Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken rather candidly about certain issues that have troubled me during this COVID-19 crisis. At times, my preaching may have sounded a bit more like ranting… if so, I apologize. But, as you know, I have been extremely frustrated and disappointed by several things that have taken place during this pandemic. Various thoughts have lingered in my mind and weighed heavily on my heart. Thank you for allowing me to share them with you, and to address them from a Biblical point-of view. Here are a few that we’ve already covered...
First, while we as Christians are commanded to respect our civil authorities and practice good citizenship to the extent possible, the government has no legitimate power to restrict, regulate, or penalize the free exercise of religion. God’s law supersedes man’s law, and we as His children should behave accordingly. Second, acting in faithful obedience to the commands and calling of God even in the face of danger is not a sin. Those who have continued to physically attend church during the coronavirus outbreak are not wrongfully testing God, assuming they are taking reasonable measures of caution.
This morning I want to speak for a few minutes about the church. As I’ve thought back over the entirety of my life, there have only been a few times that I’ve missed church more than 2 or 3 weeks in a row. I don’t say this to boast about myself, but rather to explain that church attendance is a critical part of my existence. When I miss church on Sunday morning, my entire week is adversely affected. I look forward to it all week long. The strength and edification that comes from worshiping God together in fellowship with the saints is absolutely necessary for my spiritual, emotional, and even physical well-being. I love the Lord’s church and being with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am certain that most of you feel the same way.
There is a popular saying that we’ve all heard before, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” We all have a tendency to underappreciate the blessings we have, the people we know, and the opportunities we’re given. Sometimes we don’t recognize how truly important and deeply meaningful things are to us until they’re lost. This is how I’ve felt about the church over the last several weeks. While we’ve stayed connected online, many of us have not actually been together. This extended period of social distancing has made me realize how valuable each of you are to me, and how much I love you all. It has also challenged me to think long and hard about the church...
I. WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Half-truths are oftentimes more damaging than outright lies. They contain just enough truth to sound believable, yet are incomplete or faulty in some way. As such, they are particularly deceptive. One of these half-truths that I’ve heard parroted all my life, especially among Christians, is that “the church isn’t a building - it is the people.” For years I’ve even repeated this saying myself. In recent weeks, I’ve seen derivatives of this statement posted all over Facebook. Yet each time I read such a post lately, something doesn’t set right in my spirit. If the church is merely the people of God, what distinguishes it from other similar terms like disciples, followers, believers, the elect, saints, Christians, and so on?
The word “church” appears about 115 times in the New Testament, depending on which Bible translation you use. It is derived from the Greek word “ekklesia”. Until this week, I’ve always assumed, based on what I’ve been taught, that “ekklesia” essentially meant “church” or something similar. But in my studies this week, I discovered that it doesn’t. According to several Greek Bible Dictionaries, “ekklesia” actually means any “called-out assembly”. There is even an instance recorded in Acts 19:28-41 where the word ekklesia refers to a pagan mob that gathered in Ephesus to challenge the teachings of Paul. Whenever “ekklesia” is translated as “church” it pertains to an assembly or assemblies of Christians who have been called-out of the world for Christ.
So the church isn’t a building, it is the people of God… but more specifically it is an assembly (or congregation) of God’s people. Individual Christians who are separated one from another may meet this definition in a figurative sense, but not literally. The most accurate and appropriate understanding of the term “church” is a corporate gathering or convention of born-again believers in the same location. In order for the church to function as it should, its members must bodily assemble together as commanded by Scripture.
The Bible pictures the church as the body of Christ. Passages such as Ephesians 1:22-23 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 teach more extensively on this topic. We as Christians are all individual members who collectively make up this body, with Jesus serving as the head. It goes without saying that each part of the body must be physically connected. Otherwise, they are just severed pieces. Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:4-6 the people of God are described as living stones who are corporately being built into a spiritual house. Separately, these stones are nothing more than a pile of rocks.
Beloved, the church is meant to be an assembly of God’s people who bodily meet together for worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and so forth. When the church is not meeting, it cannot fully function in the manner that it should. All of its activities are impeded to some degree or another. The physical gathering of the saints is fundamental to and absolutely necessary for the church’s health and operation.
II. CONCERNS ABOUT VIRTUAL CHURCH
I am thankful that we live in a digital age. Modern technology has enabled churches everywhere to broadcast their worship services online during these weeks of quarantine. This has allowed thousands of Christians to watch their local church services while being safely sheltered at home. This would have been impossible just a few years ago. Many believers have shared these videos with friends and family, or have invited others to join them in watching these live streams. As a result, the messages of Jesus being preached from our pulpits are, in many cases, reaching a larger audience than usual. This is one of the benefits of posting worship services online.
However, virtual Church isn’t the same as actual church. The word virtual means “almost or nearly as described, but not completely”. It’s a good replica, but not the genuine article. All of us who have personally attended church for any significant amount of time realize that watching it on television or through some other form of media just isn’t the same. It’s better than nothing I suppose, but still it lacks the authenticity and immediacy of an in-person gathering.
As I see it, virtual or online church is similar in some ways to attending a mega-church. It allows people to be passive spectators rather than active participants. Observers can remain fairly hidden and anonymous behind their computer screens. Commitment to the church body is unnecessary and accountability to one another is largely absent. I think this is why the advent of mega-churches have exploded over the past few decades and why many churches have moved toward an exclusively online platform. People want to approach God on their own terms, rather than on His. They want to receive without having to give...
I have read a few articles recently from pastors who worry that many of their church members, especially those on the margins, have grown comfortable over the past several weeks watching church online at home and may never come back in-person. So many folks have gotten out of the habit of getting ready for church, and will have to redevelop this discipline. Satan does some of His best work on Sunday mornings by buffeting and dissuading people from physically attending church (so it must be important). It is a lot easier to stay home, and virtual church provides a suitable accommodation to do just that.
Beloved, showing up counts. A major aspect of worship is presence. Just by attending church, you are acting in obedience to the LORD’s commands and declaring that Christ is a priority in your life. When we gather together as God’s children, the Holy Spirit moves among us in a way that cannot be duplicated by an online broadcast. Corporate gatherings of worshippers invoke the manifest presence of God. Virtual church does not produce such an outcome, and can never replace the physical gathering of the saints.
I saw a picture this past week of a church sign that read, “God isn’t calling us to go to church, He’s calling us to be His church”. While this cute little saying sounds good and is certainly well-intentioned, it isn’t theologically accurate. God does, in fact, command His followers to assemble together corporately. He urges us to attend church services with our fellow believers. God is calling us to go to church! We as Christians shouldn’t be making statements that minimize the importance of or otherwise undermine church attendance and participation. While church attendance doesn’t save us, it is certainly a critical aspect of the Christian life. We can’t “be” the church that God desires if we fail to “go” to church.
Walking with the LORD has both private and public aspects. As individuals, each of us should spend special time every day with God in personal prayer, praise, and worship. This is why we as Christians talk about the importance of “quiet times” and “daily devotionals”. Together as the assembled people of God, we should also spend time regularly each week with God in corporate prayer, praise, and worship. This is the fundamental function of the church. When we can’t congregate with one another, our Christian growth is stunted and impaired.
I will close today by saying that, more than anything else, this COVID-19 crisis has caused me to rethink the imperative nature of church attendance. It is invaluable! There is nothing that can replace the physical gathering of God’s children. While I suppose I’ve always known this to be true, now it means more to me than ever before. And I can't hardly wait until all of us are together again!