Reformed Articles

How To Livestream Your Communion Service

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If a virtual assembly is an assembly, would a virtual Incarnation have been an Incarnation?  Could the Christ simply have waited for the Internet era, and livestreamed His presence? Clearly the divine purpose was to come in the flesh, and not ‘appear’ via Facebook Live. Jesus dwelt among us; he was the one “from the beginning” whom the apostles “heard”, had “seen with [their] eyes”, and their “hands…handled”.   Centrally, the Cross could not have been livestreamed—it required the Word to become flesh, to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.

 

I was wondering about something this week: How would a church livestream a communion service?

I imagined that those watching could get a personal communion set (ironically also widely available online). I could speak the words of institution and pass the elements toward the camera. As I approached the camera, congregants could approach their screens, ‘take’ the elements, and then pass out the contents of the kit at home. This idea could work for baptism. I could pass a bowl of water toward my webcam, and a waiting father at home could move his bowl of water toward his waiting infant, sprinkle his little one, or one friend could pour his bowl of water on another.

There are a few nagging questions, like buffering. What if the whirly thing appeared on his screen just after I in real time and space moved the bowl toward my camera, but before he saw the recording of my virtual water pass?  Since there was already a short delay in the best of conditions, perhaps he could just wait a few minutes, or if necessary just watch the YouTube archive of the service later that day.  Maybe it would still be a baptism if he poured the water on the same day.  Or maybe not.

But after thinking some more, things became much clearer.

First, I remembered that the Bible commands assemblies. This started long ago, in the Old Testament, where pilgrims, cut off from the regular sacrifices by distance, actually took the time and trouble to travel to Jerusalem for the “pilgrim feasts”, and when they could not, they grieved.[1] It was not sufficient for the temple to exist at a distance; the pilgrims were called to attend in person. Together with the regular weekly and local Sabbath assembly, these feasts were called “holy convocations.”[2] The Hebrew word for convocation means “a collective of people gathered for a purpose”, and like the New Testament word ekklesia (church), is rooted in the verb “to call.” God calls to sinners in the Gospel, and we gather, we assemble, we congregate at His call.

Jesus attended these convocations himself, on the Sabbath in the synagogue[3] and at the major feasts.[4]  Jesus was also Himself a reason for convocation.  After calling sinners in the synagogues, “His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him.”[5] The Scriptures record that He touched the sick.[6]  He preached, live, the Sermon on the Mount to those same multitudes.[7]

The New Testament church received the Spirit on Pentecost while assembled, and continued to assemble.[8] A Spirit-filled preacher inaugurated the age of the Spirit by preaching to an assembly.  The apostolic command was to assemble; we are not, they wrote, those who neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.[9]  The church has always followed the apostolic example; in persecution, gathering; in war, gathering; and at great expense we have built meeting houses (while not essential for gathering) whose spires punctuate our long commitment to a simple principle.

The church is a gathered body, and worship happens in the assembly. In our broader theology of such assemblies, they include the presence of a minister of the Gospel both to preach and administer the sacraments, elders to oversee that ministry, and worshiping congregants, present body and soul. [10] Such assemblies need not be large (our Savior said two or three is fine), but they need to be assemblies.

Second, I considered the Incarnation of the Son of God. If a virtual assembly is an assembly, would a virtual Incarnation have been an Incarnation?  Could the Christ simply have waited for the Internet era, and livestreamed His presence? Clearly the divine purpose was to come in the flesh, and not ‘appear’ via Facebook Live. Jesus dwelt among us; he was the one “from the beginning” whom the apostles “heard”, had “seen with [their] eyes”, and their “hands…handled”.[11]  Centrally, the Cross could not have been livestreamed—it required the Word to become flesh, to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, indeed, to bear our sins in his body on the tree. [12],[13]

At the heart of true religion has always been an assembly connected in principle to the Incarnation. The tabernacle and temple proclaimed ‘God with us’ in the hope of a future Incarnation. People assembled there. The Incarnation marked the physical presence of Christ with his people, and he gathered the multitudes to himself. The New Covenant church meets together with the consciousness of another real gathering now in heaven,[14] and in the expectation of a final gathering; we meet while praying “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  We are waiting together for the presence of the God-man, with oil in our lamps, like the wise virgins. The command and impulse to gather in person is central to Christianity.

Third, I thought about the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus taught a parable about a rich man who “lifted up his eyes” and looked across “a great chasm” and “saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”[15]  Would you settle for a livestreamed new heavens and earth? It seems that this would actually be closer to hell.

The new heavens and the new earth do not promise a view from afar—but rather resurrection life, body and soul, enjoyed together with others in the great multitude of those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.[16]  Our future is an assembly, body and soul, with the Incarnate Christ, forever.

Our present moment is unique in human history. A plague that limits public gatherings is not new to the experience of the church. What is unique is the almost ubiquitous existence of technology which in a very limited way delivers a record of activity at one location to others in many other locations, in something close to real time. This technology has proven to be a great blessing to those homebound in difficult circumstances—we should give thanks for it, and use it very carefully.

Note first what this technology is completely unable to do: Create an assembly. It cannot transpose the presence and activity of those in one location to another, nor does it return the activity of the other location to the first. With it we cannot greet one another with a holy kiss; we cannot encourage each other with psalms hymns and spiritual songs; we cannot sprinkle the waters of baptism; we cannot distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Even the lively preaching of the Word is only transmitted only in part, and with a delay. Virtual assemblies are not assemblies. It seems absurd to have to say this, but we are not assembling if we join the “livestream.”

This brings us back around to our first question:  How do you livestream a communion service?  The answer is simple:  You do not livestream a communion service because you cannot.

God’s good and wise providence has limited our assemblies in the current plague. We ought thank him for the blessing of technology, and use it well.  The best use, it seems to me, is to call an assembly, even if limited in number, and broadcast the activities of that assembly to those who cannot attend. If we cannot do this (assemble at all), the same technology can be used to teach, and to encourage fellowship.  Such use also gives opportunity to point your unbelieving friends to good teaching.  YouTube has made the spoken Word as readily available as the written Word.  Pray that God uses his Word for great things!

But here is my fundamental plea:  Don’t call the whole thing—the assembly and those watching online—a “virtual assembly.” The Internet is not a place. Even a four-year-old can tell the difference. Don’t try “virtual sacraments.”[17] Don’t tell people you went to church last Sunday if you didn’t.

Instead, we ought to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. We cannot remove the Lord’s fatherly discipline by legal fiction. We cannot declare assemblies that do not assemble. We instead should earnestly pray for a restoration of the public worship of God.

And since our God is merciful, his promises unchanging, and his design for our redemption clear, our hope for that restoration is a sure hope. The Lord will gather us again.

Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Peter Van Doodewaard is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Covenant Community Church in Taylors, S.C.


[1] Ps. 42:4

[2] Lev. 23

[3] See Mt. 4, 9, 12, 13; Lk. 4; Jn. 6. “Synagogue” simply means assembly or congregation.

[4] See Lk. 2 and Jn. 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, and 13.

[5] Mt. 4:24-25.

[6] Mk. 7:31-37, Lk. 5:13. I am not suggesting that we touch the contagious, but rather pointing out the nature of the Incarnation.

[7] Mt. 5:1-2

[8] Acts 1:14, 2:46-47, 4:31, 5:16, 6:5, 10:27, 12:12, 13:44, 14:27, 15:6, 15:30, 20:7

[9] Heb. 10:25

[10] I am writing in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation.

[11] I Jn. 1:1-4

[12] Is. 53:4

[13] 1 Pt. 2:24

[14] Heb. 12:22-24. The intermediate state is a mystery, but Moses and Elijah appear there in visible form (Mt. 17), along with Enoch (Heb. 11:5), and perhaps Samuel (I Sam. 28:14). See also Rev. 7:9-17. Whatever the case, the heavenly gathering described in Heb. 12:23 is its own “ekklesia.”

[15] Lk. 16:19-31

[16] Rev. 7:9-17, 19:

[17] In you are a confessional Presbyterianism, your Confession notes that “private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone…[is] contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.”  Simply put, don’t try this at home!

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