The COVID19 pandemic has driven most churches into the digital space with both excitement and excellence. Creatives in your congregation and on your leadership team have become the unsung heroes of the season. You pivoted from only in-person services to only remote services, then to a blend of in-person and online experiences (and probably back and forth a few times as well). You have likely surprised even yourself, with how flexible you and your people can be when necessity demands it. Well done!
And now, with the proliferation of digital production and online worship spaces, much of your congregation is wondering, “Why go back?” If you listen to certain church leadership podcasts, you may even be hearing from the professionals that building your church strategy around a weekly in-person experience in the future would be a step backward, not a step forward.
I affirm that crisis accelerates necessary change. But crisis also provides an opportunity to reaffirm what is necessary.
So the question becomes, is it really necessary for Christians to attend weekly in-person worship services? Can’t we just keep doing church online? If online church is better for me and my family, why not just opt out of the in-person gathering from now on, be faithful in giving and worshipping remotely, and enjoy the production of worship services from the comfort of our own home?
To pose the question frankly, is the physical gathering of the church really necessary?
I would respond with an emphatic, “Yes!” Gathered weekly worship is more than the delivery of an excellent product or the dissemination of some ecclesiastical grace. It is in the very nature of the Christian faith. It is part of the Christian church’s spiritual DNA.
“Gathered weekly worship is more than the delivery of an excellent product or the dissemination of some ecclesiastical grace. It is in the very nature of the Christian faith. It is part of the Christian church’s spiritual DNA.”Tweet
To be honest, one thing I fear with the innovation of this season is that we may become more energized by our own creativity than we are desperate for the presence and power of God. Use every tool possible to extend your church’s platform that the gospel of Jesus Christ might ring louder, longer, and stronger than ever before. Capitalize on digital spaces and innovative delivery methods to fulfill the Great Commission. Don’t chastise the effective use of digital space for Great Commission advance. But don’t idolize it either.
“Don’t chastise the effective use of digital space for Great Commission advance. But don’t idolize it either.”Tweet
The church must physically gather. Here’s why:
1. It’s a Matter of IDENTITY.
The first time the word “church” is mentioned in the New Testament, it is the subject of Jesus’s powerful declaration in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church…” From there, the word is written 117 more times in the New Testament, always to identify a called-out assembly. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia. It is made from a combination of the words “ek” (summoned out) and “kaleo” (assembly/gathering). The church of Jesus is summoned out of the lost world and into a physical assembly. They can be Christians in isolation, but they cannot be the church apart from their regular worshipful gathering.
In a technical sense, the NT church only exists as a called out assembly – a gathering of Christ-followers. The identity of a congregation extends as its influence is felt in its small groups, social media presence, community outreach, missional endeavors, and so much more. Over time, the church’s identity can become all but indistinguishable from its activities. But biblically, the identity of a church is in her regular assembly as the called-out and gathered ones. Weekly worship is not just what we do; it’s who we are.
“We can be Christians in isolation, but we cannot be the church apart from our regular worshipful gathering… Weekly worship is not just what we do; it’s who we are.”Tweet
2. It’s a Matter of PRIORITY.
Crisis has always been more of an opportunity for Jesus’s church than a threat. Some of the most notable innovations in church ministry have come through seasons of great hardship and cultural change. Over the past two millennia, churches have systemized discipleship efforts into home groups, Sunday School, small groups, women’s and men’s groups, children’s ministries and youth ministries, and so much more. We have prayer teams, creative teams, committee structures, and disaster relief trailers. Today we are learning to capitalize on digital trends and online spaces to assist us in accomplishing the Great Commission.
The church has been innovating change for millennia. Hallelujah! But in every season of change, when our priorities have been called to the carpet and the fat has been trimmed, the church has remembered that it can do many things well, but there is one thing it simply cannot neglect: the church must physically gather. Perhaps this is a good time for us to regain the understanding that other ministries (evangelistic, missional, discipleship-oriented, worshipful, fellowship-oriented) flow out of this weekly gathering more than they flow into it. Surely secondary activities become entry points for church engagement. But they remain just that—secondary. The priority of corporate worship, Bible-reading, reflective communion, expositional preaching, Spirit-filled interaction, and unified prayer in a single physical gathering must be recaptured in this season. We should continue to utilize all the contemporary tools at our disposal to accomplish the Great Commission, as we have done for two-thousand years. But we cannot neglect the priority of the weekly gathering. If the church’s regular assembly is a matter of biblical identity, it only follows that regularly assembling is a matter of first priority.
“If the church’s regular assembly is a matter of biblical identity, it only follows that regularly assembling is a matter of first priority.”Tweet
3. It’s a Matter of PROVOCATION.
The biblical author exhorts us not to neglect the regular gathering of the church, because it is in this physical gathering that we have the opportunity to, “watch out for one another to provoke love and good works… encouraging each other,” (Hb. 10:24-25). I can be a Christian all alone, but I can never live to the fullness of my calling in Christ unless I am part of the regular physical assembling of likeminded followers of Jesus. It is there, in the assembly, that I find encouragement and accountability. It is there, in the assembly, that I am presented the opportunity to embody the peculiar love of Christ and to be provoked toward those good works He has prepared for me.
God has uniquely structured the weekly worship gathering for this purpose. You can find bits and pieces of it in Sunday School classes, social media subgroups, and online videoconference Bible studies. But you will never experience the fullness of encouraging, biblical provocation toward love and good works apart from regular worship gatherings. We all have a tendency to listen to those with whom we already agree—to surround ourselves with Christians who would be more likely to stroke our egos than to challenge us, hold us accountable, and provoke us. But our fallen nature does not need isolated affirmation. It needs gathered provocation. The regular worship assembly is God’s plan for meeting this need.
“Our fallen nature does not need isolated affirmation. It needs gathered provocation. The regular worship assembly is God’s plan for meeting this need.”Tweet
4. It’s a Matter of Spiritual VITALITY.
My gut tells me that if you have been a faithful weekly worship service attender for any number of years before this COVID19 pandemic, you can sense that something is missing when you tune in online. All the elements of a great worship service are there. The pastor preaches the Word faithfully. The musicians direct our minds and hearts heavenward. The prayers are sincere. The production is excellent. But there’s just something missing, isn’t there? What’s missing is the spiritual element of the gathered body of Christ. The Holy Spirit dwells within individuals, but He moves in power on and through the church.
The Bible is replete with examples, but I believe this is something you know from experience these days. We can make accommodations for a season. We can interrupt our routine and make the most of present difficulties to be good neighbors and to be good examples to our neighbors. But the regular gathering of the church body is not a matter of cultural practicality. It is a matter of spiritual vitality. If we’re not careful we may find, after all of our innovation and creative digital repackaging of church experiences, that we have become more motivated by what we can do than we are desperate for what only God can do. The Holy Spirit moves on and through the gathered Body of Christ. The regular, physical gathering of the church is a matter of spiritual vitality.
“If we’re not careful we may find, after all of our innovation and creative digital repackaging of church experiences, that we have become more motivated by what we can do than we are desperate for what only God can do.”Tweet
Online spaces for church engagement have been a blessing through this season, and the church of tomorrow will be wise to make effective use of digital opportunities to reach people for Christ, disciple them, and give them clear next-steps in the faith. But it must be said that while we are away from our weekly physical gathering, we are missing something important. Regular, in-person church gathering is not a matter of cultural nostalgia; it is a matter of biblical conviction.
Exceptions will always exist—those who cannot physically join the in-person gathering for one reason or another. But the rule always has been, is, and will continue to be this: the church must gather.
Grace and Peace,