and church transitioned online. Fall rolled around, and due to sickness, I spent most of the semester locked in my room, keeping up with the demands of college at a distance, alone with my own anxieties and thoughts.
There was one thing that helped keep me going through those months: my phone calls with a friend I had met earlier that year before the lockdowns. We would chat about school, theology, life—anything that came to mind. The coronavirus isolated us physically, but those calls kept us connected and took the edge off the loneliness.
Eventually, the church doors opened again, and residential classes resumed as normal. Now, as I reflect on that time, I realize the deep value that online fellowship was to my spiritual formation. Online community can never replace the physical gathering of believers; however, churches must embrace it as a formative tool that can foster Christian fellowship.
Let’s get the less controversial point out of the way: Online fellowship is a cheap substitute for physical fellowship. Southern Baptists believe that the church is “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers.” Local is the key here. A church is a specific place where a local group of Christians gather to hear the preached word, partake of the sacraments, and build one another up in love.
Online gatherings cannot replace physical spaces. A Zoom call is not a church building.
Throughout Scripture, God chooses to dwell with his people in a particular location. For Old Testament Christians, that place was the Temple, with its particular sacrificial system and ornate instruments of worship. In the new heavens and new earth, that place will be the New Jerusalem, in all its resplendent glory and creational abundance. And for us today, that place is the local church, where Christians around the world gather around word and sacrament. The walls might not make Christians, but they do make a fitting house for Jesus to welcome his people.
Amen to all these truths! Yet as much as we emphasize the importance of the local church, we must not neglect the immense value of online communities. Because we are more interconnected now than ever before, we have more opportunities for fellowship and edification than ever. My friend and I would never have grown as close friends without FaceTime calls and iMessage text threads. Even now, we stay involved in each other’s lives through those technologies, encouraging one another and sharing in the fellowship of the Spirit by interacting online. Even beyond that, contemporary missions would grind to a halt without the engine of online communities and resources.