“If we can watch the sermon online, then why go to church in person?” This is the question at hand for church goers around the globe in light of the coronavirus.
On Memorial Day, as my husband and I were remembering the brave soldiers who died fighting for our freedoms, we discussed if we will return to our church building when it re-opens this weekend. My husband, a rational decision maker, questioned the value of returning to a worship center where we will be socially distanced, wearing masks, and have our young children in tow. Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Typically, our four girls would go to their respective classes while we enjoyed fellowship with community and uninterrupted worship time, in perceived peace and safety. At this point, our church’s childcare and Life Bible Study groups (also known as Sunday School) have no definitive timeline of when they will return. It could be months and months.
For me, an extrovert who doesn’t like to miss out and didn’t grow up regularly attending church, the thought of not returning to worship in person at the first chance possible feels uncomfortable. For my husband, an introvert who dislikes inefficiency and grew up with the formal rigors of church attendance, it seems logical to stay at home and continue communing with our Life Bible Study class through Zoom calls and smaller gatherings held safely outside the church building.
You may be having these same discussions in your home right now and grappling with how to make a decision while considering one another’s perspectives. As churches re-open and congregations cautiously return in limited numbers, it is important to be intentional in discussing when you and/or your family will return to church in person.
To be sure, there is no one right answer. I repeat, there is no one right answer. Everyone’s situation, risk threshold and exposure to the virus is different and could change in a moment’s notice.
But as you prayerfully decide the timing of when to return to church in person, here are a few points that helped my family make the best decision for us – at least for this coming Sunday.
No one in our immediate family is considered “at-risk,” meaning we are all under 65 years old and have no immune-compromising sicknesses. Neither my husband nor I work in jobs that place us largely at risk. Our exposure to those who are at risk also is very limited. Neither of us would risk losing our jobs or income if we became ill or needed to be quarantined (as such is the case for many healthcare, frontline and hourly workers).
We have to be honest with ourselves and determine why we do or do not want to return to church in person. Is it about convenience and comfort or does it stem from a genuine concern for safety?
Am I cherishing the church as I make the choice to attend in person or online?
Ultimately, as with any decision we make, we should seek guidance from Scripture and walk in humility on how to apply those guidelines.
In the apostle John’s letter to a dear friend named Gaius, he wrote: “I pray that you are prospering in every way and are in good health … I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 1:2, 14).
Good health is valued at any age, in any stage. The limitations and transmission of sickness has always been a factor in relationships and gatherings.
As John communicated remotely to his dear friend, there was a longing for a more personal and intimate interaction, the hope to “talk face to face,” in spite of the fact that travel in ancient times was fraught with risk. John knew meeting in person, while not always possible, was better.
As we are able, we should follow in the footsteps of John and place a high value on communing face to face, without screens and technology. But we also should not desist from communicating remotely for as long as needed. For some, this may be the only option.
Ultimately, connection between believers is what is paramount, not how or where we connect. We should aim to preserve connection between fellow believers with whatever means we have available.
There is grace upon grace to cover our limitations, whether in person or online (John 1:16).
As citizens of the United States, we live in a country that affords us religious freedom to worship when, where and how we please. Not everyone around the world is this fortunate.
As we explained to our daughters, if they had been born in Afghanistan or communist China, worshipping Jesus in a church building on Sunday wouldn’t even be an option. One in every nine Christians in the world lives in an area, or in a culture, in which Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punished, according to the latest report on global persecution by Open Doors USA.
On the heels of Memorial Day, we don’t take these freedoms lightly. Yes, we can worship online, but there is something about gathering together with other believers, people with whom we would never interact apart from our unity in Christ. It is a foretaste of heaven.
There is something about seeing one another face to face, even if those faces are masked. We can more readily “taste and see that the Lord is good” in a sanctuary of men and women, young and old, all tribes and tongues who are praising and worshipping the living God together (Psalm 34:8).
As citizens of heaven, we are afforded freedom from sin by the blood of Christ. Because He died for every mistake you or I ever have or ever will make, we can be part of His holy body the Church. Out of gratitude for what Jesus has done and for those service men and women who have made tremendous sacrifices for America’s religious freedoms, we should be eager to attend church in person.
God’s ambassador in chains, Paul, knew the power and sheer joy of meeting in the flesh:
“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12).
A modern-day translation might read, “Though I have much to share, I'd rather not do it over Zoom. Instead, let's meet in person - physically distanced - to more fully experience fellowship with Christ and one another.”
Staying at home for my family would at this point, frankly, be more a matter of convenience and comfort than safety. I understand this statement certainly is not true for everyone. But even in my large church, where there could be as many as 1,000 people spaced throughout the worship center, I am confident the church leadership has prayed, sought wise counsel and planned to ensure the environment is safe as best they can. I know they are asking God for wisdom, who promises to give generously to all without finding fault (James 1:5).
Is attending church in person completely risk free? Absolutely not. But neither is the grocery store or barber shop or nail salon, or life in general for that matter. We plan to send our kids to overnight camp this summer, so why wouldn’t we bring them to church? We want our children to know that church, more than any other outing, is worth the calculated risk.
It is unequivocally easier to watch church online in our pajamas and let our kids lay on the couch as they take in the pastor’s message. Wrangling children out the door is never easy. But Christianity has never been about convenience or comfort. This may be the biggest lesson yet for the Western church.
Speaking of the pastor, and all church staff, they too are part of the body of Christ.
They have been shepherds without sheep for nearly three months. They have preached to empty rooms. They have delivered lessons into emotionless screens. They have missed the joy of seeing Scripture truths resonate in the hearts and minds of their students. These church leaders have seen the prayer altars go unused, the baptismal waters stand still, the communion cups collect dust. While they have undoubtedly witnessed God at work during this time, their hearts must surely be weary.
The encourager in me eagerly desires to return to church in person as an encouragement to them.
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now …” (Hebrews 10:25).
Our presence can be a gift to those who serve us each Sunday and the days between, if only by making eye contact and sending waves and air hugs across the aisle. Attending church isn’t just about us; it’s about building others up and testifying to the goodness of God.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” (Romans 1:11).
My church, as well as many others around the nation, re-opens on Pentecost, the day that marks when God poured out the Holy Spirit. It is a significant day in early church history, and one that is made all the more significant by the recent closure of churches due to the virus.
Just as the disciples were gathered together in an upper room, waiting to “be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), I long to be gathered with a portion of my church family to more fully experience God. As seen throughout Scripture from the Israelites in the wilderness to the early church in Jerusalem, corporate worship provides a more robust spiritual experience.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1).
To be sure, I have had some amazing and intimate moments with the Lord from the comfort of my own home. There is nothing magical or holy about walking through the doors of a church versus kneeling on the floor of my living room. Holiness is produced by the Spirit within me, not from my environment.
“Two or three” can be gathered in God’s name virtually just as effectively as physically (Matthew 18:20), because His Spirit is within us. He is not limited by bricks and mortar or fiber optics. I have witnessed amazing testimonies of the Lord’s faithfulness in online formats.
But just as Jesus traveled town to town, logging many miles on calloused feet to meet with men, women and children of all ages, we must eventually leave our homes to meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus didn’t heal remotely, although He could have. He didn’t preach remotely, although He could have. He met with human beings, face to face. If the Son of God placed a high value on that, then so should we.
Just as Paul longed to see his flock in person, we too should desire this. Just as the apostles were devoted to “meeting together in the temple,” so should we be (Acts 2:46).
Meeting in person at church is a privilege not everyone will get to enjoy in the near future, either because of this virus, other health-related issues or even due to persecution and a lack of freedom in their own country.
Because of this, my husband and I will attend church in person with our oldest child while my mother stays at home with the younger three, at least for this Sunday. We will fill a seat, because we know not everyone can, in hopes of more fully experiencing God and encouraging other fellow believers.
Lord willing, we will join our church family around the world, those who are watching online and those attending in person. We will honor the Lord’s Day, and we will celebrate the Holy Spirit who enables us to gather in one spirit - no matter the place or method of worship.
“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope at your calling – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).