There’s Absolutely No Substitute for Face-to-Face Ministry—Not Even for an Apostle
Is there something indispensable about in-person ministry, something that simply can’t be replicated through long-distance communication?
Even if you believe the answer to this question is a self-evident yes, in our age of live-streamed services and TikTok preachers, the people in your pews—or the people you hope to be in your pews—may assume otherwise.
Does the Bible help us to shepherd skeptical sheep back to the flock? Thankfully, it does. We can examine a few Pauline passages that address the importance of proximity. For a man who maintained a prolific remote ministry through his letters, Paul repeatedly sounds discontent with the remote, impersonal medium.
1. EAGER TO PREACH TO YOU (ROMANS 1:9–13, 15)
When Paul sat down to write his robust gospel presentation to the Romans, he still wanted to strengthen the church in person.
Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we maybe mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you. . . . I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome (Romans 1:9–13, 15).
Haddon Robinson reflects in his book Biblical Preaching, “Paul realized that some ministries simply cannot take place apart from face-to-face contact. Even the reading of an inspired letter will not substitute. . . . A power comes through the preached word that even the written word cannot replace.”
Paul doesn’t just pray that the Romans would be strengthened, and leave it at that. He asserts his desire to see and minister to them in person.
2. MUCH MORE IN MY ABSENCE (PHILIPPIANS 1:1; 2:12, 19–30; 3:17–19)
Paul exhorted the Philippians to work out their salvation without him, even more than they did when he was with them: “My beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
I don’t think Paul is ascribing special sin-killing significance to his presence because he’s an apostle. In fact, he spills much ink about sending Timothy and Epaphroditus, commending their usefulness and never elevating himself above them (Phil. 1:1, 2:19-30).
Instead, Paul seems to believe it’s harder to work out your salvation with less immediate access to mature saints, which is consistent with his command to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” or else face “destruction” (Phil. 3:17–19).
3. FACE-TO-FACE (1 THESSALONIANS 3:10)
Paul wasn’t just praying about visiting Rome because he hadn’t been there before. He did the same for the church he helped to plant in Thessalonica. He writes to them, “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:10).
Again, as edifying as Paul’s writing is, he doesn’t expect his pen or even his remote prayers to “supply what is lacking” in their faith. His in-person ministry is necessary. He even says “Satan hindered” his return to Thessalonica, presumably because their reunion would’ve been especially God-glorifying (1 Thess. 2:18). After all, it’s impossible from afar to be “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7).
Paul doesn’t use a metaphysical argument to explain why in-person ministry is better than epistle-writing. But his clear preference should make us consider where we may have mistakenly traded face-to-face interactions for other ministry methods—when Paul needed both imprisonment and Satan to stop him from getting to his beloved joy and crown, Christ’s church (1 Thess. 2:19, Phil. 4:1).
Should we throw out all impersonal mediums? Of course not. Printed Bibles are mediums. 9Marks.org and all its books and podcasts are mediums. But they’re mediums ultimately meant to uphold face-to-face ministry, which beckons us to love God by faith until, face to face, we all behold his glory.