It will be a corporate memory in the mind of many pastors. Where were you the first time you preached to an empty room and made eye contact with a lifeless camera? True, I was blown away by the impact we could have online yet simultaneously I knew something was wrong. Preaching in an empty room to a comatose camera was like a post-card from a loved one. In one sense, it achieved something but only made me desire to see, feel, and touch the real thing all the more. In-person gatherings achieve this in ways virtual realities just don’t fully fulfill. I believe there is biblical precedent to value physical in-person ministry over the gracious convinces of technology. Consider Paul’s words and desire to move past the technological grace of letter writing and Spirit-filled desire to be in-person with the saints,
1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 “17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.”
Romans 1:11 “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you”
2 Timothy 1:4 “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.”
Of course, Paul is speaking about personal interaction. Still the fact clearly remains that certain aspects of his ministry could not be achieved apart from in-person interaction. Sunday gatherings in-person is a spiritual rhythm to see the body of believers gathered around the Word, encouraged by one another, and edified by Spirit. Yes, streaming and or watching a recording is a gracious concession but may we be reminded it is not commanded in Scripture.
Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us “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.” Colossians 3:16 instructs us “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Please read these scriptures, memorize them, and meditate on them. I believe the Spirit will impress upon you that these commands are touchpoints of grace we cannot fully grasp in the virtual experience.
Not only is this a grace we cannot experience it is also a good work we can seldom exert in the virtual realm. The in-person gathering reemphasizes our ministry to one another. In the classic book A Display of God’s Glory, Mark Dever states:
“Being a member of a church should mean regularly being present at public meetings. Attendance is perhaps our most basic ministry to each other. As the oft-quoted Hebrews 10:25 says, ”Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
If the New Testament uses the image of the church as a building then we must be bricks in it; if the church is a body, then we are its members; if a church is the household of faith, it presumes we are a part of that household. Sheep are in a flock, and branches on a vine. Biblically if one is a Christian he must be a member of a church. And this membership is not simply the record of a statement we once made or of affection toward a familiar place. It must be the reflection of a living commitment, a regular attendance, or it is worthless, and worse than worthless, it is dangerous.”
When you stream, you can’t physically hug a widow processing her recent loss, you can’t look a teen in the eyes and tell them about the beauty of Christ, you can’t hold a dear friend’s baby and bless them in the presence of their parents. When you stream, you can’t look a row ahead of you and see something is off with your Sunday School classmate, you can’t notice good news hiding in the smile of a new couple, and you can’t encourage the pastor preaching a hard truth from a difficult passage with a heart-felt amen. When you stream you can pray along but seldom pray with.
Regardless of where you fall on the theological spectrum of the sacraments, many if not most agree the full magnitude of Baptism and the Lord’s Table cannot be expressed or experienced in its totality virtually. It is a deeply spiritual honor and significant privilege confirming the testimony of a new believer in the assembly. It is a spiritual duty and significant delight to eat the bread and drink the wine together as a family gathered in one singular moment.
Friends, we must be honest. If it is true that worship includes service (Romans 12:1-2), then streaming is stunted worship on our best Sundays and consumer Christianity on our worst Sundays. Family as we enter a Post-COVID world we need to remember streaming is a supplement and not a substitute for worship.
Throughout the ages, there have arisen very important discipleship questions that challenge the culture and convicts the Christian. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves and others, “When will you return?” No doubt we will all have different answers and reasoned responses. For many it will be after vaccines are distributed, for others, it may be when “numbers” go down, and yet for others, the question may evolve depending on circumstances.
But here is the point: if we haven’t consistently asked ourselves or those accountable in our community this question then we have short-sighted the importance and impact the in-person gathering has on our lives. If we are streaming merely for the sake of comfort, convenience, and compromise of convictions then we have sold our brothers and sisters in Christ short. We have sold our corporate privileges for a bowl of digital soup. Yet, if you stream because of unique occasions or because of unique seasons then please understand any shepherd worth his salt will get that. But again, the keyword is “unique”. We need to guard our hearts against making concessions utter complacency.
In returning, we want everyone to be safe and secure. However, it would be pastoral malpractice to tell you risk-free Christianity exists. It doesn’t. We were called to bear a cross and not a crown until Christ calls us home or until he returns. Never the less, believing the gospel means we have the ultimate security and rescue we all desire. Making the decision to return will take wisdom, caution, and ultimately courage. Making a decision to value in person over streaming will take conviction. Biblically speaking, for those able, the question moving forward is not if you will consistently pursue in-person gatherings but when will you consistently pursue in-person gatherings? I pray this decision becomes one of great importance and maximum urgency because a sheep without a flock under the guidance of a shepherd is a very joyless path. May our joy increase and our hunger grow as we consider the beauty of the Gospel displayed in Christ’s gathered, living, and active Church.