Church via app is spiritual masturbation

Church via app is spiritual masturbation November 7, 2018
Photo via Shutterstock

This week, Judah Smith, pastor of Churchome — the mega congregation that is home to the Hillsong worship band and famously attended by Justin Bieber — announced that the church’s latest location was not a physical plant in Nashville, Houston or some other city. Rather, the church’s new location is “everywhere,” via an app called Churchome Global, which allows “members” to stream services, listen to sermons, submit prayer requests and engage in discussions via a “lobby” feature.

It’s the church’s latest campaign toward relevance, and making church hip and accessible for modern audiences. And while I’m sure it’s an impressive app and can even provide some entertainment and encouragement, let’s be honest: it’s not church.

All the goosebumps, none of the responsibility

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t see the appeal of this approach to church. Sunday mornings are stressful. Getting two kids ready and out the door on time is a gauntlet I’m not fond of running, and I’ll be honest that sometimes I wake up on Sundays after a rough week and my first thought is “let’s stay in today.” I just took on a second job and occasionally I have to work Sunday mornings. It sure would be nice to have a handy app that allows me to attend church whenever I want, especially if I don’t have to put on pants.

I can see the appeal of being able to listen to a world-class worship team and getting sermons directly from Bieber’s pastor; there’s a cool factor there. I don’t doubt that there is some great, mood-changing worship going on that gives you goosebumps and the feeling of spiritual movement. It’s easy to walk away from a Hillsong performance and feel that you’ve just had a worship experience; maybe it’s genuine, but maybe it’s also the effect of emotional manipulation. And knowing that you can chat with people at any time about your spiritual questions and that they’ll pray for you is encouraging (and, let’s be honest, probably an ego stroke). Plus, you can log out if the conversations get too real, and you don’t have to worry about being held accountable for any change you pray for in your life.

Church is inconvenient. I’m a man with social anxiety; it takes a lot of effort for me to hold down conversations in public. I’m a busy man; I don’t always like it that church responsibilities pin our schedules down. I’d a prideful man; I often have little patience for people who are unlearned or not as “high-brow” as I would like. Church via app would allow me to have a worship experience, spiritual teaching and relationships with people who I choose.

This is why it’s wrong.

Church should be inconvenient

People behind an app like Churchome Global understand why we want to go to church: the spiritual uplift, the teaching, the feeling of being part of something bigger. And it understands why we’re often hesitant to attend: It’s inconvenient and sometimes annoying. They understand the personal likes and dislikes that come into play when we consider going to church.

What they don’t understand is why we need church.

If we go to church, it should not be just to attend a show and get our “God fix.” We’re part of the Body to serve each other, encourage each other and to allow ourselves to be changed. The point of church is relationship. Yes, there’s the vertical relationship to God, which I admit that an app can be a fine addition to. But there’s also the horizontal component. While I’ve been blessed by online groups of believers, I’ve never mistaken it for my home church. I can’t tangibly meet their needs, there’s not a community I can roll up my sleeves and get dirty in. We don’t love each others’ kids, see each others’ messy homes, make food when people have a new baby, or cry together over illnesses or divorce. The Church is the body of Christ made tangible in our world. Online interaction may feed the mind, but it starves the body.

And the inconvenience and discomfort is part of why we need it. We need church to challenge our idols, tear down our barriers and help in the work of sanctification. We need to be pulled into relationships where sharing our struggles and sins is welcome, and groups of friends who refuse to let us stay as we are. We need to get our hands dirty serving the community. We need to be reminded that, yes, we’re part of something bigger, but we’re also not the center of the story.

I understand that there are people who feel like they don’t get this at their church or that an app would be more convenient for people who work odd schedules or who are shut-ins. My response is that,if that’s the case, maybe your church needs to make a change and consider how to better reach its community. Giving you control of when, where and how your worship and how much you’re able to engage just seems antithetical to why we gather.

Again, I understand the appeal of Churchome Global and similar apps (because they will pop up). But I worry that it’s church without accountability, worship without service, spirituality without sanctification. It’s like sex without commitment or love; it gives a good feeling, but there’s nothing deeper there. In fact, with its lack of true relationship with other people, church via app just sounds like spiritual masturbation (oddly, Smith’s announcement posits the app as attending church via your palm, which seems fitting). You tune in, log on, and leave feeling like you’ve worshiped. And true, maybe you have. Maybe you’ve even had a spiritual experience.

But you haven’t been to church.

Note: To all my readers, I know I’ve been a bit inactive lately. Busy life, coupled with not really feeling like engaging in the toxic political climate. But with elections over, I hope to start posting a bit more frequently.

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams has been writing about faith, culture and film since 2005. His work has appeared in the Source and Grosse Pointe News newspapers, Local Celebs magazine, Patheos, and Christ and Pop Culture. He is the co-host of the podcasts “CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC.” and “It’s My Favorite.” He also writes about movies at Michigan Sports and Entertainment. Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children. You can read more about the author here.

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  • New Hope Spark

    You are not who church online is trying to reach. You can come to church, so come. Church online strives to be the bridge to the highest-touch church experience possible for those who don’t.

    Some people would never set foot in a church due to fear. Church online makes initial contact safe. If they then transition to coming in person, success!

    If they are bed-ridden or shut-ins but can now participate in services and have interactions with other believers and even receive prayer, success!

    If they live in a country where declaring your faith in Christ is an executable offense, but church online gives them a sense of connection and training they can’t get anywhere else, success!

    But if as you say, someone attends church online because their favorite pants are dirty, or they don’t see the value of being in the highest connection community possible, then yes, that’s a FAIL.

    It’s not a substitute for church, but it is a church community, and some online churches even do communion and coordinate baptisms.

    Just because you view online church as a distraction from attending, please don’t disparage the hard work that is goining into reaching out to those who won’t or can’t attend their local church.

    Not once in the history of the church have the tools and systems been in place that every single congregation of any size or budget can make their services and community available worldwide. We are still figuring out what that will look like moving forward, but one thing it will never aspire to: replacing the local church.

  • JoyandPain

    I believe you are missing the point here. Just because an online app for church is created does not mean there is not a need for a physical church and tangible fellowship. It just means that technology has allowed another way for people to worship, learn, study, keep their faith and belief in Christ renewed or maybe restored.

    Before television, church was limited to the building. When television came into existence, people were able to see men of God like Billy Graham and women of God like Kathryn Kuhlman and Marilyn Hickey ministering God’s word and televangelists like Jack Van Impe with his wife Rexella whose messages seem scarier than a horror film, but scary in a good way if you were living right. But eventually you felt hopeful you could be redeemed if you were not living right. But you only felt this hope by the end of the program after they already had you afraid to sleep in fear of the Rapture coming and being left behind for the first 25 minutes of the show, LOL.

    God’s word reaching to places it never was able to before was like a holy fire spreading throughout the world because of television. I loved my pastor and his wife and I enjoyed church services, but the ministers on television were able to reach me beyond my pastor as I became a woman. I still attended church for some of the reasons you mentioned like fellowship, but being an adult in life is not the same as being a child.

    Those sermons about Christ rising from the grave and church book hymns were uplifting as a child. They initiated the good soil within my spirit and planted seeds of God’s word within my soul but those sermons and hymns did not relate to my problems as a young woman. But the ministers on t.v. did. They were not afraid to apply God’s word to the things me and other young adults were going through and struggling through at the time.

    I believe church apps will do the same and more. As someone else already mentioned in so many words, but I’ll put it in my own words: Everything is created for everybody, but everything is not created with everybody in mind.