Wednesday March 12th. That was the day our church leadership decided to cancel the upcoming Sunday service in response to the appearance of COVID 19 in our county. The virus, whose impact to that point had been largely minimal in surrounding states, was now at our doorstep, threatening to dismantle church life as we knew it. I must admit, however, despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead and the disruption caused to our usual Sunday service, the move to online church that Sunday brought some unexpected benefits as a leader in the church. Namely, getting up as a family and having breakfast together as well as actually being together for the service. It all served to bring about a Sunday morning ease in our household that Lionel Richie would have been proud of.
We were not isolated in our experience. Indeed, for many, what once was a crazy dash to get everyone out the door in time for a church service has now become a somewhat leisurely paced journey all the way to our favorite armchair or sofa. (After all, church is only two clicks away!) Not to mention bedheads, pajamas and pop tarts being entirely permissible and welcome!
While online church is new for many of us, this kind of platform has actually been around for a while. Life Church in Oklahoma City introduced an “internet campus” back in 2006 (with much scrutiny I might add). The unprecedented impact of COVID-19, though, has caused a seismic shift in terms of in-person/online church attendance. Church leadership in almost every ecclesial setting is now responding to what could be a permanent shift of church attendees to an online format. No longer a minor supplementary ministry to the homebound, online church could very well become the dominant norm for people’s church service experience.
It is cost-effective. It is scalable. It is slick. But is it best?
The question for church leader and layperson alike must be this; is this forced cultural shift one that we should endorse and encourage in the long term? Simply put, is church online a healthy alternative to the in-person experience?
Scripture is clear that the “church” isn’t so much an event or location (in some ways we’ve adopted the word to mean as such) but rather a body of people. I’ve seen this rightly affirmed in some churches adopting the tag line: The building may be closed but the church is open. Just because we can’t meet as the church in the church building doesn’t mean that the church can’t continue to exist and thrive in the meantime. The innovation of online services ensures a measure of church life that continues despite restrictions on gathering. I’ve never been more grateful for the technology to maintain a sense of connection and provide a channel of ministry than at a time like this.
Yet in saying this, I believe when the time comes that each of us can safely choose between virtual or physical gatherings, we should prioritize in-person services. In-person is harder but better. Let me briefly outline a few reasons why.
A Tradition of Togetherness
First, much of the activity of the early church centered around a gathered people. Luke highlights some of this in Acts 2 stating that they:
“… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NIV)
In gathering together, we stand in the long tradition of church history. Coming together to worship, pray, listen and take communion are a large part of our heritage, and, while tradition shouldn’t always be continued for tradition’s sake, Acts seems to present a God-ordained model that we should follow. To oversimplify, the basic rule of the New Testament is this: if the church is doing it in the book of Acts, consider that it’s likely a good idea (though there are some limits to that). On the other hand, if the church is doing it in the Epistles – especially Corinthians – then consider that it’s probably a bad idea.
In the Old Testament and the New, the emphasis appears to be on God’s people gathered together rather than intentionally scattered. Often occurring in the context of persecution, the dispersing of the Israelites and the early church was never something that was deemed a positive movement. Yes, God was able to redeem those movements for the benefit of His kingdom (e.g.: the spread of the gospel – Acts 8:4, 11:19) but broadly speaking, it is the coming together of God’s people that we see most celebrated in Scripture.
I hear some ask “can we not just be together digitally?” Well, yes and no. We are fundamentally embodied spirits and Zoom fatigues us precisely because we see the person without the fullness of him or her being embodied. Though online church can duplicate a lot, it cannot duplicate everything of the church gathered. Our tradition of physical togetherness is core to the church gathered.
A Call to Connection & Witness
Second, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the early church wasn’t the buildings in which they met, nor the number of people attending, but the coming together of a people across diverse cultural, economic and social backgrounds under the common call to follow Christ. Further still, the early church’s treatment of one another had an evangelistic impact within the broader community (true to Jesus’ statement that their love for one another would be their most distinguishing feature).
The witness of the church to the broader community takes many forms, but one aspect of our witness is in our gathering. Our meeting together is a visible sign of a hidden connection, a supernatural bond centered around the person of Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. If we cease to gather, we miss out on part of our witness to our local neighborhood.
Our in-person worship gathering also operates as a primary connection point for individuals within the church. It creates an environment where relationships begin and existing relationships deepen. Like a springboard, gathered worship can propel people into a path of relational discipleship within the context of a small group, class or specialized group. Sadly, of course, some people attend a church – especially as newcomers – and their experience is one of isolation. They enter a service only to walk out at the end having had no meaningful contact with another living soul. No one should feel isolated relationally or spiritually, and when it occurs, it is a failure of the congregation, not a failure of the idea. Meeting in person is a primary way we can pursue that reality together.
Third, over the centuries, the church has built spaces in which to gather. The church has done so partly to create a (mostly!) distraction free environment to focus on God and what He might be saying to us. We dedicate that space and time to worship God and to hear from Him, turning our hearts and minds to Him as one body. Architects pore countless hours into making the form serve the function, whether in a soaring ancient cathedral or a modern auditorium. Either way, we shape our spaces, but then our spaces shape us – and our worship.
Many of us have encountered the practical challenges (as well as the conveniences) of viewing services online within our home environment. If we are honest, it’s difficult to create a distraction-free zone at home where we feel our hearts and minds are in the right place to worship. Whether we have young children or feel a sense of awkwardness at worshipping with only family present, we ought not deny the advantages of being in a room with hundreds of other believers focused on responding to God in worship. It’s often within the “joint song” of the gathered church that we can feel awakened to worship, where hearts are more focused and minds more engaged.
Fourth, our children need to learn how to worship. I’ve always said that worship is both taught and caught. When we are home, they can run, they can wiggle, they can go sit on the floor. (And let’s be honest, most of us have given up that fight, though we probably shouldn’t have.) If we allow our children to bail out and go color so we can hear the sermon – as many of us do – we serve them poorly.
While we would never ask a three-year-old to sit still like an eighteen-year-old, we can ask a seven-year-old to grow into an eight-year-old and then a nine-year-old and then a ten-year-old. That kind of growth requires intentional leadership on the part of a parent. It’s worth considering the example we are setting when we prioritize our own convenience over our children’s engagement in worship.
Of course, here’s the caution: any child growing up in a church can run the risk of being around the holy while not really understanding it. Growing up in the church can, paradoxically, create an inoculation against really understanding our faith. A formula of fallenness and familiarity can lead to a numbness to the sheer wonder and power of God Himself. We must be careful not to swing to the opposite extreme where we take our children to church and demand too much out of them. We want our children to LOVE worship and church, not dread it!
Both the passive and dominating approach to engaging our children in worship produce the same fruit; a child who is disengaged and/or disillusioned with church. So, we need balance here. My simple encouragement is be aware of how your actions (and inaction) currently impact your child’s engagement with God. We must lead our children into worship and teach them how to be with the body of believers.
Now note what I’m not saying.
I am not saying when you should come back. This virus has impacted each of us in different ways, yet the extent of that impact has varied wildly from person to person. Some of us have merely read or heard of the virus through media platforms, informed of the rising infection and death tolls while remaining largely unaffected personally. Others have lost jobs, served the dying in overcrowded hospitals, and faced death themselves. In light of this, who am I to say when is the right time for you to return? Only you know your situation/degree of comfort regarding your health and those with whom you are in contact.
What I would encourage you to do is carefully weigh your motivation for staying away from your local church service. Whenever the time finally comes that we find our primary motivation for remaining home is simply convenience, I encourage you to reconsider in light of the criteria highlighted above. In meeting together, we embrace a long tradition of togetherness, we answer a call to connectedness, we witness, and we respond to the divine mandate of joining together in worship.
In closing, I want to affirm again the efforts of those who are continuing to work to produce an online platform that reaches the isolated and opens a door to the distant. Online church has been and continues to be a lifeline during this ongoing COVID season. I am no luddite, and I am immensely grateful for technology and what it enables for our online worship. Yet, when the time comes for you to be able to make the decision to return to in-person gatherings or not, my encouragement – even my plea – is that for your spiritual health and the health of the church body, you should.
In the meantime, as we consider how to adapt to church life to these unprecedented times, joining the public forum around subject matter we never imagined would be relevant ecclesiastical discourse (church online or in person? masks or no masks? singing or no singing? etc), let us use the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus as our guide:
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the pond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)