As churches begin to resume services, some of us may be wondering if we really need to go back. This is an occasional series on some frequently-asked questions: do look out for more articles from other pastors.
Recently, I spoke at an on-site service in a small church. It had just resumed services under the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. The church has about 100 members, and they are taking turns to attend service fortnightly, with 50 meeting each Sunday.
The worshippers sat 1 metre apart. All of us had to wear face masks, and I had to wear a face shield while preaching. A pre-recorded video of singing, led by a worship team, was played, and the church members were told to “sing along in your hearts”. After the service, everyone left immediately without fellowship and tea. It was not the usual experience of worship.
On my way out, I chatted with a young couple in the lift. They were happy, they told me, to be back in church to attend service and meet fellow members. “I’m quite tired of looking at a screen to watch the online service,” the young man said. Returning to church, even with the restrictions, was refreshing, he added.
Not all people feel this way, of course. Some feel that with the restrictions on corporate singing and fellowship, they are missing something important. So they would rather not go back to church.
Not surprisingly, some church leaders are worried that some members, used to the wide choice of online services they can “attend” every week, may never return to church. At the same time, studies in the US have shown that the number of people watching online services is dropping, especially among younger believers. My conversations with local pastors suggest that the same thing is happening in Singapore. It means that people are attending church service less often, whether on-site or online.
Yet, it is for the sake of our own spiritual health that we should return to on-site services as soon as we can. There are a few reasons why I say this.
1. On-site Church Services Honour God
First, we must remember that the key reason why we gather in corporate worship is to honour God.
We may not always appreciate it, but there is value in having a faith community worshipping God publicly in a regular place. Over time, such places become spiritual places that are treasured and stand as a witness to the God we worship. Just as God instructed the Israelites to worship Him in the temple in Jerusalem where He had placed His name (Deuteronomy 12:5), He also calls us to be faithful in worshipping Him.
There is a wonderful story of an Orthodox priest in Russia pastoring his flock during a time of great persecution. Attendance in his church dwindled until one Sunday, no one turned up. The pastor could have cancelled the service since there were no worshippers, but he decided to carry on. He believed that he had to conduct the service because God was there—and that was the most important fact.
This went on for a long time. Observers mocked the priest and said he had gone mad, for he was singing, preaching, and praying all by himself. Years later, however, when the persecution ended, people came back to church, thanks to the faithful witness of the priest who had a proper understanding of worship.
While the horizontal dimensions of church, such as fellowship with each other, are important, we should not forget the key vertical dimension. Even though the current restrictions do not allow us to fellowship with each other, we should be ready to honour God together.
The same principle applies to singing, an important part of the service. While corporate singing is not allowed presently, we can still honour God by singing in our hearts.
Once, I spoke to a group of people working in a country where Christian worship and witness were strictly prohibited. Despite the risk of jail and persecution, however, believers continued to gather in secret. To avoid being found out, they refrained from singing out loud, but sang the songs silently in their hearts. These people saw the value of corporate worship in honouring the Lord.
2. Meeting in Person Builds Unity
Second, there is the value of solidarity in face-to-face meetings.
When someone passes away, why do his friends and relatives make it a point to attend the wake? They may not say much, but they show their solidarity with the bereaved family, who would be encouraged and comforted to see people turn up.
If this is true for funeral wakes, it is all the more true when it comes to the public worship of God. Our physical presence gives us mutual encouragement when we see fellow believers standing together as a worshipping and praying community. We owe it not only to God, but also to fellow Christians in turning up for corporate services.
3. Going to Church Helps Us Stay Close to the Faith Community
Third, we need to be careful that skipping church does not become a habit and a part of our routine. (While some reasons may sound reasonable or rational, they may actually be excuses in disguise.)
That’s why the writer of Hebrews urges readers not to give up meeting together “as some are in the habit of doing”. Instead, we are to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). Staying away from church can become a habit that is difficult to kick—it could be the first step to losing the fellowship and protection of being part of a community of fellow believers.
The story of the tribe of Dan offers us a lesson. The people of Dan distanced themselves from the other tribes and eventually went into apostasy (Judges 18:29–31), so much so that the tribe is missing in the list of people whose names are sealed in Revelation 7:4–8.
Staying Strong in Our Faith Starts Now
Covid-19 is still with us, but we are standing at a crossroad in our journey. We can grow stronger as Christian communities or fizzle out in the days ahead. It is in this context that we need to be faithful in the way we worship and honour God corporately, in the way we continue to stand together in Christian solidarity and witness, and in the way we preserve our habit of gathering together in obedience to God.
When the restrictions are eventually lifted and church life can resume some form of normalcy, we can emerge intact and stronger. Whether we will be able to do so or not, however, depends on our responses and decisions today.
May we share the passion of the psalmists who wrote:
“How lovely is your dwelling place,
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.”
As we gather in corporate worship in this time of Covid-19, let us pray this modern call to worship:
We come together to worship longing for tenderness
because this world can be hard.
We come longing for light
because our lives are crowded with shadows.
We come desperately needing direction.
Fill us this morning with your peace:
your Spirit is our peace and our path.”