Imagine this. You finally arrive at church after one kid finds his missing shoes and another won’t sit still long enough to let you braid her hair. You and your husband fought all the way over about who is responsible for taking out the garbage that you left overflowing in the kitchen. Now you stand in the church foyer, sanitizing each child’s hands after touching the door handles; strictly reminding them not to touch anyone else’s toys, or fingers.
You drop your offering into the box, now stationed at the back of church, and settle into your seat. Then you realize you’d forgotten your hymnals and bibles at home. There is no use asking for one; we don’t share books at church anymore. During the sermon, you are distracted by wiggly children and your own wondering when you will take communion again. They still haven’t figured out a way to prepackage wine and bread. At least there is still bottled coffee for refreshments. Trundling your kids back in the car after stiff small talk, you turn to your husband and sigh, “why do we even bother?”
During this pandemic, pastors all over the nation are working tirelessly to bring church to our homes. They are live streaming entire church services and setting up mid-week online Bible studies. Their efforts are opening the door to people who wouldn’t usually participate in church and forging stronger bonds of friendship among those who do.
There are numerous perks to this necessary trend. No more commute, which means no more wrangling the kids into the car or scrambling to get something in the crock pot for a late lunch (when everyone comes home crabby and hungry). It saves money on gas and time, both of which we can reapportion to meet the church’s needs (and our own—we can really rest on the sabbath). Church has come to our living rooms; and it couldn’t be more convenient.
So, given all of the perks to worshiping from home, why not make that the new norm?
While I am immensely grateful for the technology God has given that allows us to stay in contact during this time of isolation, it cannot replace gathering together in person as a church.
There are several reasons we should—safely, respectfully, following the best practices in accordance with wisdom—attend church, in person. I will provide three.
God Commands It
Hebrews 10: 24-25 reads, “and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (emphasis mine). In order to understand this command, we need to understand what exactly the writer of Hebrews means by “meet together.” Does he mean attending church services or having family devotions? Does it look like chatting over a meal, studying the Bible with a few friends, or watching a live stream of church?
The Westminster Divines give us some insight into what this, and similar passages could mean. These men agreed that God calls us to faithfully maintain fellowship and communion with Himself and each other, when we are worshiping Him and serving each other (WCF, 26:2). Though they do remind us that God is not limited by space or place. We can worship him in spirit and truth anywhere. This means, we can worship him alone, with our families, or with the Church. However, they hurry to add that knowing this should not lead us to stop getting together for more formal worship (WCF, 21:6). Rather, God calls us to meet together in person so that we can speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). And God calls us to meet together in person to hear the word preached and share communion as a church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Acts 14:44). Though we may experience a measure of fellowship and certainly learn from God’s Word, online church cannot replace meeting together in person.
Online Teaching and Fellowship Cannot Replace Gathering Physically
Why do we brave traffic and crowds, and stay up late to go watch our favorite band (or Handel’s Messiah) live? Isn’t it because there is nothing quite like watching a live performance: the energy of the crowd (hushed or cheering), the uncanny feeling that the music is enveloping you, the crisp clarity of each note? No recording, no matter how professional, can replace it. The same is true of church. Only, it is even better because we are not merely another seat in the audience, we are part of the chorus.
Now, a sermon may not stir your soul like the Hallelujah chorus, but it is much more likely to reach your heart when you are sitting in the pew among other believers. Indeed, as Brian Croft has recently remarked, “the Holy Spirit uniquely uses eye contact, facial expressions, and body language in both the preacher and his hearers to create a powerful connection between them during a sermon. A pastor feeds off the visible reaction of his hearers. A congregation is moved by the pastor’s burden over their souls conveyed in the sermon.” Nothing makes you sit up and listen more than when a pastor looks right at you while sharing a rich truth you so desperately needed to hear that morning. And consider the rich and full silence—punctuated by the occasional cough or baby’s cry—of many individuals bowing their heads as one in prayer or contemplation, or the joining of our voices in song; be it skillfully, or haltingly.
Even if we could somehow recreate this church atmosphere in our own living room, we can never recreate that sweet unity created by brothers and sisters, sinners like us, gathered for the same purpose: worship of our Savior. And even if we had several pastors who could facilitate small meetings from our homes, we miss the beauty of the church worshipping as one.
God has made us both sensory and communal creatures. When we gather together, God invites us to use of all our senses to worship Him. When we gather together, God invites us to delight in His love proclaimed through hearing the Word preached and sung, tasting the bread and wine of communion, and seeing our brothers and sisters surrounding us. Indeed, it is partly for the sake of these brothers and sister that we join in worship.
Meeting Together is an Expression of Love
When I was a college student, living on potatoes and Ramen, I loved when a family invited me for dinner—and not only for the good food. Their inviting me into their homes demonstrated in a tangible and powerful way that they loved and accepted me. In the same way showing up at church communicates our love not only for God but also for our neighbors. In fact, as Simon Kistemaker warns, “one of the first indications of a lack of love toward God and the neighbor is for a Christian to stay away from the worship services. He forsakes the communal obligations of attending these meetings and displays the symptoms of selfishness and self-centeredness (290).” This is a bold statement. How is it selfish and unloving to choose to watch church from home instead of attending?
First, God has given each of us many and various gifts such as hospitality, teaching, generosity, evangelism (Ephesians 4:11, Romans 12:6-8). By attending church, we are able to use these gifts to serve one another. When we stay home, we are keeping our fellow believers from benefiting from our gifts. Second, attending church implies sharing our lives with others in church (see for example Acts 2). Simply by being together, we begin to share our trials and sorrows, as well as our hopes and joys. We are then able to bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
But life together is sometimes messy, and often painful. After all, others may hurt us (or us them). They may see sins in us that we would rather hide. Yet, in this shoulder rubbing, we are sharpening one another (Proverbs 27:17). And when we remain faithful through the good times and bad, we show our love (John 13:35). Moreover, our faithful attendance is a witness to the lost among us. In God’s providence, perhaps they will see our love for the Lord, and desire to know Him as well. This not to mention the fact that God’s fills and equips us to witness to a lost world through the means of grace given during formal worship.
In conclusion, it is hard work to attend church. It is difficult to train our kids to sit still or to talk to that person who keeps getting on your nerves. Inviting people into our lives is a messy and painful business. It is far easier and less painful to stay home. But God commands us to worship Him in the company of other believers. When we obey His command, the rewards are great. We are better able to worship Him who deserves all of our worship. Through the preaching and sacraments, we are once again filled up with His love. Out of that love we can love both our fellow believers and our unbelieving neighbors. So, during this time of semi-quarantine, let us long and pray for the day when we can once again raise our voices in a unified (albeit sometimes out-of-key) chorus to our King.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.
 I am in no way opposed to holding Church online when we cannot meet in person either because of health concerns (like now), or physical inability (i.e. personal inability due to illness or injury, etc.). The Lord has graciously provided technology which allows us to “meet” at times when we otherwise would have little to no contact. I am rather opposed to replacing, as a general rule, the gathering together at church when we can, with online worship.