And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others (Matt 6:5).
What I am about to say is not intended as a judgment upon any decisions being made by faithful pastors all around this nation. And I certainly have no reason to impugn motives. I have very close pastor friends who will not agree with all I say here. They sharpen me. And I offer these thoughts only to honor my Savior, stay true to His Word, and compel us all to ask good questions during this crisis concerning the essence of the church, her worship, her ordinances, and her mission. This is not meant to be a rant. It is, rather, a heartfelt plea to stop and prayerfully think about what we are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the glory of God in the Gospel of Christ and for the good of His bride, the Church.
In the last few days, I have attended in-person pastor gatherings, and online pastor gatherings. We are, of course, all talking about the same thing – how to shepherd well the flock of God entrusted to us through this virus outbreak. Do we cancel services? Limit out gatherings to 50 or less (Indiana), 10 or less (Federal), or just love our neighbors enough to limit nearly all human contact for two weeks to see if the Lord will use it to slow the spread? And then there’s the whole question of how to keep shepherding and teaching and connecting while holed up in our homes (assuming we do cancel and/or quarantine).
The elders here have decided to cancel all gatherings for the rest of this month. And while we are offering a new podcast, and plan to do some discipleship classes via online platforms, we are not offering “online worship.” Granted, we have not been a “cool church” ever. I abhor what Facebook and YouTube as companies support (abortion and pornography). I cringe to use those platforms, and have for years. Even the online classes we are now doing make me a bit nervous. Some churches have been streaming worship, and doing all sorts of online stuff for years now. This crisis probably doesn’t affect much for them, with the exception of the actual physical gathering.
But that’s precisely the point at which I wish to engage us and challenge us a bit. I offer three reasons we think it best not to do online worship and/or to live stream a local church worship service.
- The Bible – we have no example at all in the Scriptures of a worship assembly being anything other than an actual worship assembly! The expectation in the Old Testament is the “whole assembly” of Israel (including children) gathers to hear God’s Word proclaimed and to worship and commit themselves to obeying God. See for example Deuteronomy 31:9-12 and Nehemiah 8. That expectation carries into the New Testament. Consider the Book of Acts. A church assembly in that Book clearly anticipates all those who have been baptized into the local fellowship and their children gathering for hearing doctrine, praying, and taking the Lord’s Supper together and meals together (Acts 2:41-47 being the quintessential summary statement). The Apostle Paul assumes whole families are present together in the church worship assembly (he directly addresses children in Eph 6:1-3 and Col 3:20). Paul speaks of the Corinthian Church gathering as “the whole church comes together” (1 Cor 14:23). So, we who hold to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures should be very, very skeptical and cautious when making claims that we are having “online worship gatherings” or that we are “doing church online.” We should be more honest, I think, and just admit this actually cannot be done “online” or in quarantine, at least not the way the Lord and His apostles command / prescribe.
- The Doctrine of the Church – to assemble is at the very heart of what it means to be a church. This is why the Lord forbids us to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb 10:25). Now, when we are sick or out-of-town or providentially hindered in some way, we are not sinning by being absent from our local church gatherings. If you go on and read the following verse (Heb 10:26) it is clear the author has a willful neglect of the church assembly in mind. Nevertheless, we simply cannot pretend that actually getting together as God’s redeemed people in Christ to praise Him, to pray hand-in-hand, to sing in harmony together, to hear the Word and discuss it together, to do the one another’s, is not a significant part of what makes us an actual church. There is no virtual church! There is no online church gathering. Friends, I am not saying we should not try to somehow “connect” with one another in these difficult days. I am not saying using online platforms is wrong or sinful. But the way we use them, and the way we market or promote these methods, matters a lot. We do not want to give our folks the idea that we can actually be a New Testament church online. Togetherness defines us! It’s what made the witness of the early church so powerful in their community and made people either avoid them or want to come be a part of God’s work in the church (Acts 4:12-16). Why not just humble ourselves and admit God is pulling the carpet out from under us right now? Our idols are being removed (sports, concerts, celebrity preacher conferences, economy, comfort). God exiled Israel. He removed their ability to worship Him in the way He had prescribed! The temple was smashed! And He did so to create a renewed hunger for worshiping God in God’s way. The exile periods revived the righteous remnant (Ezra 7-10; Mal 3:16-18). We have been praying for revival, haven’t we Church? But it seems we are in danger of only wanting it to come by means of our own choosing. While I pray all this “online worship” will actually create a renewed thirst to actually worship Christ in the way He has designed (covenantal life-on-life), I fear it may well backfire on us! Which leads me to . . .
- Our Culture – We already have a large segment of Christendom that think they are going to church or worshiping with the church by sitting in their bathrobes with a cup of java in their kitchens in front of screens. We evangelicals have for the most part strongly opposed such a view. We already have churches and whole denominations that do not even believe in church membership (covenant / commitment to a local body). We Reformed Pastors have stood against this shallow, non-committed, unaccountable, undisciplined view of Church for decades now. But it seems to me we very easily caved to that very model once a virus hit. We are potentially and inadvertently contributing to the very mess we have opposed on doctrinal and theological grounds! One pastor in the online training I attended earlier this week said, “We’ve not seen church-hopping like we’re about to see now.” Well, surely we all know he’s right. Not just digital church hopping (which so long as our people are listening to biblically faithful preaching is no worry at all actually), but actual church hopping. Well, that church has better live streams. Well, that church’s innovative podcast and rocking worship band (who happens now to be playing their instruments and singing their songs only for the cameras) tickles my fancy more than my more old-fashioned church. We say we’re not in competition with other faithful churches, but it doesn’t look that way right now, dear brothers and sisters, as we rush to have the best online worship and we all (or at least most of us) preach to empty rooms!
God help us slow down and think more carefully about what we are doing and why. His glory in the Church is worth it, right? Remember, as a pastor-mentor of mine used to say, “What we win them with is what we have to keep them with.”
Now, all that said, I pray and trust Jesus will save many sinners through this pandemic. Our God brings beauty from ashes. Jesus will save sinners who hear the gospel online. And I pray and trust those truly born again, that the Holy Spirit will move them to be baptized into a local fellowship as soon as possible. I pray faithful churches who just want to shepherd their people and not miss evangelistic opportunities will be given God’s wisdom and power to exalt the Risen Christ. I pray we will all be kind to one another as we critique and challenge each other in these trying times. Again, I reiterate, I respect those making different decisions than we are. And I am open to hearing a critique of my critique! Most of all, I pray our Triune God receives all glory, every ounce of it, for both His acts of righteous judgment and His acts of saving grace!
My own view of preaching and legitimate church worship assemblies may not be yours. Preaching is not precisely the same thing as teaching in my view. Our church is doing some online teaching. But to preach to an empty room is not in line with God’s design for the preaching / worship event, in my humble opinion. I am not against live-streaming a sermon so long as it is actually being preached to a live, in-the-flesh church / audience. I can see the benefit to shut-in members or those providentially hindered. But right now that’s all of us! And while some may argue this is precisely why their online worship method is acceptable, I am arguing it is best to just say, “Church, we actually cannot have a worship gathering right now. Let’s fast and pray God will reunite us soon!”
Every Sunday gathering is unique and unrepeatable. God shows up among His people in covenant with Him by Jesus’ blood, and sacrificially committed to one another, in ways that simply are not likely to be duplicated with online “gatherings.” You may worship God in spirit and truth with your family or even your small group in your homes, and in front of an I-phone. In fact, we are praying for a revival of Family Worship in our church! And we are praying for a revival of true fellowship among smaller groups in our church! But you may not, from a New Testament viewpoint, call that in home gathering a church, nor a church worship assembly. The church is the whole body . . . together. And when one member is missing, we all suffer (1 Cor 12). O, that God would revive a true ecclesiology among us during this time.
More questions – What is the benefit or upside to offering a live stream sermon with no actual church gathered to hear it, compared to just encouraging our people to go listen to the years’ worth of archived sermons we all have on our church websites already? Do we seriously think our church members were all present for each one of those sermons? Do we really think they remember them? Are there no good truths or lessons or life applications from those past sermons that will serve them faithfully now? Is it absolutely necessary that church members hear a “fresh” word or sermon this Sunday? This crisis has reminded me just how susceptible I am as a Pastor to pride and the notion that I am somehow indispensible to the local church, so much so that they cannot even go a week or two without me. God forgive me and us. If we have fed them the whole counsel of God over the years, they can go be refreshed by a sermon from three years ago! Our church has encouraged this among our members – to go listen to an old sermon. And we are also telling them if they want to hear an online sermon at this time, why bother with us local small fries? Log onto John MacArthur, John Piper, Alistair Begg, Steven Lawson or HB Charles, Jr. Seize the opportunity to hear from these uber-gifted preachers. Praise God, if our people get more exposed to God’s Word coming through these men!
But at the same time, just know that if/when you are lying sick in the hospital, it will not be John Piper who risks his own well-being to come pray over you. It will be that local shepherd, called by God to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2). And THAT is a stark reminder of church God’s way.