Years ago, if my kids were too sick to go to church, our family would take the day off and have “couch church.” We’d gather in the living room to pray, read the Bible, and enact a sort of communion. These little services helped us honor the Lord’s Day when we had to stay home.
At the time, our ritual was a stopgap measure and nothing more—I really couldn’t relate to the idea of worship outside of a “real church.” Television services and radio-broadcasted sermons have been around for years, but until recently, I had my own questions about them. I wondered, How can you connect in any meaningful way with an image on a television or computer screen?
When my family moved to a provincial French city, we attended a local church. Though the building was beautiful and the ambiance sacred, most of the messages were lost on us, even after we learned to speak French. Our old standby “couch church” gradually became the status quo for Sunday mornings, and I discovered a wealth of spiritual materials online for people in our situation.
Thankfully, our home church in Atlanta offered a podcast of each week’s sermon. Gathered around the breakfast table with a bounty of French toast and warm maple syrup, our family listened to a message given the week before. At first, the experience felt strained—we were alone in another country with no worship band to lead us in hymns. After the sermon ended, we simply got up from the table and continued on with our day—no Sunday afternoon lunch, like we’d have back home. And distractions were a problem. Outside of the controlled atmosphere of a sanctuary, we could walk away from the table or talk to one another during the sermon. I was constantly telling my kids to be quiet and listen. Nevertheless, the messages managed to work their way into our lives.
There is a reason we are called to worship together: We build relationships, support and depend on one another and learn more than we do alone.
For better or worse, researcher George Barna estimates that since 2000, more than 20 million Americans have begun exploring alternative forms of worship. Home churches, workplace ministries, and online faith communities are part of a growing trend. I never thought I would fall into this demographic, yet the circumstances of my family’s expat life forced us to find creative ways to do church. Worshipping at home transports the spiritual reality of church directly into your living space. But it’s harder to separate Sundays from the rest of the week when the sanctuary is your home.
A strange thing happened when I returned to the U.S. and attended “real church” again. I realized that my mind was just as distracted there in the brick-and-mortar sanctuary as it was at my breakfast table in France. I had to make a concerted effort to pay attention and let the Word seep in. I discovered that the impact of church on our walk with God has more to do with whether we choose to receive it than when or where we worship.
That said, no amount of concessions, planning or scouring the Internet can replace the rewards of gathering corporately—in person—in an assembly of fellow believers. There is a reason we are called to worship together: We build relationships, support and depend on one another and learn more than we do alone. These things are lost when we disengage from the body of Christ, no matter how devout we are.
Though never ideal, if you have to resort to a “couch church” scenario, be aware of a couple of pitfalls. It’s easy to become lackadaisical, and the atmosphere can deteriorate rapidly. “Couch church” can become “nap church” or even “football church.” Also, it’s important to maintain accountability with a spiritual authority of some kind. In our case, we found that by remotely attending while abroad, we could legitimately rejoin our congregation during annual visits home, when we make a point of reconnecting with our pastor and church family.
I’m immensely grateful for the effort many Christians have made toward offering online devotionals and podcasts—these things have made a real difference for my family. This past Christmas we once again listened to the BBC broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and the blessed message of Jesus’ birth became real for us. It reminded us that church is not merely an event, location, or ritual. It is about connecting with God and fellow believers in a sacred space—wherever that may be.