Coronavirus Updates

What should we make of livestreamed church services?

Pastor Adriel Yeo, Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church // February 17, 2020, 11:29 pm

Reflections on covid 2

COVID-19 has been seeing an increase in the number of people getting infected, and churches here seem to be badly affected with some being identified as clusters.

In the midst of much concern, fear and anxiety, there is pressure for churches to suspend services temporarily. In fact, a number of churches have suspended services, with the Roman Catholic Church suspending mass indefinitely.

Certainly, such decisions are never easy ones to take as they can easily be deemed as a lack of faith or irresponsibility. But this article does not question whether services should be suspended or not.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore has released a statement encouraging churches to continue with services, and there may indeed be unique pastoral considerations within individual churches that would warrant taking certain courses of action.

My concern is that online livestreaming has somehow become the default contingency plan.

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Part of this concern stems from the fact that something is clearly lost when the body of Christ does not come together in communion, but instead watches livestreams in their own homes individually.

While I understand that the social distancing of online services significantly decreases the chances of either transmitting or catching COVID-19, in my opinion, such measures need not be taken unless and until there are official rules stating that people should not be allowed to leave their homes.

My concern is that online livestreaming has somehow become the default contingency plan.

After all, if the logic is that staying at home without gathering lowers the risk of either transmitting or getting COVID-19, one still needs to account for the fact that we still gather to report to work on a daily basis where there is human contact.

The reality is that, as a nation, the threat of COVID-19 has not been officially deemed serious enough such that everyone needs to be confined within their households.

So, if all the above hold true, then resorting to livestreaming services as the default would seem to be an unnecessary step logically.

Why are churches still meeting despite COVID-19?

On top of that, theologically we need to grapple with the fact that something of the koinonia is lost when God’s people don’t come together.

Service isn’t merely informational. It’s not just about listening to a sermon or singing some songs. It’s about doing them together, praying together, eating together and serving one another together.  

Even in the act of listening to a sermon, we listen as the gathered people of God to hear God’s speech directed to us. That is what it means to participate in the liturgy.

The sense of coming together is not incidental or even secondary to the Christian faith.

Even in the times of the early Church, 2nd century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr noted that deacons would take the elements of the Eucharist to those who were homebound.

The sense of coming together is not incidental or even secondary to the Christian faith. Part of the salvation narrative is not merely that we have been saved and reconciled to God – but also to each other.

Hence we are drawn by the Spirit to Christ who gathers his sheep. The church is a concrete visible reality as seen in Acts.

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Because of this, I cannot help but wonder whether a better contingency plan is to go back to what was practised during the initial stages of church life – home gatherings.

A home gathering retains the theological significance of gathering as God’s people, while also limiting and controlling mass contact unlike church services.

Just like church services, in a home gathering:

  • Bread can still be broken.
  • Songs can still be sung collectively.
  • Sins can still be confessed corporately.
  • Prayers can still be made together.
  • Sermons can still be heard together, read aloud by a member of the church.

After all, Paul’s letters were distributed and at times read aloud as it was the task of letter bearers to do so. In such an approach, even those quarantined can still read or perhaps hear the sermon.

Certainly, such an arrangement may come with an increased level of logistical planning such as liaising with and assigning church members to open their houses based on location, visiting different households to conduct communion, or temporarily authorising select church leaders to preside over communion.

But the logistics should not deter us. I think the home gathering approach should not be discarded or even given secondary priority to online services for such reasons. The decisions we make need to be shaped and guided by our understanding of what the church is supposed to be.

The decisions we make need to be shaped and guided by our understanding of what the church is supposed to be.

In saying this, in no way do I think that my theology of the church is the one that needs to be embraced by all. Neither do I think that gathering in homes or the house church model is easy to implement (though it is worth noting that home gatherings were the norm for the first few centuries of Christianity, and many parts of the world today).

What I have offered here is merely one alternative contingency plan based on my own theological understanding of the church.

So in light of the Minister for Health’s recent comments that worship services may still continue, let us take this time to thoughtfully consider how we can best bear faithful witness to the visible reality of the church, before concluding too quickly that online services should be our go-to response.

“Without a doubt there are statements about the church in the New Testament that use spatial analogies; one thinks of the church described as a temple, a building, a house and also a body.

It is clear from this that there the church is to be described as the visible church-community of God on earth… It would be very dangerous to overlook this, to deny the visibility of the church, and thus to devalue it into a purely spiritual entity…

“It is intrinsic to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ that it (the church) occupied space in the world.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics


Adriel is currently serving as a pastor at Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, working with the youths and young adults. The views he expresses here are of his own and don’t necessarily represent that of his church. This post was first published on Adriel’s blog and has been republished with permission.

THINK + TALK

  1. What does going to church mean to you?
  2. What does the Bible say about coming together as a spiritual community?
  3. How can believers show unity apart from meeting physically in a church?