This coming Lord’s Day, I’m preparing to do something I’ve never done before: preach to an entirely empty sanctuary. A stripped-down version of our service will be livestreamed from the church to our congregants as they watch from home or in small groups.
I’ll be one of hundreds, if not thousands, of ministers and worship leaders doing the same thing, as we look to alternative methods for worship amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m thankful for modern technology that can make possible a broadcasted service. And I don’t resent the government for the restrictions and mandates they’ve put in place for public gatherings. This is for our health and safety, and complying with such directives is one of the ways we can obey the second greatest commandment.
I Was Glad?
That said, the prospect of preaching to an empty church is, in the truest sense, depressing. Going to worship—in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people—filled the psalmist with eagerness: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!'” (Ps. 122:1).
This week—and probably for weeks to come—no one will be saying that to me, and I’m already feeling the joy slip away.
As a pastor, my whole week builds toward Sunday. Sermon prep in the study, coupled with various meetings and fellowship with the saints, culminates in the crafting and delivering a whole service that by God’s help will meet the people where they are, offering them grace in their time of need.
I’m still doing that this week, of course. But come Sunday things will be different. More than different—they will be bizarre.
There will be no call and response in the liturgy. I will say the corporate prayer privately. There will be no “Turn in your hymnals to . . .” And the preaching, a dynamic medium that depends in large measure on the feedback of the listeners, will be awkward at best. I’m deflated thinking about it. My prayer is that these methods will be enriching for those joining in at home, and I trust they will be.
But for the pastor this is a true spiritual challenge.
Pastors can be overly concerned with the number of seats filled on a given Sunday. If nothing else, perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will curtail our habit of counting heads more than caring for souls. As we peer into an empty sanctuary, where it seems our congregants are invisible, we’d do well to remember what theologians call the invisible church.
The Westminster Confession defines the invisible church as “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof” (WCF 25.1). This echoes the teaching of Hebrews 12:22–23, which says that when we come to worship, no matter where we are, we come “to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
What a glorious thought: the worship service of true believers that I help lead every week has an attendance number through the roof. And of course this has nothing to do with my preaching ability, visionary leadership, or winning personality. It is all due to the sprinkled blood of Jesus, mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 12:24).
Dear pastor, there are more people present with you in worship than you could ever count—and maybe it takes a completely vacant church building on a Sunday morning to remind you. It did for me.
Audience of One
Another powerful reality we preachers need to be reminded of in coming weeks is this: the One for whom we preach is always in the audience. Preaching serves the ultimate end of God’s glory. And while we may not see our church family in-person Sunday, God is there, present by his Spirit. It could be that the more people are in the pews, the more quickly we’re prone to get forget that.
Last week an interesting thing happened. We were one of the few churches in our community that did not cancel services, so we ended up getting visitors from churches who weren’t meeting. Ironically, we almost reached record attendance. On a Sunday where the sanctuary was so packed, it was tempting for me to forget whom this is all about.
The opposite will take place this week, in terms of our attendance. And yet, again, maybe that’s what I need. Perhaps it takes the thought of an empty sanctuary for me to sense the fullness that is God himself. Whatever it takes, I want it.
This is what I needed to hear, and I hope it helps you. And let me give you the exhortation I’m giving myself: preach your heart out this Sunday, dear pastor. Don’t be discouraged. Give it all you’ve got into that camera. Offer up your quarantined self as an act of worship. God will use this bizarre moment for your good and the good of your flock.