The COVID-19 pandemic is the story of the year, and it will be the story that defines much of the 2020’s as a decade. It is so big that it is the backdrop of dozens of other stories and the launching pad for enough grievance pieces to give your sixty year-old aunt enough stuff to share on Facebook till she turns ninety.
One particular windmill that these grievance pieces attack is the closure of churches in several states across the US. I’ve seen an unending stream of articles, blog posts, and social media posts arguing that churches must be opened immediately. Even some of my agnostic / atheistic friends are offended by this outrage!
I even saw this Facebook post—shown to me by another minister who saw it when it was posted by a church member—that denounced any church that was closed, and denigrated any pastor who made the decision to close! By “close” I mean not have in person, same (physical) space gatherings, of course.
This would be a good time to talk about how “church” is not essential.
Some people want churches to be seen as “essential,” so valuable and vital that they can’t be closed. They seem to be arguing that Christians must gather in person, in the same space in order to be Christians, but is this the case?
The Role of Church Attendance in Our Faith
The question that the aggrieved think that we need to answer with a resounding “Yes!” is, “Do we need to attend Church to be Christians?” However, I think that question obfuscates and blurs the real issue. Instead, I’d rather explore the role of church attendance in our faith and examine our reasons behind it.
Church Attendance And Salvation
As a pastor, I have a weird feeling about encouraging people to attend church. I want them to come and worship and pray and learn, but I am desperate to make sure that they don’t see church attendance as a “salvific” exercise, as a chore that they do weekly in order to get into heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Church attendance isn’t required for salvation. If it was, then, much of the persecuted church in the Middle East and Asia would be in serious danger of going to Hell because regular church attendance in such settings is the exception, not the norm.
The Purpose Of Church Gatherings
“But, Phil, you’re forgetting where it says ‘forsake not the assembling of yourselves together….”
Oh, you mean Hebrews 10:24-25? No, I’m not. In fact, let’s look at a part of Hebrews 10 right now.
“19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” — Hebrews 10:19-25
First things first, this passage is written in the plural. The author is addressing a group, and enjoining that group to be active in their faith, to enter the presence of God boldly, to hold unswervingly to hope, to encourage one another, and to gather together.
However, the verses 19 through 23 seem to indicate one set of actions, while verses 24 and 25 indicate another. The two are joined by the conjunction “and” in English, but when I read the passage and when I look through my commentaries, it reads to me as an additional imperative, something separate from the previous ones.
“Let us draw near to God….”
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope…”
“And let us consider…”
That last one just feels like its an imperative of a different order. They are all plural, meaning that all of the readers should be doing them, but the first two have the undertone of individual acts that all should do. Even the last one—”And let us consider”—begins individually, with deep thought, before revealing of that the object of that thinking is the mutual encouragement of a body of Christians, who should be meeting regularly for mutual edification.
The “church attendance” portion of this passion comes dead last and is the only activity in this list that would seem to be communal. Now, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m trying to give life to the lie that Christianity is a wholly individualistic faith. Not at all. However, I want counter the myth that church attendance, as we understand it, is some sort of sacrament that we must all partake in order to receive grace for the week. That’s ridiculous.
The purpose of these early church meetings was not to hear a sermon or to receive grace through the vicarious role of the priest or pastor. Instead, they were for mutual encouragement and support. Think of church less like gathering at a temple to worship a deity and more like a family of refugees and exiles gathering to support each other until such time that they can return home. They gather to remember home.
Similarly, think of it like a circle of spies gathering for the exchange of intel, supplies, and refreshment so that they can continue on their mission of undermining the kingdom of evil until the Kingdom of Christ is revealed. They gather to remember the mission. We should be doing much the same. (See Colossians 3:15-16; Ephesians 5:18-20)
Church Is Not Essential In How We’ve Become Accustomed To It
The point is that, for most of us, church isn’t what the Bible describes. It’s not a place to encourage and be encouraged. It’s a front to back, top-down experience. This isn’t morally wrong, but it does not conform to the patterns described by the Bible.
To that end, having church online does not really remove one too much from what an in-person experience offers. Yes, the dynamic feeling of being in a crowded room might be gone, but the actual method of church—front to back, top-down—is preserved.
Over five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation emphasized several radical doctrines that today seem quite obvious. The most pertinent to our discussion here is the doctrine that all Christians have equal access to God. We do not have to be brought into the presence of God by a priest or pastor.
We can go there ourselves—with full assurance, v. 22—and will be received by Him. Yet, many in Protestantism have framed in-person-in-same-room church attendance as somehow necessary for experiencing the presence of God. Even the Pope said that Christians could worship at home as we wait out the pandemic.
Imagine my confusion and frustration, then, when the vast majority of my overwhelmingly Protestant social media circle began to essentially argue against Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” by implying that corporate worship in terms that seemingly imbued it with spiritual power, as if sitting in the pew were a sacrament all along.
Yes, we are commanded to meet together, but not because we can only experience the Spirit of God when physically together. Of course, that’s not what this passage indicates, nor does that reflect the historical pattern of the church, nor even the present situation of Christians not living in the West.
Attending church is not about receiving an impartation of God’s grace. Your minister can’t do that for you. He or she can communicate the Word of God in a way that the Spirit can reveal to you something about your own self, but that’s not dependent upon being with your minister. I’ve wept many times from listening to a previously recorded sermon. No physical proximity required.
We’ve Overrated In Person Gathering
You don’t have to be in the room with the worship team to experience the anointing of the worship. It’s not about the place; it’s about our desire to experience the Person of Christ regardless of our physical situation. If God can use a donkey to communicate, then, He can surely use a livestream.
Stop doing damage to our theology by pretending that church attendance does something for us spiritual that God’s grace can’t accomplish through live-streamed services, podcasts, and Zoom calls. Remember, the whole point of gathering together is for mutual encouragement.
While we were on lockdown from March through May, my family—my wife and I, my parents, and my four siblings with their spouses—participated in weekly Zoom calls. We talked about our week, our work, our struggles, and we prayed. Sounds a lot like Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and even Hebrews 10.
When Social Distancing Exposes Spiritual Deficiency
Why am I writing this months after most lockdowns? Well, honestly, I wanted to write it months ago, but I had some personal stuff go down this summer that put my writing on the back burner.
Secondly, as we watch the COVID numbers go back up, it might be wise for some communities and churches to return to lockdown. But lastly, I’m writing this because I’m afraid that this time of social distancing has exposed some serious spiritual deficiencies.
What have we done to ourselves that we cannot “hold unswervingly” without weekly church meetings? Has Christianity become nothing but a series of meetings without which we will fall back into our old ways of living?
I’m not unsympathetic to those who were upset about missing the in person aspect of church gathering. 2 John 1:12 affirms that being together is better than communication devoid of contact—”I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.“—and yet we are not saved by contact with one another.
We are saved through contact with God. Have we become so reliant upon our minsters and our worship leaders that we no longer know how to “meet” (digitally, of course) with fellow believers for times of mutual encouragement? Have we become so used to someone providing us an easy atmosphere in which to worship God that we no longer know how to do the same in our own homes?
I know that these are pointed questions that I’m asking quite broadly, but rest assured, I have had to ask them of myself as well. So please don’t think that I’ve handled this pandemic perfectly and have had such great times of spiritual refreshing in my own home that my own shadow can heal the sick and that my personal holiness has increased so that my feet hover an inch off the ground all times.
This pandemic has wrecked me in so many ways. That “personal stuff” I mentioned earlier? It was a stillbirth. Our unborn son had died at 15 weeks, but we didn’t find out until week 19. So, a week after our thirteenth wedding anniversary, my wife and I were in a hospital room as she delivered our son’s dead body in the dead of night.
Upfront, let me say that our family, our friends, our church, were all all awesome and took great care of us—they still are—but to be trapped in your own home, trapped in your grief with nowhere to go for a distraction was really hard for my wife.
I had already started back at work and our church was having limited gathers that, as a pastor, I had to attend. But my wife was trapped at home, and so I can tell you that I get it that there are legit reasons to hate the lockdown orders.
The isolation only deepened her despair, and she is only just now beginning to crawl out of the dark. Meeting with people who love and care about you is essential, but sometimes, those meetings need to take place through a digital device. Is it the best thing? No, but sometimes, it’s the only thing we have.
Church is not essential. Specifically, church gatherings are not essential in a sacramental or political sense. We can meet with God anywhere. Church gatherings are supposed to be times of mutual encouragement and comfort, but that isn’t always the case.
If we, the Church, actually understood that Hebrews 10 was warning against the forsaking of mutual encouragement, which should take place in corporate gatherings, then we might have done a better job of making the changes needed during the lockdown.
Hopefully, we’re all learning the lesson of what church should and shouldn’t be so that our local churches will emerge from this crazy time stronger than ever.