In my last post, I wrote an open letter to the pastor who is tempted to simply live-stream his church’s entire service without resuming physical gatherings. In this post, I write an open letter to Christians who are tempted to stay home and watch services online.
We are halfway through 2020 and I’d say right now we are in desperate need of a half-time motivational pep-talk. I know I am not alone in feeling like this year has beat the tar out of me. Where to begin? Before we stepped into this year, we already lived in a weird age—the social media age, the outrage age, the cancel-culture age, and the entrenched politicization age. And right in the middle of all that, the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and fear swept through our world. If that weren’t enough, recently, we all collectively watched a man named George Floyd denied the dignity of being treated like a human as his life was slowly snuffed out of him, and in response to that—and so much more—many of our cities were (literally) lit on fire.
And there you are, Christian. A citizen of heaven living as a sojourner on earth, wrestling with your allegiances. Like the rest of us, you are trying to get a handle on how to think about all this, and like many of us, you’re trying (in vain) to work it out on social media. Everything there has the appearance of all-importance, and everything there demands your contribution. So you try to figure it all out and educate yourself on the issues. Except you find that, given the vitriolic, contentious and politicized nature of the platform, every passionate “expert” shouting from one direction is met with another passionate “expert” shouting from another. And your temptation is to either allow paralysis to set in, or throw yourself wholesale into one side.
The reality is, you may feel very strongly about all of these issues, and you most likely have church members who feel the opposite. As a pastor, I can tell you that the full spectrum of political opinions is well-represented in my congregation. In November, we will have members voting Blue, members voting Red, members abstaining, and members writing in their own ballots, all looking at one another and thinking, “How could you possibly vote that way?” What I know for a fact is that while my entire church decries racism as an evil in the sight of God, and not one of our members denies that the gospel of Jesus Christ has profound implications for how we view racism and racial tensions in our country, our membership is nevertheless vastly diverse in its opinions on how exactly those implications manifest themselves socially. I also know for a fact that the measures we take in compliance to county COVID regulations are inevitably difficult for many of our members (for opposite reasons). On the one hand, some think we’re crazy for continuing to take communion every week because of risk of exposure, and on the other hand, some think we’re crazy for asking people to worship with masks on at all. No matter how your gatherings resume, the “new normal” will not feel anything like the old normal.
(Sidebar: On this note, let me beg you to pray for your pastors. They are forced to wrestle through difficult questions at the moment, and a “win-win” scenario does not exist. Do not forget that Hebrews 13:17 is not caveated with, “provided you’re not in the middle of a pandemic” when it tells you to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”)
Right now, there are any number of reasons for refraining from coming back to church. You may not want to return because your church (like ours) has suddenly become a family-integrated church, and the thought of trying to keep your kids quiet during the sermon sounds terrible. You may not want to return because doing so would put you in close proximity with members you just had it out with on social media. You may not want to return because you are afraid of exposure to COVID-19. You may not want to stay at home because your church is complying with county regulations that call for masks, and you object to wearing masks out of principle. You may not want to return because you can’t imagine how wearing a mask all service (if that’s required at your church) can be anything but irredeemably awkward. Or, perhaps, you may not want to return because, frankly, it’s easier to stay at home. Perhaps your church streams its services live, so you have grown accustomed to “having church” at home. Maybe the gravitational pull to stay home is simply convenience.
My dear fellow Christian, please come back to church. Do it for your own sake and the sake of your fellow church members. The awkwardness of public-gatherings, COVID edition, may make those gatherings feel less meaningful, but they aren’t. Regardless of how it feels, if you are gathering with the body of Christ to sing and pray and read and listen and observe the ordinances, you are experiencing the ordinary means of grace. There is little else on this planet that is more meaningful or significant—and you can’t make it meaningful or significant, it just is.
You who think it’s not worth it to come to church and hear a fraction of the sermon because your kids have collectively decided that this hour and a half will be the apex of their demonstration of depravity, please come back to church. You are teaching your kids the priority of gathering with God’s people for corporate worship whether it feels that way or not. This is in part what it means to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Not only are you still feeding your soul and the souls of your children in the spiritual discipline of congregational worship by fighting against comfort to get there, you are also encouraging your fellow parents who are doing the same. Come back to church, and remind them (and be reminded by them) that you are not in this alone.
You who are tempted to avoid close proximity to your fellow members because of recent online scrimmages that have yet to be resolved, come back to church. You must resolve those scrimmages eventually (Col. 3:13), why not do it in person (which is more real than the synthetic reality of social media anyway)? Our Lord Jesus told us that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35). Presumably, this is because our love is an otherworldly kind of love that contrasts sharply with the mere mutual affection likeminded people have. It’s easy to love people who are like you. It’s Christian to love people who aren’t. So, as our culture becomes more and more divisive and entrenched—as it is increasingly “anti” the “other,” and deprived of civility and respect—let us take the words of Christ seriously and thereby be a spectacle for the world. Let us blow their minds by being a community that can disagree about important issues—real disagreements that the world would find intolerable—and still demonstrate other-worldly kind of love for one another in person.
You who are tempted stay home because you think that wearing masks is a stupid requirement and you object to wearing one, please come back to church. Bear in mind, it may be the case at your church (as it is in ours) that this kind of practice is the middle-way between you who don’t want to come out of principle and your fellow-members who don’t want to come out of fear. As they step toward you in love, you ought to do the same. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Et each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
You who are tempted to stay home because you are afraid of exposure, as difficult as it may be to hear this, please come back to church. Consider the possibility that your fear in this instance extends beyond good stewardship of your body and your family’s health and has crossed the line into sinful fear. Consider the possibility that what you’re dealing with is actually a refusal to trust in the Lord’s sovereign providence. He is God, you are not. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
Finally, you who are tempted to stay home out of convenience, I urge you to repent and come back to church. Why do I use such strong language here? By telling you to “repent” I am assuming that your reason for staying home is most definitely sinful, whereas with others I merely suggested that there may be sinful reasons for staying home. Am I not being presumptuous here? I don’t think so. You see, as unique as our times are right now, the practice of abstaining from the local gathering out of convenience is not unique to our circumstances. That practice has stood as a temptation for Christians for as long as the church has existed, and Christians are explicitly commanded to resist it: “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” (Heb. 10:24-25). Convenience is not a valid reason to stay home, brother or sister. And do not assume that you are merely practicing wisdom by staying home (i.e., that you are staying home out of a justified concern for safety). If you feel safe enough to shop for groceries or eat at restaurants, then your absence on Sunday mornings is most likely not owing to a concern for safety, but rather straightforward disobedience to Hebrews 10:24-25.
Christian, watching a service streamed online is not “doing church” at home. You are not “gathering” online. What you are doing is watching other Christians gather. And this is a poor substitute for gathering with them yourself. Let us remember the words of Paul, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:11-12). Don’t deprive your fellow members of the gift of your faithfulness, and don’t deprive yourself of the gift of theirs. Please, come back to church.
Your fellow Christian.
 Of course, if you are legitimately at higher risk than the general population as a result of pre-existing conditions, take your special circumstance into account. “Stewardship” and “safety” are certainly still a category in this decision-making matrix, and it may indeed be wise to stay home for you. But you are still required to search out, confess, and kills the sinful fear in your heart just the same.