The world has changed. Like it or not, Covid-19 has changed our world permanently; it will never be the same again. The pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has revealed much about our society and our world, and such revelations have led to major changes, many of which will remain, whatever we think of them and however much we may dislike them.
There are the obvious changes we learn of through the media. The devastation of the economy, with dire long-term consequences for the wealth of our nation, and of the education and training of children and young people, again with dire repercussions. In-person meetings at work and time spent at workplaces at all will be greatly reduced as the shift to online working becomes baked into our lives. But what about churches? Has Covid-19 permanently changed the way we worship?
The government has learned that once we have been living a certain way for many months, it is difficult to change our behaviour. After months of lockdown or near lockdown, living in the house all the time (or most of it), only travelling locally, and doing more and more online, to get back to where we were in 2019 is a difficult adjustment, one which many seem reluctant to make.
This is now the danger for our worship, isn’t it? Some churches have not met at all for many months, many Christians haven’t gathered for congregational worship since early 2020, and getting back to full congregational worship will be difficult. Established habits of staying at home and joining online will be hard for many to break.
When there is snow and ice outside, do you really want to take the risk of travelling to the church building? If the weather is cold and wet and you are cosy and warm inside, do you want to put your coat on and make the journey? If you are tired or sick or feeling low, do you want to drag yourself out? Isn’t it easier to just worship online instead?
The temptation to worship online is going to be strong for many. In the past there was no alternative to congregational worship, to putting on the coat and making the journey through wind and weather, but now there is. Or is there? Should we be making such an effort to gather for worship? Let me attempt to sketch an answer.
Today we have the wonders of online platforms where we can ‘gather’ for our worship. Obviously such were not available in Bible times, but if they had been, is that how Christians in the New Testament would have worshipped? Would Jesus have delivered the Sermon on the Mount via YouTube? Would Paul have Zoomed to Corinth?
No. We are physical beings and flesh and blood interaction is essential to who we are.
God did not create us like the angels, who are pure spirits, but as psychosomatic beings, both body and spirit. Adam and Eve were made for a physical (fleshly) relationship; the sexual part is not the main point. All human relationships are patterned on this one. Online relationships inevitably fall short of this. Worship is relational, isn’t it? And so needs to be physical.
When the New Testament churches gathered, their worship included physical elements. The Lord’s Supper requires a physical gathering where we eat real bread and drink real wine. Our fellowship includes a holy kiss or its cultural equivalent (especially for the less tactile among us!). Affectionate embraces, encouraging hugs, and firm handshakes are integral to our human relationships as believers gathering joyfully together.
Real person-to-person meetings are how we are able to know and love one another. Without these real interactions, relationships will atrophy and fellowship inevitably will become shallow, a shadowy online facsimile of real fellowship.
True worship is multimodal, utilising all our senses, including touch and taste and smell, not just vision and hearing. True worship is three dimensional, not just pixels on a screen. We engage with brothers and sisters around us during our worship, singing praise to God but also to one another, assisting one another in prayer, exhorting one another to seriously engage with the preaching. None of this can happen meaningfully online.
So we have reasons from our creation and from our current New Testament worship why we must worship physically, gathered together as flesh and blood brothers and sisters. And then there is future worship in heaven, which is also physical, isn’t it? We look forward to resurrection bodies and to a new heavens and a new earth in which we will worship God in such glorious bodies. Heaven is presented to us as a place of physical gatherings of worshippers.
That being the case, then our worship now should reflect this, shouldn’t it? We need to gather physically now because in doing so we are anticipating heavenly worship. The full experience of having others around us and lifting up our voices together in praise to God as we gather is a little taste of the full, joyful roar of the future heavenly congregational worship.
Historically, and more intensely again during the pandemic, Christians have discussed how we should worship, what elements constitute true worship, and so on. But more fundamental is being clear why we meet at all. We need to be clear that online services can only ever be a poor substitute for biblical congregational worship and must never replace them.
Online services can help those who are stuck at home and benefit those who can’t meet for other good reasons, since something is better than nothing. The danger is if we become satisfied with this something, this enfeebled online shadow worship, and lose the fulness of real congregational worship. Such a development would be catastrophic for our churches.