When Covid-19 hit the US, pastors all over the country were forced to decide whether to cease or place severe limitations on Sunday’s public gathering. Once you boil it down, there were four main options. The first was to continue to meet and throw caution into the wind. But this begs the question, how does this really and truly love our neighbors. The second was to cancel all church activities and to try to disciple through other means: YouTube, Facebook live, podcasts, blogging, etc. Third would be to modify Sunday in varying degrees to encourage God’s people while trying to avoid the category confusion of a live-stream service replacing the gathered worship service. Finally, the fourth option is to try to replicate everything we do on Sundays.
To be sure, pastoral wisdom must be exercised to dictate what is best for your people. Still, given the options, I am becoming increasingly convinced that live-streaming cannot replicate what we do in corporate worship. Hope Community Church, where I am the planting pastor, chose option three. We have many of the elements that we would typically have on Sunday. On Sundays, we sing, we pray, we confess, we hear God’s Word, we are sent. But in all that we are doing, there is so much that is missing.
Why? Isn’t God present? I believe He is, and I think he is using technological means to share the gospel, but I would also say that during extreme times we aren’t expected to worship as usual. So we don’t need to pretend that we are worshiping as God intended. In other words, whatever we try to do is like kissing your wife through a veil. It’s close, but it’s not the same. And that is okay!
What Is Different?
God’s Word makes it clear that there is an expectation that we would gather together. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” The expectation is that God’s people would gather together. Some may argue that perhaps the assembly was merely functional, i.e., at that time, it was the most effective way to communicate. Now that we have Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, perhaps we no longer need to assemble. I am able to watch Ted Talks and Concerts online. Why not church?
GOD CALLS US TO ASSEMBLE AND DIALOGUE WITH HIM
The first critique would be that God calls us to assemble, and there is no indication that it is merely functional. We see that pattern in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 24 with God’s people in the wilderness, or the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Ezra and Nehemiah, or in the New Testament such as Acts 2:42-47 reveal to us that there is an expectation that God’s people would assemble. Edmund Clowney says, “To be the church is to worship God together.”
What is going on when we do assemble for worship? I am afraid that much of what is classified as worship today in the American Evangelical Church is consumption. We consume the music as great musicians sing about God, and we absorb a sermon as a top-notch communicator tells us how to live better lives. Scripture paints a different picture of worship. In the Bible, worship is a dialogue between God and His people. As Mark Jones points out, it is “two-way traffic between God and his people.” We see an example of this in Gen 8:15-16. There is a call by God to leave the ark, a call to trust God, and Noah responds with sacrifice. This small example demonstrates the two-way direction of worship.
We try to emulate this pattern in our service. This is why we have responsive readings in church! It is not because it is trendy or traditional. It is because we are called to participate in worship. So we seek to find ways in our liturgy to encourage participation. Not only through responsive readings, but through singing (yes, we encourage our people to sing), and through confessing our sin as well as our faith. It cannot be replicated online, even with excellent applications like Zoom. There is nothing like hearing the collective voices of God’s people echo off of walls rather than muddled through your device’s speakers.much of what is classified as worship today in the American Evangelical Church is consumption. We consume the music as great musicians sing about God, and we absorb a sermon as a top-notch communicator tells us how to live better lives. Scripture paints a different picture of worship. In the Bible, worship is a dialogue between God and His people. As Mark Jones points out, it is “two-way traffic between God and his people.” We see an example of this in Gen 8:15-16. There is a call by God to leave the ark, a call to trust God, and Noah responds with sacrifice. This small example demonstrates the two-way direction of worship.
WORSHIP IS COVENANTAL
We assemble and dialogue with God because worship is covenantal. Covenant is a massive theme in God’s Word, but it can be boiled down to this simple phrase, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” What we are doing when we gather is covenantal. God is showing us that He is our God as he provides us with the means of grace (Word, sacrament, prayer), and we are acting as his people by receiving those means.
WORSHIP IS EMBODIED
Finally, worship is embodied. The songs we sing are with our voices, lungs, mouths, vocal cords. We use our bodies to sing. Our fellowship, too, is meant to be physical. While we refrain from greeting each other with holy kisses (culturally, that would be awkward), we do connect through other physical forms of touch, whether they be the newly minted elbow bumps or fist bumps, handshakes, and hugs. When we come to the baptismal font, water covers our head as a symbol of the blessings of the gospel. This is embodied. The same can be said of the Lord’s Supper as we eat and drink physical bread and wine. But we do this as a body together with all baptized believers coming to the table. It is my conviction that this cannot be replicated apart from the gathered assembly.
To admit that our worship is not the same is a healthy response to our present crisis. I believe it demonstrates faith that God is at work even when we can’t gather together. May our longing to gather again be a sign of our love for Christ and one another.