Returning to Worship Amid a Pandemic

On July 2, 2021 Adam Hamilton posted a statement on his Facebook page that caught my attention. It reads: “Worship attendance at Resurrection nearly tripled during COVID thanks to TV and online. As we returned to in person this past March, we saw about 20% of our pre-COVID in person attendance as most continued to worship online or TV. That number has grown to about 30% in person now, and continues to grow.”

He continues, “With back-to-school we’ll be launching a back-to-church emphasis focused on returning to in-person worship and programs. I’m spending today reading and focusing on how we (church leaders) reengage people in worship and programs, when we add worship services, etc. I’d love for you to weigh in. I hear from a lot of people who have said, “We’re planning on returning, we’ve just gotten out of the habit and it’s so convenient to worship at home.” What are your thoughts on what church leaders can do, particularly in August with back-to-school, to encourage their members to return in person? If you’ve been worshipping in person, how would you describe the difference between worshipping in person vs. at home? What have you gained by returning in person?”

According to a July/August article in Christianity Today entitled, Why Church Can’t Be The Same After the Pandemic, “During the first months of the year, fewer than half of regular churchgoers in the US made it to an in-person service, according to the Pew Research Center, though more than three-quarters said their churches had reopened.”

Being separated from the Body of Christ is not good for the spiritual life of the Christian person, nor is it healthy for God’s church. Preacher and teacher Pastor Tony Evans says, “I hear people say, ‘I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,’ and they are absolutely right. Salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. But you also don’t have to go home to be married. But stay away long enough and your relationship will be affected.”

The boom of mega churches and technology has contributed greatly to the current state of the church. We have taught people that they can be “Christian” apart from the Body of Christ. We have taught our worshippers that they can come to a service and be entertained and leave in relative anonymity. The “Walmart-style” door greeters may well be the only real human interaction a worshipper has in these settings. If this is the case, then worshipping in the comfort of one’s home is perfectly fine because all we really are doing is observing anyway.

We have moved away from an integrated culture that needed each other to an ever increasing individualistic society that present one’s own needs first and foremost. The Church has been infiltrated by the culture rather than the church being a transformational agent of the culture around them. Our churches and church life have bought the cultural paradigm hook, line, and sinker. This creates an extreme loneliness that people are filling with fake social media friendships that leave one unsatisfied and unfulfilled. God did not create us to be isolated beings but rather to be a people who live lives together with others in community.

It has been my belief for some time that we cannot serve God in the fullest capacity asked of us in scripture apart from the Church. We can believe in God. We can receive salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet I fail to see any way we can be completely faithful to the intent of God’s Words apart from the Body of Christ and apart from gathering together.  The greatest loss of the church not returning to in person worship is that we will lose access to the greatest resource that God has provided us upon this earth, and that is each other. 

The Book of Acts points us towards what the earliest example of life in the Body of Christ was like. Acts 2:42-47 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Often when we think of community we think of a social club or organization that has been formed around a specific cause (Boy scouts, Girl scouts, the Masons, friendship circles and so on). But the church is something much greater. The church is described in scripture as Christ’s “body” (Colossians 1:24). And the nature of our relationships with other Christians is described in the New Testament as koinonia, a Greek word that is often translated “fellowship.” It means that we as Christians have communion with one another and participate in life together. We are members of Christ’s body together.

The church has been created to be available to each other. The earliest disciples held everything in common, ate together in each other’s homes, and ensured that the needs of the poor were met. One of the most important parts of the worship life of a congregation is be there for each other. The process of being available to meet each other’s needs is called mutual edification.

During the 10 years I spent as a youth pastor I would tell my parents, “Your children are either going to build community within the walls of the church or they are going to build community elsewhere. The choice is yours!” There is a distinct difference between the relationships we develop in the world and the relationships we foster within the Body of Christ. This pandemic has done a lot to socially isolate us. We are more fearful than ever to be together. But as we learn more about this virus and how it affects us and the people around us, let us give priority to returning to worship together. We need each other. Let’s remember the words of the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 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.” It is my prayer that we give ourselves to God and to each other in faithful service through his church.

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