What a time it’s been, and yet here we are. The pandemic is no longer the front news story; masks, though still worn sporadically, have been mostly discarded. The CDC has changed its guidelines regarding COVID 19. Restaurants, travel, amusement parks, and yes, churches, are open again.
Churches have, by my observation, continued the online options they developed during the early days of the shutdown. Also by my observation, these were not only necessary measures, but remain good and helpful for various reasons. And yet both anecdotally and statistically we know that there are many, many people who have not returned to in person church services.
Though there are some who have not done so because of health reasons, there are others who have not returned because they have come to appreciate and enjoy the convenience and accessibility of worshiping online. For the first group, my personal response is to only say that I’m glad they are remaining connected in whatever way they can to their church family. For the second group of people, though, I wonder if before you continue down the road of online only attendance, perhaps you might consider just three simple questions:
1. What is the church anyway?
This is a baseline question, but one that needs to be asked. Unless we can answer this question in a real, biblical way, then any of the other questions or options in front of won’t really matter. This question is trajectory setting – it’s the one that sets the stage for all the other decisions we might make.
So what is the church? The word “church” is the Greek word ekkllesia which comes from the verb meaning “to call out.” Therefore, “church” is the New Testament designation for those who have been called out. Out of darkness into light. Out of sin into freedom. Out of death into life. The word only refers to a local institution secondarily; primarily, it’s a term that doesn’t specify a membership card or a locality, but rather a world-wide group that all people enter into when they start walking with Jesus. That means if you’re a Christian, you’re part of the church whether you like it or not.
The church is, by its nature, a people; it is the collective term for who we are as a group of Christians. The church is our identity as well as a group we participate in. This helps answer another question of whether or not the church is optional for the Christian – the answer, of course, is no, because to abandon the church is to abandon ourselves. Active participation in the local expression of the church is assumed for the writers of the New Testament because leaving that local expression was, I believe, equivalent to leaving the faith.
2. What am I supposed to get from the church?
Okay, so that’s what the church is. Now in this group of people, surely we are meant to receive something, right? Of course we are. In Acts 2, the first description of the early church, we find that people received all kinds of things from the church. Fellowship, instruction, encouragement, prayer, resources – just to name a few things. We are absolutely meant to receive from the church.
Now if you’re committed to online church, you might argue you receive many of these same things. No argument here – you can receive a measure of fellowship, encouragement, instruction, and all the rest through an online expression. And yet there still something missing, because in the midst of all that receiving, we are also meant to receive the means of discipleship. The church is meant to help us grow to be like Christ.
A key, central component of being like Christ is self-denial. It’s taking up our cross, and in so doing denying our own preferences, dreams, ambitions – we abandon them all, and in so doing, become more like Jesus. When we meet, in person, with other people, we have to every single week be around people who might rub us the wrong way. Who irritate us. Who like different music styles than we do. And yet whom we, nevertheless, love dearly. But being in a congregation with these people requires the kind of self-denial that makes us more like Jesus.
3. What am I supposed to give to the church?
And here is one final question, because we aren’t only meant to receive from the church; we are meant to give. This is why we have each been given spiritual gifts – it’s in order to help build up other people inside of Christ’s body. We are meant to contribute – to help each other – so that we can all, together, reach maturity in Jesus.
There is a reason why our weekly meetings are called “worship services” – it’s because we are meant to serve. Indeed, without us, the church really is incomplete. Each of us has been reborn to play a vital and varying role in the church, and if we aren’t in attendance, then that contribution is also absent.
Here again, we would do well to consider the reasons behind our choice of the online venue, and consider the fact that in making that choice, we aren’t just making a choice for ourselves. Though we might not mean to, we are also making a choice for other people. Christianity is a “one another” faith – and all those “one another’s” can’t really be done if we aren’t with other people.
Friends, think on these things. Consider them. Think deeply about the choices we are making because our choices aren’t just about a venue – these are choices that demonstrate what we believe, or don’t believe, to be true about the body of Christ.
Come back, if you’re able. We miss you.