Church online through the one who promised, “I am with you always”

Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 are an amazing comfort…

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Here Jesus claims to be ever present in a non-physical way. Just dwell on that for a moment… for 2000 years God the Son has remained incarnate and yet, for that entire time, he has also been physically absent (in this human nature) from his people, his bride. Jesus promised to be with us always, and yet has been self-isolating (physically) for 2000 years.

For Jesus’ words to be a comfort, he must be talking about a way of being with us that transcends physical proximity.

This is an important point to note during this time of Covid19 isolation, and especially as we think together about whether we can call what we do online ‘church’ or not. It seems that some Christians feel that their inability to gather geographically/physically means they can not be with one another in a sufficient way to call it ‘church’. They’ll say things like, “it’s not really church because we’re not gathered physically“.

However, I would want to suggest three things;

  1. The church is a people, not a physical event
    An emphasis on the gathering sense of the Greek word ἐκκλησία can sometimes over-shadow the more significant idea that it is God’s redeemed people (who gather). Gathering is an important response to being part of God’s people, but we don’t stop being God’s people when we scatter on Monday.
  2. We are primarily gathered around Jesus, not one another
    A church ‘event’ is when we gather spiritually around Christ in his word. A group of Christians going to see a movie in a theatre is not a church gathering because it’s missing its essential element; Jesus. In the same way, attending a church gathering in person does not make you a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Christian gatherings are an attempt to express a spiritual reality; Since it’s not just me in Christ, but we are in Christ, so we together turn our hearts and minds to him in his Word and with thanks.
  3. It’s possible to be ‘with’ someone without being beside them
    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that gathering is functionally equivalent to being with people. It’s possible to be with someone – in their company – and not be in their physical presence. Telephones, Zoom, Skype, etc. all allow us to share a common mind and attention on Christ in his word with other people and yet without being in their physical vicinity. (There’s a trinitarian basis for this also, since the eternal relationship of the persons of the triune God was not spatially with one-another; relationship and togetherness is not dependant on spatial and physical proximity).

But the main reason we can call our live online meetings “church” is because Jesus is – as he promised – with us. His Spirit lives in us and unites us to himself, his Spirit unites us to one another as his family, and his Spirit has called certain pastors to be over-us in Christ. In and through that Spirit we desire to gather in one place (even if it is an address that starts with http) and together with others who are in Christ (even if that togetherness is helped through technology) we are co-drawn into God’s word and into praise of the one who called us together with his Son – who will physically gather us to himself when he returns.

Until our Lord returns, all our gatherings – embodied and online – lack the physical presence of the one who truly makes our gatherings ‘church’.

The restrictions on gatherings have not brought concern to the Lord of Lords. When he sees your church tuning in and trying to make the best of a difficult situation… Jesus is not thinking “Tut-tut… that’s not gathering!!! How dare they call it church!?” Jesus is Lord. And whether you’re trying to gather in a building or in a zoom chat or in a live stream, he loves his people gathering around him. So don’t fret, keep going.


Why people won’t watch your ‘online church’…

Yes… we all agree this whole COVID-19 lockdown provides a unique opportunity for gospel work. Jesus is supreme, and nothing will hold back his kingdom growing. I deeply believe people will come to faith and grow in their faith during this time.

And many churches (including my own) have significantly changed to become media organisations (whereas before, we were more like event organisations).

But… running an event for 100-300 people sitting in a room is very different to producing media to be viewed in someone’s home / hand-held device. Not just a little different… very, very, very, very different. While our theology might mean the ‘event’ and the ‘video’ have similar elements (like a ‘sermon bit’), they require a completely different mindset to produce.

I think the most significant mindset shift we need to make is how amazingly easy it is for people to opt out.

Imagine someone who walked into your church building last year… How bad a job would you need to do for someone to say to themselves, “This is so boring/silly/lame that I’m going to stand up and leave now”? It would have to be really bad, right? That’s because there’s an unwritten social agreement when we physically sit in a chair in a room with other people which makes it really hard to just get up and leave.

But that social agreement does not exist with online videos.

There is barely a thread of social contract holding them there. There is barely anything stopping them from clicking ‘close’ without a second thought.

(Now, I’m sure you’ve had people say that they really enjoyed church online. You might have even heard of people who’ve tuned in and watched the whole thing who have never been to your church. That’s wonderful, God is good! But it’s also going to play into our confirmation bias. Because we have no idea how many people might have tuned in and tuned out after 60 seconds… without even a second thought.)

Good online videos, even more than TV shows, are amazingly intense… they are always – every second – giving you a reason to keep watching. They know that it’s their responsibility to keep their viewers hooked – because there’s no social contract holding the viewer in place.

How do they do that? Well… that’s the real question. And if it was a simple answer we’d all be doing it. But here’s my “it could possibly be” thoughts…

  • There’s some big reveal that you have to wait for.
    Think Mythbusters, SmarterEveryday, etc. The whole package is a journey to something you really want to see. You get taken along a story that builds tension so that you really want to keep watching. This is how countdown videos (e.g. Top 20…) work too.
  • The subject/host is hard to look away from.
    This is a really subjective thing… it’s very ‘x factor’. Some people just have a certain presence on screen that’s hard to look away from. Their personality just seems to ‘fill-up’ the screen. There are some common elements I think… they have very expressive faces, they’re comfortable being silly/relaxed on camera, they usually talk very fast.
  • The subject/host is someone you care about.
    If you’ve been watching someone for a little bit, you start to care about them, and you’re less likely to switch off when they get a bit boring. This is partly why big names like PewdiePie and the Jimmy’s (Fallon & Kimmel) can keep an audience… people get to a point when they are happy just hearing their voice, even when it’s not that entertaining.
  • The content is so compelling/combative/emotional
    Seeing people cry, laugh, get angry is hard to look away from. It’s why cars slow down when they pass a car crash. We’re very empathetic beings, and we get caught up in other people’s emotions. Even when we don’t agree with them.

I don’t know how these and other elements can be used and integrated into our church online packages. I wish I did. But I do hope these thoughts might help spark our Christian desire to love people where they’re at to keep improving what we’re doing for the sake of the lost, and for the sake of the saints.


People don’t ‘do’ MTS…

This is a turn of phrase I’m going to need to change in myself. We so often talk about people ‘doing MTS’… by which we mean they’re doing a 2 year Ministry Apprenticeship.

But MTS is something slightly different. MTS is a Strategy. That’s what the ‘S’ stands for. It’s the Strategy for Training people into ‘the Ministry‘. Think about what that means…

By ‘the Ministry’ we’re talking about (usually) full-time gospel work involving bible teaching and pastoring and evangelism. And to get great people into that most important and urgent role we believe they need good training.

So, by ‘Training’ we mean full-time, getting your hands dirty, people proclamation and prayer, trying new thing, feeling the weight of pastoral responsibility, etc. But it’s Apprenticeship-type training.; it’s with a mentor who loves, supports, challenges, pushes, protects, etc.

We could just call it the MTA… Ministry Training Apprenticeship. But the ‘S’ is important.

This whole idea of getting people to do an MTA is a strategy to raise up gospel workers to take the gospel to Australia and the world.

So people don’t ‘do’ MTS, rather they ‘join’ MTS. They join in this strategy, this plan, this movement that’s trying to win Australia to Christ… through investing deeply in the next generation of gospel workers.


What type of purpose drives your delegation?

An important part of all delegation is setting a clear purpose. Why is this thing worth doing? Why is it worth your time and effort? What are you trying to achieve by the grace of God?

It’s worth recognising there are two type of purposes; ontological and teleological.

An ontological purpose refers to the very nature of something… God is good, We are forgiven, the gospel is powerful, humans want to feel special, etc.

A teleological purpose refers to the outcome of something… God will be praised, we will be saved, people will hear the gospel, people will feel loved, etc.

Since there are two kinds of purposes that can motivate and drive delegation, it’s also worth considering which one is most likely to be your “go to”. Which one is your M.O.?

For me, I’ve always tended towards the teleological… tell me the specific outcome you want and that will give me the motivation to do everything towards that end. For others on our staff team, we’ve realised they tend towards the ontological… they start with who they are in Christ and the reason some program or structure exists and that helps provide the motivation for them.

But as we delegate, we need to remember that we’ve got different people on our teams; some will catch the crystal clear picture of the teleological image, others will grasp onto the deep convictions presented in the ontological image.

Here’s an example as we think about our upcoming Carols event…

We want to put on a great carols night because Jesus is worth making a fuss about and Christmas is the time of year when people are open to Jesus-type things.

We want people to come along to carols and at the end of the night turn to the person next to them and say, “Wow, what an awesome Christmas carols. That church obviously loves Jesus and the community!”

Taking notes during big talks

While some people are natural note takers, others think they can’t do it… they’ll claim it’s hard or even distracting and unhelpful.

But want to suggest it’s a habit worth learning. And I want to suggest a way to get started. But first, let me tell you about Balderdash.

We play this game with our kids where everyone comes up with a fake definition of an unusual word, or a fake story-line of an unknown movie. They all get read aloud and we vote on the one we think is the real one. In a family of 6 that means trying to remember 6 different stories about a space princess and trying to work out who might have made each one up… so rather than read them all again and again, we give each answer a single word… just one word that will help jog our memory as to which story it was.

So that’s my suggestion if you’re not usually a note taker… start with just one word.

Rather than writing a sentence, just write down one word. As you’re listening to God’s word being preached, just think of one word, one idea that is being talked about… write it down quickly and keep listening.

The idea isn’t to be able to go back and read through the talk… the idea is simply to be an active listener. To involve yourself in the sermon. To pay closer attention. Even just to stay awake.



The price Jesus paid does not mean you’re worth that much to God.

Have you heard something like this… 

Look at the price God paid for you; His own son! God wouldn’t sacrifice his son for something worthless would he?! Therefore we must be immensely valuable to God!

The crux of the idea of this; God’s primary motivation in sending Jesus to die is because you are personally worth that sacrifice, you are worth that price. The trouble is… you’re not. No one is worth the death of God the Son, the Eternal One. Especially not one of God’s enemies!

So if God didn’t sacrifice Jesus because we’re worth it, why did he do it? Well, first, because of his gracious love. 

But you will say, “Aha! We must be worth something to God for him to love us!” But no! It’s not gracious love if we’re worthy of being loved. If we’re lovely in any way then God’s love ceases to be gracious. 

But doesn’t God care about us, and doesn’t he know the number of hairs on our heads? Yes… but does he care because out hair is worthy to be counted? No! He cares because he is a caring God. He’s a God who cares for things that are not worthy of his care.

That’s what God wants us to know above everything else; he is the God who loves the unlovely, who saves the not-worthy-of-saving, who adopts the useless, who justifies the wicked.

And that’s why the death of Christ is “worth it” to God… that “price” was what it cost to show that he is gloriously gracious.

So, he didn’t send his Son to die because we’re worth it, he sent his Son to die because being known as amazingly gracious is worth it.


Valuable feedback is specific feedback

The very same pastors who feel sceptical when people say, “that was a lovely sermon”, are often guilty of offering the same vague feedback to others.

Valuable feedback is specific feedback. Whether it’s positive feedback or negative is be site the point. Feedback that helps people correct or continue what they’re doing must be clear in a few ways;

  1. Clear behaviour noticed.
    There must be an action, or behavior (think “something that could be caught on video”) that is being addressed. It can’t be a vibe, or a feeling, and certainly not a motivation or intention!! (E.g. “when you looked away while I was talking” is fine, “when you tried to hurt my feelings”… is not fine)
  2. Clear implications of the behaviour
    there needs to be clear consequences that happened because of the behaviour. These don’t have to be observable, they can be feelings. I felt encouraged, I felt excited, the mood in the room changed, everyone looked at their bibles, etc.

In an ideal world, those consequences would be clear to the point of a resulting behaviour… I was excited to talk to my friends, I was scared to raise it again, I was encouraged to pray bigger prayers.

Good feedback helps people be gooder.