The Rev. Billy Graham said that while there is value in being able to watch church services on television - particularly for those who are sick or elderly - it is preferable to attend in person, as it's important to be involved in a Christ-centered community.
The 99-year-old evangelist shared his thoughts on the issue in a recent Q&A published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
"I'm admittedly a fairly independent person, and I just can't see myself joining a church," the reader said. "I want to be free to run my own life and set my own schedule. And anyway, if I want to, I can always watch a church service on television. What's wrong with doing that?"
Graham said he's "grateful" that many churches today make their services available through radio or television.
"As a result, people who can't otherwise attend their church because of sickness or age are still able to share in its ministry," he said. "Admittedly, they miss the opportunity to see their friends or get acquainted with new people-but it still can be a great spiritual help to them."
However, the Baptist pastor pointed out that the reader's problem isn't age or sickness.
"I hope you'll stop and consider what your problem really is," he said. "Yes, we all have different personalities, and perhaps you're more of an independent spirit than most. But don't use this as an excuse to ignore God, or to keep Him at arm's length (so to speak) from you. Frankly, almost nothing is more spiritually dangerous than your comment that you want to run your own life-because it means you don't have any room for God."
In other words, Graham said, the issue the reader faces isn't just church.
"The issue you face is Jesus Christ, and what place He should have in your life," he contended. "He left Heaven's glory for one reason: to make it possible for us to be forgiven and saved. He did this by sacrificing His life for us on the cross. God loves you that much!"
Earlier, Graham pointed out that when an individual watches a church service online, they lose out on a number of benefits.
"First, you'll miss the opportunity to be part of the congregation - to sing with others, to give to God's work, and especially to get to know other believers and learn from them," wrote Graham.
"But you also may miss the opportunity to serve Christ alongside your fellow believers. A vital church isn't just inward-looking; it also looks outward and seeks to serve others in the name of Jesus."
In a 2015 article for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer, author, speaker, and executive director of LifeWay Research Division, said that while it's crucial for churches to have an online presence - especially as 72 percent of online adults use social media - it should enhance, not replace, personal presence in community.
"Church online can be a valid outreach if the church communicates that the normal expression of God's intent and design is that we gather in worship with people and then scatter for the work of mission in the kingdom," he argued. "A good balance could be for churches to say about their online presence, 'We will be there only if you can't be here.'"
"Ideally, churches will have an online presence, but will strongly encourage life-on-life interaction where social media enhances rather than excuses community," Stetzer continued. "This can be one more tool that we have to introduce people to Jesus Christ and His church. It is not going away anytime soon, so we cannot just ignore it. Instead, we need to learn how to use it for God's glory. If not, we will become increasingly irrelevant in a world shaped by the Internet."