While COVID-19 is a real thing, so is politics. We must not forget that we are navigating through a presidential election season in the midst of a pandemic. Add another “P” word to the mix: postmodernism. If a nation cannot agree on the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” imagine how the same people evaluate the meaning of numbers, data, and whether or not people should wear masks.
The worship of God and the gathering of our local churches should be an immensely valuable pursuit among God’s people. Such a calling is impossible through Zoom or YouTube. God’s people need far more than pixels on a screen. Worship is not something you watch, it’s something you do. Church is not something you tune-in to, it’s who you are as a Christian. For that reason, we must ask ourselves honest questions about when we should be returning to the weekly gathering of God’s people.
Articles have been written about how singing with the church on the Lord’s Day is not safe. However, the CDC changed their guidelines for singing without notice—removing the suggested restrictions on congregational singing. While common sense practices are helpful and make us more safe as we gather together, as Scott Aniol states:
Scripture is also clear that when we gather, we should be singing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). Will singing increase the risk of infections? Maybe, though the science is far from conclusive on this. But even if singing will increase the risk of infection, our objective was never to completely prevent infections—in a sin cursed world that is not and never was a possibility.
We were originally informed that we didn’t need to wear masks, but now we are being told that it’s a good idea to consider wearing one in specific circumstances. We are now being told that the COVID-19 disease may not spread as easily as we once thought on surfaces.
The latest data from the CDC suggests that the death rate for COVID-19 for people under 45 has dropped to nearly 0%, but we continue to hear people in the news media talking about the “second wave” and how younger people are starting to test positive at a much higher rate. Is there really a second wave preparing to hit us or is this merely a political tool?
If the risk for death is so low, why would we have local churches scattered apart rather than gathered together for worship? We know why politicians twist data and use a pandemic for political gain, but have we stopped to think earnestly about why the devil would want local churches to remain disconnected?
In Acts 2:42, we see the early church described as a devoted church. In one verse, four key elements are mentioned regarding the church’s worship. They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. It’s vitally important that we see the level of priority placed upon the gathered church for worship and fellowship from the very beginning. This is why we find warnings, commands, and exhortations such as Hebrews 10:24-25—pointing out the need for the church to gather together.
This past Sunday, we observed the Lord’s Supper as a church for the first time since March. During the height of the pandemic, I talked openly about how there is no such thing as virtual Lord’s Supper. We intentionally waited more than six weeks after returning to public worship before engaging in the Lord’s Supper. We wanted to give the entire church family time to return and we wanted to approach it with care.
Our plan allowed each person to be served individually and we were able to reduce the touch points of the elements down to two people prior to the person receiving it in their hands. Our servers wore gloves and the elements were sealed in a single package. While this is not my preferred way to observe the Lord’s Supper, it was nevertheless a careful approach that served our people well and allowed us to return to the Lord’s Table once again.
As I sat on my back porch on Sunday afternoon and considered the day, it was refreshing to observe the Lord’s Supper, read Scripture, pray, sing, and preach the Word in the context of the gathered church. The service was full and as a result, my heart was full. In short, we need the ordinary means of grace as a church in order to grow and persevere in the faith.
Questions to Consider
- At what level of importance should the gathering of the local church be in my life?
- As we return to some form of normality after going through the pandemic shutdown, should my return to church be the last thing that returns to normal?
- Is my willingness to take a “risk” for vacation or recreational pleasure inconsistent with remaining disconnected from my local church?
- Is my interaction within the community inconsistent with my church attendance?
- Is my fear controlling my faith?
- Do I have a valid reason to stay away from the local church?
- Is carry-out food or packages at the local grocery store more or less dangerous to my health than observing the Lord’s Supper with my local church?
- Is gathering together with friends on a Friday more or less dangerous than gathering together with my local church on Sunday?
- Is YouTube church more or less satisfying than gathering together with the body of Christ?
- Are the elders of my local church doing everything possible to care for the safety and wellbeing of our church family by implementing social distancing options and regular cleaning of hot spots like restrooms and high traffic areas?
As we examine data, listen to the news media, and read Scripture—let us make wise decisions that honor God. While certain people in specific demographics have withheld from an early return to church gatherings—we must begin to ask ourselves when is the right time – the proper time – and the necessary time to return to the regular gathering of the local church? Has my theology taken a backseat to politics? Is my faith driven by fear?
When we gather together, let us be thankful for God’s blessing upon us as we engage in the ordinary means of grace—trusting the Lord to strengthen our faith as we persevere onward for the glory of God.
 As examples, see Ken Boer, “Is Congregational Singing Dangerous?” [accessed 7-5-20] and another one by Richard Read, “Scientists to choirs: Group singing can spread the coronavirus, despite what CDC may say” [accessed 7-4-20].
Through the COVID-19 pandemic we have navigated through difficult times in a short season. From the initial spread of the sickness we have watched as the nation’s leaders implemented social distancing restrictions and shutdown the entire economy. This has not only drastically impacted the economic sphere, but it has likewise greatly disrupted the functionality of the local church.
Throughout the pandemic, the Christian community has been forced to make use of technology for the purpose of interaction, teaching, preaching, and worship. While this may have caused the church to think outside of the box, it has necessitated critical thinking by leaders to ensure that the church doesn’t think outside the book—the Bible.
Over the past few months, we have learned new phrases and terms such as:
- Social Distancing
- Shelter-in-place order
- Flattening the curve
- PPE or personal protective equipment
- Herd blocking
Just this past week, a Delta Airlines representative stated that they would be a “smaller Delta” moving forward. We hear people in different industries talking about the new normal of their economic circles such as restaurants and sporting events.
As it pertains to the local church, should part-time church become the new normal? In many evangelical settings, the evening church service on Sunday had been in steady decline for years. Many upstart church plants among younger populations establish their pattern for church gatherings to avoid Sunday evening services from the beginning, but now with the pandemic social distancing culture that is likely to continue through the summer, it will likely cause many churches to do away with their Sunday evening church service indefinitely.
Throughout the spread of the COVID-19 disease, data has proven to point out the need for people among the elderly demographic and those people with compromised health conditions to hold to a more strict shelter-in-place and social distancing pattern. However, as the conditions improve and shelter-in-place orders are lifted—should the comfort and safety of the home replace the gathering of the church family?
Wisdom is needed from on a membership and leadership level in order to navigate such challenges. It’s wise for leaders to be patient with the members and especially the elderly as they begin to return to a normal flow of life and ministry. However, during this process of coming out of the home and returning to normal patterns of life—the church should not be the last place on your list to return to normal.
If you can go to the grocery store weekly and have public interactions with the general public in stores that contain many different contact points, but you can’t go to church and sit in a worship environment where strict social distancing policies are in place, you should probably check your heart. If you have no desire to return to church because you’ve come to a place where you feel safe and secure in your home and believe that you can just use technology for the foreseeable future, you should check your heart.
We don’t need the President of the United States to inform us that church is essential. We already knew that, because God has made that known to us in the pages of Scripture. In Hebrews 10:25 we see clearly that we are to be gathering together and avoiding the sinful patterns of neglecting the gathering of the church. We are to stir-up one another to love and good works. All through the pages of Scripture we find the reference to fellowship and such Christian fellowship is not possible to maintain through Zoom interactions.
A temporary season of isolation may be necessary during a pandemic, but if you’re young, healthy, and restrictions have been lifted which enable you to gather and yet you continue to isolate yourself form the church, that likely points to a spiritual problem in your heart. If the pandemic has caused you to become complacent, disconnected, and slothful in your service and worship of God—you should repent.
My goal is not to shame anyone into returning to church too soon, but I am absolutely interested in exposing the idea that part-time Christianity and part-time church membership is the new normal. That’s simply not true. The goal of the church should be to return to a normal ministry pattern and reject the new normal attitude of part-time service and worship of God which is simply not God’s will for the church. Be wise, but also skeptical of any idea that seeks to keep the church from gathering and functioning the way God intends. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote the following:
We must grasp once again, the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ and as the biggest honour which can come a man’s way in this world. 
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times, (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 30.
After spending eleven chapters laying a foundation of the Christian faith doctrine-by-doctrine, Paul turns his attention in chapter twelve of Romans to how the Christian should live out their faith in order to glorify God.
In Romans 12:9-10, the focus is centered upon love. In essence, Paul is making the point that this is what authentic Christianity looks like and the world should see it clearly displayed among the church family. Just as he does when he writes to the church in Galatia and talks about the fruit of the Spirit, Paul places love first in his list here in Romans 12:9-21 as well.
Some years ago, I overheard a person make the following statement about his relationship to the rest of his church. He said, “I am called to love everyone in the church, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like everyone.” I understand the spirit of what was being said, but I simply disagree. Paul writes the following in Romans 12:9, “Let love be genuine.”
Genuine love is not hypocritical. It doesn’t wear a mask. It doesn’t display love outwardly while beneath the surface concealing hatred or a strong dislike. Paul uses the Greek term, “ἀγάπη” was not a common type of love among the Greek culture. This is one of the rarest words in ancient Greek literature. It describes a sacrificial love, one that loves in such a way that is not motivated by a return or potential value. It’s a love of the will whereby a person chooses to love. This is the way God loved us according to Romans 5:8 and John 3:16.
Paul goes on to explain in the very next verse (Romans 12:10) that the church is to love one another with a brotherly love. He uses a compound word in the Greek “φιλαδελφία” that literally means “brotherly love.” In fact, two times in this single verse, Paul uses the term “ἀλλήλων” translated one another. All throughout the Bible, the church is called to love one another, care for one another, and support one another.
Regarding the Church’s Unity:
- Be at peace with one another (Mk 9:50)
- Don’t grumble among one another (Jn 6:43)
- Be of the same mind with one another (Ro 12:16, 15:5)
- Accept one another (Ro 15:7)
- Wait for one another before beginning the Lord’s Supper (1 Co 11:33)
- Don’t bite, devour, and consume one another (Ga 5:15)
- Don’t envy one another (Ga 5:26)
- Gently, patiently tolerate one another (Ep 4:2)
- Be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to one another (Ep 4:32)
- Bear with and forgive one another (Co 3:13)
- Seek good for one another, and don’t repay evil for evil (1 Th 5:15)
- Don’t complain against one another (Jas 4:11, 5:9)
- Confess sins to one another (Jas 5:16)
Regarding the Church’s Humility:
- Give preference to one another in honor (Ro 12:10)
- Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Php 2:3)
- Serve one another (Ga 5:13)
- Wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:14)
- Don’t be haughty: be of the same mind to one another (Ro 12:16)
- Be subject to one another (Ep 5:21)
- Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another (1 Pe 5:5)
Regarding the Church’s Love:
- Love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12, 17; Ro 13:8; 1 Th 3:12, 4:9; 1 Pe 1:22; 1 Jn 3:11, 4:7, 11; 2 Jn 5)
- Through love, serve one another (Ga 5:13)
- Tolerate one another in love (Ep 4:2)
- Greet one another with a kiss (Ro 16:16; 1 Co 16:20; 2 Co 13:12)
- Be devoted to one another in brotherly love (Ro 12:10)
Immediately after baptizing 3,000 people following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the early church is pictured as being devoted to the apostle’s teaching. The very next description of the early church is fellowship. The word for fellowship is “κοινωνία” which transcends a fist bump and casual hello on Sunday morning. The idea expressed by the early church’s fellowship was true and genuine love—resulting in close relationships through the gospel.
The idea that we are to merely tolerate one another as members of the same church is simply not biblical. We are called to love one another with a brotherly affection that transcends shallow pretense. Anyone can tolerate another person in a work environment or at a high school football game, but the church is to put on display the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ by demonstrating genuine love for one another.
Remember Jesus’ words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently watched a worship service that was livestreamed on Facebook. It was at a different time than our service, and mostly out of curiosity, I clicked the link and watched a good portion of it. What struck me was how it started. With a countdown clock reaching the five-minute mark, one of the musicians stepped into view of the camera and greeted everyone. He made the following statement, “Good morning church! We will begin worship in just five minutes, so go grab your favorite beverage and sit back and enjoy!”
What happens just before the worship service begins communicates much about the church’s approach to the worship of God. Are we arriving late on a perpetual basis for worship? Are we overly casual in our approach to worship? Are we uptight and stressed out as we approach the worship of God? As we consider the call to worship God, we should take our approach and preparation for worship seriously.
Guard Against Overly Casual Worship
To be clear, navigating the worship of God during the pandemic has been difficult. Sometimes, with children it’s like herding cats. One Sunday, I turned to my family and announced that our service is about to begin in less than a minute. My youngest daughter had animal crackers on a paper plate in one hand with her Bible in the other as she was approaching the living room. Once we made our way into the living room, just after the call to worship from God’s Word, my youngest son was on the couch rolling off into the floor with a loud thud.
Attempting to maintain some form of consistency in our approach to worship through the pandemic has been a challenge, but from the beginning my wife and I asked our children to get up at the normal time and get dressed and prepare for worship in order to avoid going into the living room with pajamas and disheveled hair without a proper approach to worship. The heart behind our approach to worship matters. R.C. Sproul once wrote the following:
Our church service begins at 10:30 a.m. At 10:20, we turn the lights down and begin the prelude. This is the signal for our people to begin preparing for worship. By contrast, God gave Israel two days to prepare. He required them to be consecrated and to wash their clothes. These preparations were appropriate for what was about to happen. If I told my congregation that in three days God was going to appear visibly and that He wanted them to wash their clothes for the occasion, I am sure they would do it. It would seem to be an insignificant requirement for the awesome privilege of standing in God’s physical presence. 
From a theological foundation, Dr. Sproul pointed his congregation to prepare themselves to worship God. Needless to say, encouraging your church to grab their favorite beverage and sit back and enjoy the worship is to miss the point of worship altogether. We can be far too casual in our approach. Psalm 2:11 reads, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” George Swinnock writes the following:
Cleanly men wash their hands and brush their clothes every day, but when they are to dine with a king they will wash and scour their hands; they will brush their clothes over and over again, that their hands maybe, if possible, clean from the least dirt, and their garments from the least dust. The true Christian is, in all company, and in the whole course of his life, every day careful to keep his soul clean and his conscience clear—nay, to increase his godliness; but when he drawth nigh to God, then he hath more special care and extraordinary caution. 
Casual worship can lead to a careless worship which devalues something very precious and turns worship into something far less than what God expects from his people.
Guard Against Stressful Worship
When preparing to worship God corporately, we must avoid a stress filled worship. Certainly, from a leadership standpoint, a certain amount of stress is to be expected, but we should seek to be so prepared for worship that we are able to avoid the common stresses that plague families as they enter the campus of the church for weekly worship.
There are some practical ways to avoid stressful worship services such as beginning the preparation for Sunday on Saturday. In order to get a family prepared for Sunday, preparing clothes is essential. Laying out the clothes and having an orderly approach to Sunday morning is a great help. It’s also important to prepare the mind and heart for worship on the Lord’s Day. Reading through the text of Scripture that will be preached on the following day and praying for the Lord to teach you and grow you spiritually will make a drastic difference in how you approach worship.
Additionally, if you’re meeting in small groups or Sunday school gatherings before the morning worship service, it would be wise to conclude your study with enough time to properly prepare yourself as you enter the auditorium so that you don’t feel rushed as you enter the room and unprepared to be called to worship from the opening Scripture reading and prayer. Something as simple as arriving ten minutes early will have a dramatic impact on how you approach God in worship. This approach may allow you to pray and mentally prepare yourself for what unique opportunity presents itself as the gathered church worships God on the Lord’s Day.
As we consider the privilege of worship, we are called by God to draw near to the throne of the sovereign God of all creation. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” However, Uzzah failed to understand how to draw near to God appropriately (See 2 Sam. 6). The same thing could be said of Nadab and Abihu. God warned the people following the tragic scene with Nadab and Abihu saying, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). We must draw near to God in worship, for we are called to worship him, but we must do so with both fear and faith. We must approach God with a fear that causes us to tremble and a faith that causes us to serve God with joy.
When athletes prepare for a big game, they do so with great intentionality. Their approach to play is not casual, so why is our approach to worship often very casual? George Swinnock observes:
When thou hearest, in the fear of God give audience to his word, Acts xiii. 16. Poor peasants must be trembling when this prince is speaking. With meekness receive that word which will damn or save thy soul. 
- R.C. Sproul, “Preparing Your Heart for Worship” [accessed 5/18/20).
- George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, M.A., Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), 87.
- Ibid., 97.
It should go without saying that Christian worship should be centered on Christ, but sadly many worship services are centered on the additives—and sometimes such additives are carnal attempts to please carnal people who care very little about the Jesus of holy Scripture.
Every church has a specific liturgy that it follows—from a more biblical background to a more contemporary and pragmatic order—every church follows a specific structure. In many cases, the worship service is centered around a pragmatic arrangement in order to guide the emotions of people. In such cases, the worship becomes man centered rather than Jesus centered. When was the last time you examined the worship service of your church and asked honest questions about why it’s ordered in that specific way? Is truth driving the order of your service or is emotion or other man centered pragmatic goals?
The Jesus centered worship service will have a goal of pointing people to their hope in Jesus from the opening Scripture reading and call to worship to the benediction. The Jesus centered worship service is not a rejection of Trinitarian worship. In fact, all Christian worship is Trinitarian, but true Trinitarian worship puts a priority on Jesus who is the true worship leader, the Prophet greater than Moses, the Priest greater than Melchizedek, and the King greater than David.
The Father Emphasizes the Centrality of Jesus
Before the world was created, the decision was made among the Trinity to send Jesus into his own creation as the second Adam—the Messiah—the Christ of God. According to Scripture, Jesus was sent by the Father (Matt. 10:40; John 5:24, 30, 37; John 12:49). One of the greatest verses in the Bible teaches this very truth. In John 3:16, it says, “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son…”
The Father places emphasis on the Son as one who provides eternal life to fallen sinners. This exclusive hope grounded in Jesus necessitates the centrality of Jesus as the focus of our Christian worship. Perhaps this could not be more clear than in John 6:40, when Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” When we gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, our worship should be unacceptable in a Jewish synagogue because it’s Christian worship focused on our Triune God with a central emphasis upon Jesus—the Christ of God.
The Spirit Points the Church to Jesus
Many Christian groups have erred throughout history by placing an unhealthy emphasis upon the Spirit of God which is not God’s intention for Christian worship. The Spirit’s goal is to point God’s people to truth (John 16:13-15) and emphasize the work of Jesus Christ for guilty and helpless sinners. We see this clearly taught in 1 Peter 1:2, as Peter describes that we are saved “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
The Spirit’s role among the Trinity is to point people to a saving knowledge of Jesus (John 15:26; 16:14). This purpose is clearly revealed in the pages of Scripture. In Romans 8:9, listen to the way Paul describes our assurance of salvation in Jesus. He writes, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” The Spirit leads us to Jesus and provides us with ongoing assurance as he indwells us—as the Spirit of Christ.
John Calvin, in the opening words of book three of his Institutes, observes, the “Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”  As the Spirit unites us to Jesus through the gospel, he continues to keep us in union with Christ by his work of sanctification. The Holy Spirit is more than a soft white dove—He is the third person of our Triune God. He is omnipotent, eternal, and holy. Although we can and should worship the Spirit, it is the Spirit’s goal to point our attention and affections toward Jesus so that we will be conformed to his image rather than the image of this present evil world.
In John 16:7-11, Jesus said the following:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
It is the Spirit’s role to convict guilty sinners of sin, because they have rejected the gospel of Jesus (John 16:9). Secondly, the Spirit convicts sinners of righteousness, specifically the righteousness of Jesus. In order to be saved, we must look away from ourselves to an alien righteousness of Jesus—the true and better Adam who kept the law in totality and never sinned in one point. Finally, the Spirit of God convicts sinners of the coming judgment that will consume Satan and anyone who is deceived by him into rejecting Jesus.
Jesus Receives the Worship of His People
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find people worshipping him. For instance, in John 9:38, the blind man who was healed by Jesus believed in him and worshipped him. We see a similar scene in Matthew 1:1-2 as a leper approached Jesus and worshipped him. In Matthew 21:15-16, as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, the crowds worshipped him. Perhaps in one of the most striking scenes of worship, we find the apostle John falling on his face before Jesus in worship and awe as he sees a transcendent and glorious vision of Jesus.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:17–18).
It’s clear that Jesus is the center of worship for the Christian Church. What better place to see this truth than when Jesus himself led in the final Passover meal and instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples just prior to his crucifixion. Paul describes this scene to the church at Corinth:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25).
Jesus was more than a good teacher or an influential rabbi—Jesus was God in human flesh and remains so to this very day. He did not reject the worship of people as we see the angel rebuking the apostle John in Revelation 19:10. The angel spoke to the confused apostle and said, “worship God.” As people bowed down to worship Jesus he received the worship of his people. This includes the fulfillment of the Passover celebration and the institution of the Lord’s Supper which points directly to Jesus’ substitutionary death, atoning blood sacrifice, and triumphant return.
Needless to say, Christian worship places Jesus at the center. If your worship is focused on the personality of a preacher, the entertaining music of the band, or the programs of the church community—you’ve missed Jesus and he remains unworshipped. The Scriptures provide ample evidence as to why Jesus should be worshipped, but tragically Jesus remains unworshipped within the contexts of many churches from week-to-week.
Think about your worship service and ask an honest question. Is this service centered on Jesus and organized by truth or is it arranged in such a way that pleases carnal people who care very little about truth and worship a Jesus of their own imagination? Bryan Chapell in his book, Christ-Centered Worship made the following statement:
Worship cannot simply be a matter of arbitrary choice, church tradition, personal preference or cultural appeal. There are foundational truths in the gospel of Christ’s redeeming work that do not change if the gospel is to remain the gospel. So, if our worship structures are to tell this story consistently, then there must be certain aspects of our worship that remain consistent …We cannot honor the gospel and, at the same time, worship in ways that distort it. 
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster 1960), Institutes, 3.1.1.
- Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 85.
- Ibid., 100.
A line on social media recently read, “Join me and my church for our virtual worship service this week.” Still another one read, “You are invited to our special Easter service filled with passionate music, relevant preaching, and virtual communion.” Such marketing lines make me nervous for several reasons—but for the sake of this article, we will focus on the aspect of virtual church.
Certainly we have learned much regarding the secret providence of God during this pandemic. Yet, there are things that perhaps we will never learn that are not intended for us to know about God’s purposes during this season of life. One thing that can be said of God’s church is that we’ve been stretched to think critically about very important matters during this time of social distancing. One good question to answer is this: Is a livestream service really church at all?
Several weeks ago when the rise of the COVID-19 virus began to spread throughout the world and across the United States, it became clear that we would need to make swift and wise decisions as pastors regarding the care of our local church. In discussion with our elders, it was clear that we thought it would be best during our season of social distancing to provide an online livestream service. Interestingly, we don’t typically provide a full worship service through livestream. We do livestream the Sunday morning sermon, but that’s simply provided as a service to sick members and those who are hindered from attending and desire to stay on track with our current study. However, during this pandemic, we decided to take it up a notch and provide singing, corporate prayer, and Scripture readings too.
In doing so, we have rejected the idea of having virtual church. What we are doing as elders is providing the church with opportunities to worship together as individual family units, but we are not calling it church, because it is our conviction that it’s not church at all. While our livestream helps us to literally worship, it’s not literally church. Instead, we are calling it worship, because it’s quite possible to worship God even when the church is unable to assemble due to the providence of God.
When we consider the subject of worship, we must not bypass the vein of Old Testament worship whereby God’s people brought sacrifices to the altar to be consumed as an offering to God. There was always something tangible and real about the worship of God and as we read Scripture it’s apparent that God designed worship in that manner.
Our worship is not virtual or symbolic—it’s literal. When we sing it must be real and genuine. If you’re being forced to sing in your living room when in the past you’ve been sitting in a room with dimmed lights, fog machines, and really enjoying the Sunday performance—you’re going to feel very much unfulfilled during this season. When we engage in the reading of Scripture, there must be something that’s real and genuine whereby we bridge the gap of the original audience to our own heart and life. When the preaching of the Word takes place, there must be a desire to engage in the preached Word—in the sermon in such a way that personal application during the preaching brings about a proper learning, worship, repentance, and devotion to God.
It is possible to worship God without the gathered church. God has designed us to be worshippers, so we worship God on a regular—even a daily basis. Therefore, during a pandemic we are able to engage in the worship of God without the gathered church. The decision of our church to livestream our worship service (in part) is to provide a healthy means by which families can gather together and worship God in a somewhat orderly manner for his glory.
Why Virtual Church Is Not Literal Church
Virtual reality (VR) is the use of technology to create a simulated environment and experience for the user. During this time of social distancing when churches are unable to gather together—many churches have been offering up what they call virtual church. Although virtual church is not true virtual reality, we must see the similarities. They both are seeking to provide a virtual environment that delivers a specific experience to the audience or user. This not the goal of our livestream service.
Rather than providing a simulated or virtual experience for church members, we are striving to provide an opportunity for our members to engage in the worship of God by using the same songs and hearing the same sermon while at the same time feeling the constant limitations of impersonal technology. Yes, we aim to do everything (even a livestream) for the glory of God, but we do not aim to replace the physical church with a virtual church. That is simply impossible.
The English word church is the translation of a Greek term, “ekklesia” which means, “a called out assembly.” The term can have a couple of meanings in reference to God’s people. For instance, it can be centered on the universal church (or as the Apostles’ Creed refers to it: the holy catholic church), or it can be a reference to a local assembly, such as the church at Ephesus. By the very definition of the church, assembling is part of what the people of God do on a regular basis.
This is why we have made the decision to not engage in the observance of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) during this season. There are limits to technology, and the interpersonal elements of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper require real in-person engagement together as a church body. You cannot reduce the gathered church into pixels on a screen and audio waves from speakers.
If this pandemic has not caused your heart to ache for the reassembly of God’s people—your virtual experience has clouded your understanding of the doctrine of God’s church. We live in an age where everything is being reduced to a virtual environment. We have online banks, online restaurants, online medical services, online shipping companies, online legal services, and for a while now we’ve watched a trend to reduce the church to a virtual online community.
If your worship is virtual rather than literal—it will cheapen the worship of God. Virtual leadership and pastoring is truly impossible. Virtual communion is not real communion. While you can watch someone’s baptism through a screen—is that real and genuine baptism? In the early days, the church gathered together in public for baptisms. The church was there to receive the new convert as he or she would be marked as a follower of Jesus in the eyes of the watching community and the gathered church. How is it possible to engage in church discipline—virtually? If a person is excommunicated from the church, is it less sobering to see your name threatened from being removed from a Zoom list or a literal church family assembled together for worship and service of God? When fencing the table for the Lord’s Supper, is a visible pastor standing before the table a more sobering scene than him merely pointing to a cup and a cracker through the lens of a camera?
Consider the fact that worship is to be orderly. In fact, God has organized and ordered his worship to be carried out in a specific way. Even the word “ordinance” has in mind a specific order of worship whereby we carry out the mechanisms ordered by God in order to publicly identify with the crucified and resurrected Christ. Virtual church models can never communicate the gravity necessary to engage in both baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and for that matter—worship in general.
The community of the church needs to be in person to live life together, break bread together, serve together, engage in mission together, and to worship together. In short, when you take your children to a funeral home, they need to know more than this is @Tom_Smith_5689 from your virtual church group who always had the really cool virtual backgrounds. They need to have rubbed shoulders with Tom and witnessed Tom persevere in the faith to the very end. In fact, more than the children, even the adults need this as well.
This is the way God designed his church to function—visibly. Consider what chapter 26 and paragraph 7 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states:
To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power. ( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )
Notice, the language of “gathered” which is common through this chapter of the Confession. The idea of a simulated gathering simply does not measure up. God has designed the worship of God’s people in such a way that the limitations of technology cannot properly fulfill it.
So, when this pandemic comes to a close and we are able to once again reassemble together as a church—pastors must do the work of properly disassembling the virtual communities, turning off the Zoom virtual backgrounds, and assembling together in a room where we will be capable of engaging in worship the way God designed it from the very beginning.
Until then, remember words matter. Virtual church is not real church at all. Until we gather again, let’s engage in literal worship and long for the day when we can meet together as a literal church.