As pastors, we were all thankful for the technology to be able to stream our services during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine what shepherding a group of people would have looked like without it. What would we have done without the internet during the pandemic? (Of course, if we hadn’t spent so much time online during the lockdown, maybe the insanity that ensued afterward wouldn’t have happened?)
We streamed our services from the first Sunday of the pandemic until Easter Sunday of 2022 when we decided it was time to stop the stream. Ironically, this wasn’t the first time I had made this decision for our church. Two weeks before the lockdown started, I told our church we were going to stop streaming our services. God has a sense of humor.
I wanted to write this article, because there aren’t really any voices out there encouraging churches to shut down their streaming. Every time I listen to one of the big Christian leadership podcasts, they talk about how important it is to keep doing so. It put a lot of pressure on me for a long time to keep going even though I felt it was time to shut it down long ago. So, in case you’re a pastor of a small church like me, here’s at least one voice saying it’s okay (probably even good) to shut it down.
1.) Church is the people, not the service.
The reason we stopped streaming in 2020 was the same reason we stopped in 2022. I don’t want people determining whether or not they will give our church a try based on my preaching or personality, on our worship, or what they’re able to see of our church in a 1.5″ X 4″ box on their smartphones while they’re using the bathroom.
The best part about any church is the people. I don’t care if you go to Chuck Swindoll, Andy (or Charles) Stanely, Steven Furtick, John MacArthur, Charles Spurgeon, or even to the Apostle Paul’s church. The preacher isn’t the best aspect of that church, because they can’t be. It’s impossible. The preacher is a person, not a church. They may be the spokesperson for the brand, but they aren’t the body of people who makes that a church.
The word used for church in the New Testament is “ekklesia.” It means “called out ones.” It’s the people who have been called out of the darkness and into the light. Translators did a huge disservice by translating ekklesia church, because the english word church comes from the German word Kyrche, which actually does mean the church building, or structure where religious gatherings are held. But, since there’s not much of a chance we’ll ever successfully change what we call the “church,” we have to stick with the nomenclature of the day.
The point remains, biblically, church isn’t a building – it’s a people. You can’t experience the people on a live stream. You might see the backs of their heads, see them raising their hands, etc., but you don’t get to mingle with them. You don’t get to hear their stories or jokes, see their smiles, feel their hands as you shake them, and most importantly, you can’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit that dwells in the midst of that group. Peter said that the people of God are a temple made up of living stones. When we gather, the gathered body is the dwelling place of the Almighty. Like God dwelled in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and Temple in Jerusalem, He dwells in the temple of living stones.
2.) It reduces the value of the church
Have you notices how easy it is to scroll past someone or something on Facebook or Instagram? We spend all of 0.3 seconds looking at the picture one of our friends and family posted. Someone shares a struggle they’re having, we click the care emoji and move on through our feed. We move even faster past the advertisements and any agency we think wants something of us.
We do the same thing to our church’s posts on FB/IG. In fact, sometimes we can’t scroll past them fast enough. We like to compartmentalize our world, so when our church gets filtered into our Social Media (SM) world, between the advertisement and political posts, it makes us feel things we don’t want to feel.
Anything you can scroll past in less than a second doesn’t hold much value. We would never spend such little time engaging with someone in real life. Before SM existed, we’d have to go through the whole envelope of pictures and hope we didn’t see anything that would haunt us in our dreams. Sure, we didn’t always want to, but we did it because the people who took the pictures matter to us.
SM has caused us to value friendships less than we did before. It has also caused us to devalue church. What we value gets our time and attention. If we’re being honest, what moves of us value about SM is either the attention or entertainment we get from it. We like it when people like our posts, or when we scroll onto something entertaining. We’re in it for us.
Putting “church” into this “in it for me” environment takes the self-sacrificial nature of church and turns it into just another form of entertainment. If we even choose to take it in.
3.) It feeds the cancer of consumer Christianity.
The church is not a commodity to be consumed, it’s a community we devote ourselves to. That’s how Luke describes it in Acts 2. “They devoted themselves to the apostles teach, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” They weren’t coerced, they devoted themselves. They gave up what they were used to so they could be a part of the new covenant and the covenantal community that was created by Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.
Consumer Christianity is the cancer that is killing the church in America and everywhere in the Western World. In parts of the world where it could cost them their lives to be a part of the church, consumerism means absolutely nothing. There is very little concern given to the quality of the worship, the appeal of the worship leader, the attire of the senior pastor, or how entertaining they can be. But, today people are choosing which church they’re going to attend next (because they’ve gotten bored with their current experience) based on how entertaining or appealing that church is on their live stream.
Our church is sandwiched between two megachurches. We spend more money on streaming equipment in 2020 than we had spend on tech for the previous 7 years combined. And it still paled in comparison to what those other churches were able to do. They spend more money on one camera than we did on our whole system. They spent more money on lighting than we spend on all our ministries combined.
It’s not supposed to be a competition. I believe that. Unfortunately, as fewer non-Christians consider giving churches a try, the only real way most churches grow is by transfer growth. So, even though it’s not a competition, it is. And it’s one most medium to smaller sized churches can’t win. To be honest, when we try to keep up, we’re sacrificing what really needs to be done in the hopes that we might ascend the great wall of technology.
And the more we keep fueling the competition, the more the church at large loses. The more we train people to evaluate their church experience from an entertainment/programming position instead of fellowship and community.
All Churches Should Stop Streaming
I’m not going to lie. I think ALL churches should stop streaming their services. Yes, even the biggest ones. But I know there’s no way that’s going to happen. I know the big guys would strongly disagree with me.
Has it actually helped?
Like many churches, we saw a big boost in viewers for the first few months of the lockdown. About triple our weekly attendance. But, by the time summer rolled back around, those numbers were down to about a third of our average weekly attendance. Once we went back to in person services, we had even less.
A lot of churches argue that they still have more people watching the live stream than they have attending. But, at the end of the day, even if that’s true, is it helping those people who watch? Sure some of them are shutins. Some are unable to attend in person. I get it more than you know. Now that we all have the equipment, we can still record the service and distribute it to those who can’t make it.
But the truth is, when we said that church was still church even when we were just streaming services online, we taught all our congregations that church is just an episode of a show that we watch. We watch it just after The Office and just before Sunday Football, or the PGA, or Game of Thrones.
I’m not opposed to streaming. I like the idea of doing something that is specifically designed for that environment. But, we can’t call it church, because it isn’t. It’s entertainment, and honestly, it doesn’t hold a candle to the other entertainment people watch on their smartphones while they’re going to the bathroom.
If you can do it while you’re sitting on the toilet, it’s probably not church.
Those are just my thoughts. Feel free to disagree.