Challenges to Humanity

Online Fellowship: A Complement, Not a Replacement, of the Church

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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.

Put simply, the more Christians fellowship, the more they mature. And the Internet provides fallow ground for fellowship.

Put simply, the more Christians fellowship, the more they mature. And the Internet provides fallow ground for fellowship.

Additionally, people gather in online communities simply because they’re looking for somewhere to belong. The sin of Adam and Eve introduced relational brokenness into creation: as Stephen and Mary Lowe point out, “we yearn for connection to one another because of what we have lost and how we were created by God.” The Internet becomes one way that we can forge those connections we’re longing for, the relationships that we desire as people who were created to love God and others in God.

Many lonely souls who struggle to flourish in physical communities find companionship online, where unspoken social cues and peer pressures don’t loom large. The Lowes mention a student who would rarely speak in their residential classes but would shape conversation and fellowship in their online classes. In the youth ministry at my former church, I met several students who would linger quietly in the corner of the room during Sunday services, rarely interacting with the pastor or the other leaders. Yet later that afternoon, they would blow up the Discord chat for the youth group, excitedly chatting about games they were playing, posting prayer requests, and sharing details about their lives that they would never have been brave enough to mention in person.

In our rush to rule out church online, have we pushed out those who feel isolated in traditional church settings? Do we focus on physical fellowship while remaining ignorant of the dynamics of online communities?

We must reflect deeply on these questions. After all, whether we like it or not, we as moderns are inescapably shaped by online contexts. Even if our churches remain signed out of online communities, our congregants will log on all the same. The Christians who shuffle out of our pews on Sunday morning exit into a world informed by the alluring narrative of technological progress and the limitless freedom it provides. If we want to provide a prophetic counter-narrative, we must grasp the tool of online fellowship, understand its power and its limitations, and wield it well.

I’m struck by how intentionally Paul and John crafted their letters to the early Christian churches they discipled from a distance, even as they longed to meet the believers in person. “I hope to come to you and talk face to face,” John writes, “so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). May we also embrace their nimble spirit. May we seek fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters wherever it may be found. First through the local assembly, and then also online.

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Dennis Nicholson

Dennis Nicholson

Dennis Nicholson is an M.Div. student at Liberty University. He serves as a teacher’s assistant at Liberty’s University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and the assistant editor of the journal Eleutheria. Apart from his life’s mission to read through all the works of Augustine, Dennis enjoys long conversations about mathematics and theology, late night FaceTime calls, and efficient blocks of code.

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