The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the church. Governmental guidelines have introduced the practice of social distancing, which resulted in many local churches closing their buildings until those policies are released.
Some have observed that the church has moved online. Instead of meeting in person, pastors and other church leaders have effectively utilized social media platforms and other internet-based technologies to broadcast their services and other ministries online to their various constituencies.
Now that authorities are relaxing their shelter-in-place policies, churches are facing a programming dilemma. Church members of all generations have reported that they enjoy staying at home to watch pastoral sermons online. Several pastors have indicated their desire to keep live streaming their services even after the current coronavirus crisis has passed.
People are used to watching church services on the internet. Plus, the potential number of people who can connect with the church via social media outlets provides a growing and lasting outreach opportunity for the church.
Some pastors are now also vocalizing a growing desire to open their buildings immediately. They are wondering how this extended time of social isolation will impact their church’s long-term attendance. They understand that believers are designed by God to gather with each other in local churches that are committed to biblical truth and biblical priorities, but they wonder if some will resist coming back into the church building.
Some are now questioning the logic and rationale of closing church buildings — even for relatively short periods of time. Certainly, they want to keep their people safe, and they understand the importance of respecting “governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). But they also know that the Bible teaches the imperative and the necessity of believers gathering in person and then spreading out to fulfill the God-given mission of the church.
Churches undoubtedly desire to assemble together for public worship services. However, throughout the chronicles of church history, there have been numerous times when the church has not been able to gather physically in person due to a variety of reasons.
Situations When the Church Cannot Meet
The most common reason for the church not meeting together was probably persecution. From the first century until the present day, the church of Jesus Christ has faced times of severe persecution that has limited the ability of God’s people to meet.
The New Testament records times of severe harassment for the church including the brutal martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 and the stabbing death of the Apostle James in Acts 12. As a result, God’s people “scattered” (Acts 11:19) or were forced to meet secretly in believer’s homes (Acts 12:5-19) to escape the violence.
Historically, believers responded to times of affliction by choosing to worship privately or to hide from torment by meeting in secret locations that were known only to other church members. There are still places in the world today where the church is persecuted. Reports regularly surface from places where believers are not allowed to meet in public and are forced to find imaginative solutions to practice their faith.
There have been periods of time in the history of the church when the church has not been able to gather due to factors such as governmental regulations, racial or ethnic segregation, disinterest, and occasions of other illnesses such as the plague, Yellow Fever, and the Spanish Flu.
In each of these situations, the difficult circumstances of the times forced individual local churches to respond with initiative and creativity. The current COVID-19 pandemic has done the same.
The Biblical Model for the Church Is to Gather Together
Ultimately the church needs to gather to fulfill its mission (Hebrews 10:25). The Scriptures contain many examples of the importance of the church assembling together (Acts 12:12; Acts 14:27; Acts 15:30; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 5:4; 1 Corinthians 11:17-20; 1 Corinthians 14:23, 26; James 2:2).
The church may have moved online because of the current pandemic, and church leaders have gained a new appreciation for the importance of having a continuing presence in internet-based delivery systems, but to truly function as a biblically-based church, the local community must gather.
Of course, there are multiple examples in Scripture of churches meeting in homes (Acts 2:46; Acts 5:42; Acts 12:12; Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). However, the Bible is clear that even house churches require a gathering of God’s people to accomplish the God-given functions of church life.
Why Should the Church Gather in Person?
There are at least four basic church functions, which would be difficult at best to fully accomplish online. Each of these four things necessitates the gathering of God’s people in person to truly be effective.
1. The teaching of God’s Word (Ephesians 4:11-16). The preaching and teaching of God’s Word can certainly be accomplished online. Modern technology has made this process quite easy for most pastors. All they need is a smartphone, probably a tripod, and internet access to connect to the church’s social media outlets.
The majority of churches utilized were able to make their weekend services available to their people and to the community via the internet. In fact, many churches reported a spike in “attendance” numbers during the coronavirus quarantine because of the ease of watching messages online.
However, churches should evaluate this practice on a long-term basis. The number of viewers reported on social media platforms, such as Facebook Live, do not tell the whole story. Pastors have no idea if these numbers indicate people who watched the entire sermon, or if they tuned in for only a few seconds.
It may be a good idea to continue live streaming church services once the pandemic restrictions have been fully lifted because many people will have very valid reasons why they cannot attend the Sunday church services in person.
But people probably need to be physically present to fully engage with the message from God’s Word. There are likely to be fewer distractions in the building, and other creative communication and interactive methods can be used when the audience is there in person.
2. Worship in music (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). It is obvious from these two important passages that the early church must have had a music ministry as a part of their gatherings. Both texts use the phrase “one another” to signify the connection music makes with other believers.
Of course, today’s churches can obtain the licenses necessary to showcase their worship teams online, but that is never the same as joining with other believers to sing praises to the Lord together.
3. The equipping of God’s people to serve (Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12). Another key function of any local church is the importance of pastor-teachers to equip God’s people for “for the work of ministry,” which, in turn, builds up the “body of Christ.” The writer of this Epistle, the Apostle Paul, makes the point that this process is imperative for the entire church community and is not only for individual believers.
This entire passage emphasizes the church as a whole with terms like “unity” and “whole body.” Training people for ministry is something that is quite difficult to accomplish in a “virtual” way with individual Christians who may be sitting at home alone or with just with their families.
God designed His people to serve Him and He distributed “spiritual gifts” for His people to use within the structure and operation of a local church. The COIVD-19 crisis has forced believers to isolate themselves from each other and the practice of ministry has suffered because of it.
4. Fellowship and the practice of communion (Hebrews 10:25; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The Bible places a great deal of importance on the body of Christ coming together in unity. One example of true fellowship in the Scriptures was when the early church gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Communion.
Many churches have attempted to lead believers in this ordinance online, but the current practice of people gathering their own crackers and juice for individual observances rings hollow when compared to these biblical passages.
Why Does This Matter?
Today’s pastors are to be commended for their ministry initiative and innovation during a difficult time, but God’s people need to gather either in church buildings or in homes. Obviously, churches will need to keep a strong presence online and must use technology to communicate God’s Word to their people and to the community at large. However, the future of the church will always need to gather to fulfill its God-given mission and functions.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 13 books on various aspects of youth ministry, including Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.