With church life disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic in a profound way, some of us miss going to church. We miss the pews, the ambience and the acoustics of a church sanctuary.
While churches have turned to live-streaming platforms and video conferencing tools to conduct their weekly worship services, we find it hard to participate in these online worship services. We struggle to concentrate and pay attention. We find worshipping God in a group setting much richer in experience.
Some of us, however, don’t miss going to church. In fact, it seems easier to join the Sunday service online—we don’t need to waste time travelling, we can dress more casually, and we can multi-task! Some of us may also think: “What’s the point of going to church when we can’t sing?”
What lies behind this longing to go to church, or our comfort in attending church online? Are our motivations and feelings governed by biblical principles? Or are they driven by our individual preferences, personal conveniences, or cultural norms? Consider these biblical principles about worship and church:
1. Worship is not confined to a physical space
“A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21-23)
At the well where He met the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed that there would come a time when the worship of God would not be bounded by physical locality and facility. Because of His atoning sacrifice, every believer has now become a holy temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16, 19).
The physical sanctuary, no matter how skilfully designed to inspire awe, is not the dwelling place of God. Instead, God has chosen to dwell in every believer through His Spirit. This means that while it is important for believers to gather to worship God together in a physical place, it’s just as important for us to remember that worship doesn’t have to happen in a specific building or place. Every one of us can experience the intimacy of meeting the Lord anywhere, anytime, by praying, worshipping, and meditating on His Word.
2. Worship is more than singing
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Singing is just one of the ways of worshipping God—and not the only one. Perhaps we can consider this thought: If singing is the only way to worship God, what would the deaf and mute among us do? The book of Psalms tells us that standing (135:1–2), clapping hands (47:1), raising hands (63:4), dancing (149:3), and simply being still (46:10) are all biblical ways of worshipping God.
Perhaps Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to learn to embrace different postures of worship, such that we do not always depend on singing. It has reminded us that worship can happen when we present our lives wholly to God to serve His kingdom purposes.
When we go out to feed the poor, when we meet the needs of a brother or sister, when we share the gospel with a friend, when we show hospitality to strangers—all these can be acts of worship when we do them in Jesus’ name.
3. The church is not a building, but the people of God
“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Paul teaches us that the building blocks of God’s holy temple are not bricks or mortars, but fellow citizens and members of God’s household. In other words, all believers in Christ are collectively the holy temple of God.
Perhaps many of us are used to the traditional model of church as a large group of believers gathering in a sanctuary to worship God, but think about places where Christians are persecuted. There, believers often gather secretly in small groups in homes. Aren’t these churches, too?
The church is the community of Christ. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a group of five people gathering in a member’s home or a group of twelve gathering online; as long as it’s a group of believers coming together to worship God and seek His reign (Acts 2:42–47), they are the church.
4. Church is both a spiritual and physical eternal entity
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ “ (Revelation 21:2–4)
Life in the new heaven and new Jerusalem will not just be a spiritual experience. The book of Revelation shows us that it will also consist of physical and emotional experiences. God will dwell among us (21:3), we will feast together with the Lamb (19:9), and God will wipe away our tears (21:4).
Scripture testifies that God intends to redeem not just the spirit, but also the soul and body of believers (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Son of God did not die and rise from the grave just to make us alive in Him in the spirit; the resurrected Christ also took on a physical body forever (John 20:24–29). And when He returns, we shall all put on glorified bodies as well.
Since physical connection is part of our eternal experience in heaven, the church as a representation of God’s kingdom on earth therefore also needs to celebrate physical connection. While Covid-19 has compelled us to turn to online platforms, we need to be careful not to neglect connecting physically altogether.
With these principles in mind, I would like to suggest some possible ways we can respond:
1. Discern what is biblical, and what are our individual preferences, personal conveniences, cultural norms. We are all creatures of habit, and we tend to gravitate towards familiar practices. Let us test our inclinations and perspectives against what God has to say about worship and the church.
2. Extend our worship vocabulary. While many of us are used to worshipping God through singing, we can learn to overcome a personal discomfort with using biblical bodily gestures to worship Him. Let us learn to see worship holistically and understand that it includes whole-hearted service towards God. Worship can continue even when singing ceases.
3. Do church in small groups. Long before there were church buildings and mass gatherings at Sunday worship services, the first-century believers used to gather in small groups in their homes to break bread. Maybe it is time for us to consider doing church in smaller groups again. Smaller groups are not only safer and more adaptable in this time of Covid-19, but can also facilitate community, as members can forge deeper relationships.
4. Consecrate the online. While some of us find it challenging to worship through online platforms, how about learning to see them as God’s providence? Without these platforms, we would have been more isolated! Let us see online platforms as “neutral” tools, which can be used for God’s purposes. We can develop some disciplines when using video conferencing platforms for worship services—like turning on our videos, dressing appropriately, and avoiding doing other things at the same time. We can also gather in small groups (within what is allowed) in homes and join other groups online for corporate worship for better attention.
5. Make effort to meet physically but safely. Physicality is an important element in the Christian faith. God seeks to redeem not just our spirit, but also our soul and body. And life in heaven consists of a physical experience as well as spiritual. While meeting online is better than not meeting at all, online interaction cannot replace the many dimensions of face-to-face interaction. When we meet in person, our connection goes beyond spoken words: non-verbal cues like body language, facial expressions, and gestures make our conversation significantly richer. So let us not forsake meeting physically altogether, but let us meet in small groups (within what is permitted) to fellowship and pray together.