There is a passage in Hebrews in the Bible that is frequently quoted to denounce online church campuses:
“And let’s consider how we can spur each other on to love and good deeds, not forgoing meeting, as some are wont to do, but encouraging each other – and all the more so as you see the Day approaching.” (10:24-25, NL)
From this, many conclude that coming together in the Christian community for in-person worship services is mandated by Scripture.
There is no doubt that we are to be worshippers, both public and private, and one of the hallmarks of the early church was to come together to do just that (cf. Acts 2:42-47).
But that was not what the author of Hebrews required.
The author was not talking about a physical gathering for corporate worship or a physical gathering for a religious event. Instead, the author of Hebrews speaks directly about not giving up on relationships; not to abandon people.
It was a clear appeal to the need to be faithful to interpersonal relationships as Christians with other Christians. The corporate cult was neither the context nor the subject. It was about the importance of Christians challenging and encouraging each other and not giving up on doing so in the context of a world that demands perseverance.
That this is the meaning is further reinforced by the Greek word used for our translation “surrender” to come together. The Greek word translated “forsake” is a word used for desertion and abandonment. In other words, don’t give up relationally; you need each other’s support.
It was the same word used by Paul when he wrote to Timothy about being personally abandoned by Demas (2 Tim. 4:10), then a few sentences later about everyone personally abandoning him (2 Tim. 4:16).
It was also used by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians when he speaks of being “pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not desperate; persecuted, but not forsaken” (2 Cor. 4:8-9, NIV).
More specifically, it was the word spoken by Jesus about his feeling of personal abandonment by the Father at the time of his crucifixion (Mt 27:46).
In all cases, it was the betrayal of an individual, personal, relational commitment that left another feeling of abandonment. The point of the verse in Hebrews is that we should not hold ourselves back from engaging relationally in a way that would inspire us to greater levels of love and good works, never to fail to be “iron against iron” mutually reinforcing (Prov. 27:17).
Taking this verse and this word, and making it into obligatory public worship, in person, has even been named as one of the great urban legends of the New Testament. It has less to do with going to a church service than it has to do with meeting a friend in need at a Starbucks.
Let’s hunt this rabbit.
Let’s challenge ourselves that not everything we used to do in person should be done in person – even what the author of Hebrews demanded.
I can support and encourage someone virtually as well as physically unless their need is physical.
We have to be careful not to take how we did things, how we understood to do things, and make them prescriptive. This includes what we have traditionally done in person. The mistake would be to assume that if we have always done something in person, it can only be done – and must continue to be done – in person.
Yet younger generations have most of their community, not to mention their communication within that community, online. We can say, “You can’t make community that way,” but they’ll say, “Well, sorry to tell you, but you can, and we do.
Discipline is about reflecting on everything you’ve done in person, gathered in a physical location – often on a weekend – and ruthlessly assessing whether it might have a digital counterpart or a digital manifestation.
You might be surprised at how much Is.
The reality is that for years, long before COVID, nearly all humans lived in a slipstream between digital and physical interactions. It’s just been sped up lately. As Carey Nieuwhof wrote:
“You text your friend one second, pivot to a YouTube video the next for a recipe for dinner, then meet your family in the kitchen to chop up veggies for dinner. For years, you’ve moved seamlessly between the digital and the real. The church will be that way in the future as well, which is why the hybrid church – offering both digital and physical ministry – is here to stay. People will be in the building for a week, will watch online solo the following week, and the third will gather with friends in a house or (better yet) serve in the community to be the church.”
James Emery White
David Croteau, New Testament Urban Legends: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), p. 205-210.
Carey Nieuwhof, “The False Debate Between Online and In-Person Church (How to Plan for an Uncertain Future)”, Carey NieuwhofMarch 7, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I believe”, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. .
Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.