When COVID-19 hit, it seemed as though everything that could go virtual did go virtual.
Work meetings. Education. Personal hangouts. Gym class. Even church services. Within just a few months, many people who had never even heard of Facebook Live or Zoom had to learn to use them.
As people spent more time online, their habits began to shift. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, 29.7% of U.S. social media users increased their usage by 1 to 2 hours per day, and another 20.5% increased their usage by 30 minutes to an hour.
In many ways, this digital increase kept people connected during quarantine in ways they couldn’t have been otherwise.
That was the goal when Hopewell Baptist Church launched their broadcast ministry during the pandemic. Pastor Lee Pigg says the church’s online ministry has already a bigger impact than they expected.
“Now, we’re in about 190 countries through Inspiration TV,” he says. “The good side of that is that we can reach other countries, and we can reach people who physically can’t go to church.”
But not all the effects of going virtual are beneficial, says Pastor Lee. While he’s grateful to reach more people online, he encourages everyone who is able to join their local congregation for in-person fellowship—and he offers several compelling reasons as to why.
Online-Only Loses Community
“A lot of people who were active in church prior to COVID-19 have found a much more comfortable spot where they can just stay home on Sunday and watch church,” Pastor Lee says.
This is dangerous, he explains, because “when you sit at home and watch church, you’re not worshipping with other people. You’re not building relationships.”
God created us to need community. The moment we try to divorce the local church from community, we face several risks.
The biggest risk, perhaps, is isolation, which can lead to a host of problems. In fact, isolation can heighten pre-existing health conditions “as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder,” reports the American Psychological Association.
“Already, our culture is getting more isolated,” Pastor Lee says. “It feels like our culture is much more comfortable on a device rather than face to face.”
He’s not wrong. A 2017 survey found that the majority of Millennials and Gen Z communicate more often on their phones than they do in person. The same study revealed that 70.1% of young people sleep with their phones in arm’s reach, and another 65% even bring their phone into the bathroom with them.
Where’s the Human Element?
The dangers of social isolation aren’t just health-related, Pastor Lee says. They’re also emotional, relational, and even spiritual.
Many people who come to Pastor Lee for counseling are simply craving to hear, “You’re not alone. You’re human. So many other people struggle with the same thing.” They’re looking for empathy and compassion.
“Isolation hurts our whole society because we lose that kindness and our ability to care for one another,” he says. “We lose that sense of seeing people as people, as human beings who have feelings. People become just something on the other end of advice. When we lose that in worship, it compounds the danger. There’s no connection.”
Plugging Into a Local Congregation
Back when the author of Hebrews commanded the believers “not [to neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25), there was no option to meet virtually. It was always in person.
Does this mean gathering virtually is wrong? Of course not, Pastor Lee says. But it should push us to pursue meeting with our local churches in person when we can—and to view online-only church as the last resort instead of our first choice.