When the pandemic began in early 2020, stay-at-home orders changed almost everything overnight. The rhythms of our lives fell off the beat. Instead of experiencing life in 3D with all five senses, we were stuck at home: working, learning, worshiping, mourning, celebrating, and even marrying via screens.
We’ve all had our resilience tested and creativity stretched, and we are collectively exhausted. But there is reason to hope. As we begin to see glimpses of a return to normal after an accelerated rollout of vaccinations, churches must answer an important question: how do we call our people back to gathered worship?
Digital-worship experiences have helped us get through this, but beneath the success stories lies an increasingly troubling trend: people are comfortable staying home, especially on Sunday mornings. Articles about “hybrid church” suggest that perhaps the model of livestream in tandem with gathered worship is here to stay.
Digital-worship experiences have helped us get through this, but beneath the success stories lies an increasingly troubling trend: people are comfortable staying home, especially on Sunday mornings.
In September 2020, Barna reported that over 20 percent of American churchgoers had not attended any type of worship service since the pandemic started (online or gathered), and over 30 percent of Christians said they were watching other churches online rather than their home church.
This suggests that people are choosing to worship in “in spirit” rather than in person. After all, if Paul—from prison—could be present in spirit with the Colossians (Col. 2:5), then don’t broadband internet, Zoom, and streaming services make it easier than ever to be present in church? No. In fact, Scripture illustrates our need for embodied, gathered worship in three ways.
1. The Tabernacle
After the fall in Genesis 3, God removed his presence from his people. And yet throughout Scripture we see the many ways God resolved to dwell with his people again. In Exodus 25, God instructed the Israelites to build him a sanctuary where he could dwell among them.
The tabernacle was more than a tent of meeting; it was the place where God dwelled with his people. The tabernacle provided the wandering Israelites a structure for worship. It was a medium for God’s presence among his people when they had no permanence. They carried with them their house of worship, across deserts and decades.
They didn’t just say, “Someday when we are settled, when we are safe, then we will construct a place of worship.” No, they carried it and constructed it, over and over again: a building that was over 40 feet long with incredibly detailed design. The tabernacle represented God’s presence at the center of their lives. In the Old Testament, gathered worship became a marker of God’s people.
In John 4, Jesus said a time was coming when people would worship “no longer on a mountain, but in spirit and in truth.” Any place can be one of worship.
But this doesn’t mean WiFi can turn your couch into a pew.
2. Spirit and Incarnation
The ontology of the internet supposes we are present with whatever we give our attention. We visit a site or go to an address. Going to YouTube to watch church suggests that your attention is your presence.
The ontology of the internet supposes we are present with whatever we give our attention.
The gnostic influence is undeniable: it elevates mind and spirit over body. What matters in this view of presence is the inner life oriented toward a digital space. It suggests that technology frees our minds from our bodies. Our bodies cease to be reflections of God’s image and become impediments. Clothing and feeding and cleaning ourselves are chores that take us out of our technological worlds.
Combine that with a prevailing view of church as an educational and emotional experience and you get what we have now: worship as a download. A digital space among other spaces for us to choose.
The Christian idea of presence includes more than just our attention or even our spirit. Our bodies are not an accident of creation. They are God’s design. He created us in his image, and he sent the incarnate Christ who is the “exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Immanuel—God with us—is more than just God’s attention.
He gave us the Lord’s Supper to remember that (Luke 22:19). The mystery of the incarnation is present in bread and wine. Christ could have united us with a sacrament that points to his immaterial presence, but instead he gave us communion—a memorial of his bodily presence. After all, he didn’t merely say “This is my spirit.” The broken bread is a physical sign of a spiritual reality. At the table, God meets his embodied people in a tangible way.
As new-covenant believers, we are commanded to worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23), and we look for Christ to be present by his Spirit (Matt. 18:20). But our physical gatherings are not incidental. Paul says to us, “You are the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). A body is only a body when its parts are assembled, each one working for the good of the others, all under the direction of the head. The church manifests Christ’s body when it meets together.
3. The Marriage Supper of the Lamb
And we don’t just remember and participate in Jesus’s crucified body. He is also the firstfruit of resurrection (Rev. 1:5). Even now, Christ is present at the right hand of the Father in his resurrected, scarred body (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20). And we hope in his return, when our bodies will be raised like his (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Pet. 1:3). So, if worship anticipates our bodily resurrection, we cannot settle for participating in disembodied ways.
The Christian community is built around Christ, the new tabernacle (Heb. 8:2). He gives us his body and unites us to himself. We remember him and hope for his return, when he will raise up his bride forever.
That’s a wedding ceremony that won’t be on Zoom.