Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 our church, like many others, has made the choice to worship fully online for the time being. For many who are only used to “big church” life this can be quite an adjustment. This past Sunday, the four of us in my immediate family worshipped in our living room along with our church body spread out across the DMV (District, Maryland, and Virginia) area. Our usually packed facility had only a few people present: James, preaching that day; Rob, leading liturgy; Jeff, leading singing; Jon, running tech; and only a few more. Yet week in and week out, we stress the importance of presence, the importance of being together. As the book of Hebrews said two millennia ago, “Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). We meet together to worship a God who became incarnate, who came to physically be with us, yet we suddenly have to do it online.
How are we supposed to think about fully online worship in the time of the coronavirus?
A Theology of Incarnation
We should start by remembering one of the basic doctrines of our faith, what makes us Christian at all – that God became flesh, incarnate. In a way that can be only partially explained, Jesus is fully God yet also fully man. As the theologians tell us, God incarnate, made man, but no less God – and yet no less man. Nor does that mean Jesus is “something amphibious…like a merman,” as Dorothy Sayers cautions us.[i] It means, as mind-boggling as it is to comprehend, that God took on flesh, that God came to be with and in his creation, that God is with us in a stubbornly physical way. Further, the Christian faith so validates the physical that it is not only core to our belief that in Jesus God took on flesh, but we also believe Jesus will have his resurrected physical body forever. We cannot put a greater value on the physical than God did by becoming man.
Even more, we consider WHY God became man. God became man to be with us. Throughout the Old Testament, God had been with Israel in many ways, but those ways were largely metaphorical. The book of Exodus shows that God was with Israel when the nation was enslaved in Egypt. Throughout Samuel and Kings God was with Israel to deliver them on the battlefield. The Psalmists praise that God was with Israel to lead them and care for them and shelter them. God’s presence in the holy of holies in the Temple could even be lethal. But none of those compare to the claim that God took on a human body, walked the earth, ate fish, preached the good news, healed the sick, was crucified on a cross, and then resurrected in that same body – to keep it forever.
And so, in God’s model, being physically with someone matters. We see this working out not just in the gospels but also in our own lives. Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Tim. 1:4, “I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.” Paul can write Timothy a letter, but it isn’t the same as coming in person. He wrote a magisterial letter to the Roman church, yet as he wound towards a close in chapter 15, he wrote, “…by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Rom. 15:32). Communication by letter – even letters that were Scripture! – was still at a distance, and Paul longed to see people in person. It is very much the same in our own lives. A letter is wonderful, a phone call encouraging, a FaceTime chat refreshing…and yet, none compares to a visit in person. Consider in that regard the deep handwringing of many recent commentators about social media – how it can connect us but leave us still feeling lonely and sometimes even leave us unable to connect in person as we should. Simply put, for the Christian faith, being with people matters, as any minister who has done hospital visits will tell you. We must, for good reasons, be socially distant for these weeks or months, as this interview with Francis Collins ably argues. Nonetheless, there will be a real cost in loneliness, especially for those who look forward to Sunday as one of their main times of connection with others.
But Virtual Worship
How then should we approach worship when – for good public health reasons – we cannot be with each other? We should come to our worship for these weeks recognizing that it would be better if we could be together in person. There is something best about the church gathered physically for worship. A purely online church cannot approximate some of the things that a physical church can do. To say that is not a luddite rant! We have livestreamed our services for years for the sake of shut-ins. Nor is this to say that everything done online is bad – quite the opposite; one can really reach out in love online, and one can even be self-sacrificial online. But bodily presence does still matter. It would be best to be able to be together and to worship in person.
But we live in a world where “best” isn’t always available to us. We believe that in his first coming, his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of sin and death; he decisively conquered the devil and set the world back on the rails, decisively redeeming us. We also believe that it is only when he comes again that Jesus will finish that work, making all things new. And the Bible gives many pictures of what that great end time will be like – a feast, a party, and worship. At the end of time, all who have followed Christ will worship together, in spirit and truth and God will dwell with mankind. All will be as it should be. We know we will worship together again in person, when this current crisis passes, because it will. That’s a small picture of the bigger truth – we will ALL worship together again, in the new heavens and new earth, when this life itself passes away and is a mere blip in memory.
Until Jesus comes again, though, we live in what the theologians call the “already/not yet” or “the overlap of the ages” (or, if you want the really big, fancy term, “inaugurated eschatology”). The practical implication is quite direct – we should not expect “best” in this life. Because Jesus has come, we can look for “better,” but it is only when he comes again that his people are to expect “best” in every way, shape, and form. Right now, we live in a public health crisis that means we ought not meet together. We still have the legal right, but Paul reminds us that not everything lawful ought to be done. 1 Cor. 10:23-24 – “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Our rights, much less our preferences, can be laid down for love’s sake. And for that reason, for the good of the vulnerable in our world, we are foregoing meeting together in person.
We are worshipping entirely online these weeks not from fear, but as an attempt to love our neighbors, even at our own inconvenience. Even if we are healthy, we understand that we could end up endangering those who are not. So out of love we worship online. It is an inconvenience and a loss, but that loss is tiny compared to the incarnation itself. For our good, Jesus left perfect fellowship with God the Father to become incarnate; he sacrificed all for our sake. Phil. 2:4-8:
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
We are worshipping online because we want to love our neighbors well. And online worship IS better than the alternatives. We are blessed to live in an age where we can attend a worship service online, from our own apartments or homes, where technology can bring excellent preaching and worship through our computers and phones into our homes and lives.
So, get used to online worship. Depending on the course of this disease, we may have to be doing this for a while. And while we do, we worship with a proximate connection. We are not disconnected; we are a single church still worshiping together on Sunday, just not physically present. But when this crisis passes – and it will eventually pass, though we know not how soon – commit now to return to being together in worship. Don’t get so used to “good” (our current online worship) that it becomes a substitute for “better” (our worship in person) while we wait for “best” (our worship with all the church from all time when Jesus returns).
The psalmist was glad when they said to him, “Let us go unto the house of the Lord!” (Ps. 122:1), and when we hear that call, we will understand the Psalm like we haven’t before. When we have the chance, we will return – joyfully – to a fuller presence with each other. And we are going to throw a great party when we do.
[i] Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church (Nashville: W. Publishing Group/Thomas Nelson, 2004) 55.