For months on end, Sunday after Sunday, I looked down at a fire lane curb, painted red, and then looked up at a sea of pop-up tents and lawn chairs just before reading the call to worship. The church where I serve as a pastor met in a parking lot for eleven months during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this month, we returned to an indoor worship service. It was a joy to lead the call to worship that first Sunday morning back inside from Psalm 126, a psalm for God’s people returning to their land after famine, and we rejoiced with the words in verse 3:
“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
Now, whatever your opinion on masks, lockdowns, and vaccines and whatever your journey as a church or individual has been, that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the idea of #onlinechurch. For us, #onlinechurch began when, overnight, we as a church became virtual nomads—and I mean that quite literally. Before we had access to the parking lot of what would eventually be our indoor worship space, we lost our meeting space in the public school when the district shut down all the schools and barred groups from meeting in them.
We found virtual church—call it #churchonline—to be our best recourse at the time. We opted for a pre-recorded and abbreviated version of our worship service with all our usual elements of worship except for the Lord’s Supper, which we ordinarily celebrate weekly. We even baptized someone in our church office over a camera with a handful of joyful witnesses present to receive a new member into our church family!
I share our story with you to underscore that I think we’ve just been through a season with limited options and no easy answers.
So, what’s the big deal then? Well, I manage our church’s social media accounts, and #churchonline was a hashtag I started using that always struck me as rather hollow, sort of a Band-Aid on a wound that needed healing. The problem is, many people nationwide have settled into online church as a permanent solution instead of a best-fix for the time. Many are calling it quits on church altogether. Maybe you’ve asked yourself if it’s really worth the fuss returning to an in-person worship service.
I’m convinced that church online is by no means the ordinary, God-glorifying, spiritually healthy way he has called us to worship him.
Let me encourage you with three relevant points for returning to in-person worship with God’s people as soon as you possibly can:
1. God’s people have gathered to worship him throughout history.
Just following the first public sermon after the resurrection, we read: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46–47).
Granted, there was no live-streaming option for the apostolic church—but this is a helpful place to begin because it illustrates the practice of God’s people from the earliest days after the resurrection of Christ. Early Christians gathered together in person to worship.
In fact, they gathered at the temple, where God’s people throughout redemptive history had gathered to worship him in person through the ministry of Old Testament priests. Things changed drastically after the resurrection of Jesus, but one thing that didn’t change was the practice of gathering to worship God.
2. The Bible commands God’s people to gather together to worship him.
Not only is the example of togetherness in worship found in Scripture, it’s actually commanded explicitly: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful, 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. 10:23–24).
Skipping church is not a new phenomenon. Even the author of Hebrews mentioned that neglecting to meet together as a church was a bad habit that had developed among the earliest Christians. I don’t believe he’s referring to exigent circumstances such as a pandemic or serious illness or attending to pressing family matters. But we should examine ourselves, to see if the shoe fits. Neglecting to meet together should be the exception to the rule, and by no means a habitual occurrence outside of extraordinary circumstances.
3. God’s people have a spiritual need for gathering together to worship him.
You desperately need to worship the Lord in person together with his people. God isn’t just being strict—he’s designed worship with this aspect of togetherness for your good. Colossians 3:16 says, “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.”
Like the author of Hebrews, Paul is pointing out here the encouragement we need from our brothers and sisters. It’s the encouragement we find when we gather together with God’s people for worship. And it’s more than just the spiritually uplifting word from a friend after the service, or the admonishment we need to remember to stay the course. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, that they should be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Isn’t that beautiful? We are called to encourage one another in the very act of worshiping the Lord together.
We need to return to God’s in-person design for worship where possible, as soon as possible. This glorifies the Lord, and it’s his good design for his people.