By Will Herron, Adult Ministries Director.
For many, Sunday mornings have become a lot more chilled out these past few months. What once was a crazy dash to get everyone out the door in time for a church service has now become a somewhat leisurely-paced journey all the way to our favorite armchair or sofa. Not to mention bedheads, pajamas, and pop tarts being entirely permissible and welcome.
The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 upon the global church has caused a seismic shift in terms of in-person/online church attendance. Whilst doing church online is not a new venture by any means (Life Church in Oklahoma City introduced an “internet campus” back in 2006), church leadership is now responding to what could be a permanent shift of church attendees to an online format. No longer a minor supplementary ministry to the homebound, online church could very well become the norm for peoples’ church service experience.
The question for church leaders and layperson alike: Is this forced cultural shift one that we should endorse and encourage in the long term? Simply put, is church online a healthy alternative to the in-person experience?
What seems clear in Scripture is that the “church” isn’t so much an event or location (in some ways we’ve adopted the word to mean as such) but rather a body of people. I’ve seen this affirmed in some churches adopting the tagline: The building may be closed, but the church is open. Just because we can’t meet as the church, doesn’t mean that the church can’t continue to exist and thrive in the meantime. The innovation of online services ensures a measure of church life continues despite restrictions on gathering. I’ve never been more grateful for the technology to maintain a sense of connection and provide a channel of ministry than at a time like this.
In saying this, I believe when the time comes for each of us to choose between virtual or physical gatherings, we should prioritize in-person services. Let me briefly outline a few reasons why:
- A Tradition of Togetherness
Much of the activity of the early church centered around a gathered people. Luke highlights some of this in Acts 2 stating that they: “… devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”The coming together to worship, pray, listen, and take communion are a large part of our heritage, and, while tradition shouldn’t always be continued for tradition’s sake, there seems to be a God-ordained model here that we should be aware of.In the Old Testament and the New, the emphasis appears to be on a people gathered together rather than intentionally scattered. Albeit, within the context of persecution, the dispersing of the Israelites and the early church was never something that was deemed a positive movement. Rather, it was the coming together of God’s people that we see most celebrated. Our tradition of togetherness is one we should consider as we determine options of digital vs. in person.
- A Call to Connection and Witness
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the early church wasn’t the buildings they met in nor the number of people attending, but the coming together of people across diverse cultural, economic, and social backgrounds under a common heart of following Christ. Further still, how they treated one another within the church had an evangelistic impact within the broader community (true to Jesus’ statement that their love for one another would be their most distinguishing feature). The witness of the church to the broader community takes many forms, but I do think one aspect of our witness is in our gathering. Our meeting together is a visible sign of a hidden connection, a supernatural bond centered around the person of Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. If we cease to gather, I believe we miss out on part of our witness to our local neighborhood.The in-person gathering also operates as a primary connection point for individuals within the church. It creates an environment where there is potential for new relationships to begin and for existing relationships to deepen. Like a springboard, it can propel people into a path of relational discipleship within the context of a small group, class, or specialized group. I am aware that for some people within the church, their experience has been more one of isolation. They enter a service only to walk out at the end having had no meaningful contact with another living soul. At The Ridge, our heart is that no one should feel isolated relationally or spiritually. Our meeting in person is a primary way we can pursue that reality together.
- A Joint Song of Worship
Over the centuries, the church has built spaces to gather. One of the reasons I believe is to create a (mostly!) distraction-free environment to focus on God and what He might be saying to us. We dedicate that space and time to worship God and to hear from Him, turning our hearts and minds to Him as one body. Many of us have encountered the practical challenges (as well as the conveniences) of viewing services online within our home environment. If we are honest, it’s been hard to create a distraction-free zone where we feel our hearts and minds are in the right place to worship. Whether we have young children at home or feel a sense of awkwardness at worshipping with only family present, we can’t deny the advantages of being in a room with hundreds of other believers focused on responding to God in worship. It’s often within the “joint song” of the gathered church that we can feel awakened to worship, where hearts are more focused and minds are more engaged.
The online church has been and continues to be a lifeline during this ongoing COVID season. I can’t affirm enough the efforts of those who are continuing to work on this platform that reaches the isolated and opens a door to the distant. Yet, when the time comes for you to be able to make the decision to return to in-person gatherings, my encouragement is that for your spiritual health, and the health of the church body, you should.