Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted our society. One major result of the government’s mandates to curb the spread of the virus has been the closure of churches.
This initially led to the rapid increase of online church services in which people simply “participated” in a worship service by watching a worship team perform and then listening to a sermon. My wife and I were among those who took part in such services during the initial shutdown.
At first, the virtual church services seemed to offer a good option considering the speed with which the shutdown took effect. In the beginning, some churches even reported larger-than-normal numbers participating in their online services.
While a minority of Christ followers have returned to face-to-face church attendance, most Christians continue to stay at home for a variety of reasons. My heart goes out to pastors who are scrambling for ways to shepherd their congregations through this mess.
Yet, during this shutdown, I believe the church is being sifted. This situation is testing the depth of our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and our commitment to His church, i.e., to each other.
Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) The church is His idea, His creation, and it belongs to Him. When Saul (Paul) was persecuting the church, Jesus so identifies with the church (His followers) that He asked Saul, “Why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4)
And while we use the expression, “going to church,” we understand that the building is not the church; people are the church. The church consists of Christ followers who gather to worship Him, hear from His Word, and fellowship with each other.
This “gathering together” is the core characteristic of the church. Even the Greek word used in the New Testament ekklesia means “an assembly” or “gathering.” Why is this gathering of Christ followers so crucial to defining the church?
Consider what the Lord urges us to do in Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
As the church, we are Christ’s representatives on earth. We are to remain faithful to Christ. He wants us to build each other up, encourage one another, and spur each other on to become more Christlike. All this requires that we spend time with each other.
When Jesus called His disciples, He not only called them to Himself but to each other as well. The same holds true for us today.
Another way to look at this is to consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (ESV) Nearly all these qualities can only be cultivated within the context of relationships. We cannot learn to love or practice patience unless we’re with people who need to be loved and with whom we must practice patience. Growing in Christ requires relationships and cultivating relationships demands face-to-face interaction.
My point in sharing this is that watching a sermon online is fine if we cannot meet at our church building, but merely watching a sermon does not constitute “church.” We must also devise ways to meet with other followers of Jesus face to face. We can do this in our homes, at a coffee shop, or in other creative ways.
Today in China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and in many other Muslim countries, followers of Jesus risk their lives to be able to meet with each other. We should courageously follower their example. If you’re still “attending church” by watching an online sermon, invite others to join you. Spend time together praying, worshiping, and hearing what the Lord is doing in each other’s lives.
As followers of Jesus, you and I need each other. We need personal interaction with other followers of Jesus. Meeting together is a core characteristic of the church.
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of His return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT)