A recent Sunday began like any other for me. As a pastor, I spent the early morning hours preparing and praying over my sermon manuscript, before (barely) helping my wife with the kids, throwing on my coat and tie, and making the five-minute drive to the church building.
The worship service also progressed in predictable fashion: one of our elders read Scripture, calling the congregation to worship, and the piano accompanied the church family in singing hymns and psalms. I led the pastoral prayer, then I read and preached the Word of God.
Everything was normal; except, it wasn’t.
The only people in the building were me, the pianist, my fellow elder, and two church members who operated the livestream equipment. This was the first Sunday after our state’s governor had wisely restricted gatherings because of the coronavirus, and our church elders had wisely agreed to abide by that restriction and broadcast our service over Facebook Live.
Our experience on Sunday appears to be the new normal for churches across the world for the foreseeable future. This is difficult to digest.
The New Testament word translated “church” is the Greek word ecclesia, which means “assembly” or “gathering.” The church is, before all else, God’s people gathered for the purpose of worshiping God. But how do we understand corporate worship when we can’t assemble, but worship via technology? Here are four thoughts.
1. We should feel the pain of not meeting together.
Our wise God has created people as embodied souls, occupying particular spaces at particular times. When he redeems us, we take our place in the community of believers. The early church understood this: “Day by day, attending the temple together [i.e., worship] and breaking bread in their homes [i.e., fellowship], they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
Bodily presence matters.
How poignantly I felt that on Sunday. Our sanctuary was so empty. Missing were Mark’s handshake and Jeanne’s hug. Missing were the hundred blended voices—familiar voices, voices of my church family—singing God’s praise. Missing were the rustling pages and encouraging nods during the sermon, and the audible “amens” after prayers. Missing were 7-year-old Jack and his sister, Elise, hurrying to greet me at the door with their gap-toothed smiles. Missing was Dave’s typical thoughtful insight about the sermon.
And if my experience felt hollow, I know it felt equally hollow for my brothers and sisters. Huddled on their couches in front of a laptop or smartphone, they viewed their pastor on an impersonal screen and heard only their own voices as the hymn lyrics scrolled across the screen.
A webcast worship service, though a temporary necessity, can never become a permanent replacement for God’s people gathering in the same place. It may be convenient (no commute!), but Christ redeemed us to be together. And during this season of separation, our hearts should ache each Lord’s Day that we can’t see and touch and hear our church family worshiping God.
2. Though we are physically separated, our worship can still be corporate.
A webcast worship service isn’t the same as physically gathering, but it can still be corporate. Online worship certainly feels different: it feels either like you’re watching somebody else worship, or like you’re worshiping God alone.
But livestreamed worship is still corporate worship. You may not be able to hear your brothers and sisters sing, but you’re singing the same words of praise at the same time, and, together, your voices mingle before the throne of God.
When you recite the creed, you’re confessing with them the same gospel words at the same time, united in what you believe.
When you bow your head in prayer, the pastor’s voice becomes the mouthpiece of your joined hearts (Acts 4:24), and that one prayer rises before God’s throne as sweet-smelling incense (Rev. 8:3–4).
And when you hear Scripture read and preached, you’re “gathering as one man” (Neh. 8:1) with your church family to receive, believe, and act on God’s proclaimed Word.
The congregation extends wider yet: you are joined by the “innumerable angels in festal gathering . . . and the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:22–23).
Don’t allow your eyes to trick you into thinking you’re worshiping alone.
3. Corporate worship must remain central in the Christian’s life.
Right now, it seems as if our lives are on pause: no Little League games or school field trips, no lunch at our favorite restaurants, no game nights with friends. We may be tempted to think worship should be put on hold, too.
But the central mission of church during a pandemic is the same as any other day: worship in spirit and truth. Keep worshiping together. And keep worshiping as God’s people have always done.
Even though they appear on a screen, our services should be complete with all the elements of worship, except the sacraments. We should have God-centered congregational singing, substantive prayer, the recitation of creeds and confessions, the reading of large portions of Scripture, and the careful, impassioned, exposition and application of God’s Word.
And God’s people should participate in worship from home with the same attentiveness, devotion, and joy as they would in the pews.
You don’t need to worship God less, or differently, during this season. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we still center our lives on worship, even in temporary exile.
4. The pain of separation anticipates the gathered worship of heaven.
It can be tempting to think the church is merely waiting for the end of pandemic protocols. But our coronavirus separation vividly reminds us what the church is always like in this age. Pandemic or not, we are “the elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1).
Our churches that gather every Lord’s Day are relatively small and geographically scattered. But we have the assurance that this exile isn’t forever. Like John on the island of Patmos, separated from his church family on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), we too can look ahead to the final gathering of the redeemed.
On that day no one will be alone, but we all with glorified bodies and sinless souls will be part of
that great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)
I can’t wait to worship in the presence of my church family again. But even more, I can’t wait to worship with the entire redeemed assembly in the age to come.