“I joyed when to the house of God’” (Psalm 122:1)
As the world attempts to come to grips with the Coronavirus pandemic, a new term has thrust itself into our vernacular. “Social distancing” – the maintaining of a physical distance between people and the refraining from gathering together in groups – has become commonplace throughout the world in a way that few could have predicted. Word(s) of the Year, referring to the most important word(s) or expressions(s) in the public sphere during the course of a year, have in recent times boasted such selections as “selfie” in 2013 and “fake news” in 2017, with social distancing no doubt a likely contender in 2020.
Social distancing, however, is by no means a new concept. Almost 700 years ago the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death as it later came to be known, originated in China and spread west along trading routes, eventually arriving in the British Isles in June, 1348. As the overwhelmed doctors and health workers fought against this devastating outbreak, the implementation of some of the world’s first anti-contagion measures were put in place, foreshadowing today’s social distancing practices.
Social Distancing and the Church
Throughout history the Church has gathered together to worship God corporately. The Church is not a physical building, as many would consider it to be – the Church is a group of people called out of the world and into one another’s fellowship. The church is a community that meets, assembles, and gathers. God calls His Church to physically gather together to worship Him corporately, “when you come together as a church” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Note, it is “when” and not “if” you come together. God has commanded us not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). Indeed He promised His presence in such gatherings, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
It is certainly true that an individual can worship God sincerely and meaningfully in solitude. Though alone, banished to the Isle of Patmos, the apostle John evidently engaged in the act of worship for he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). However, whilst we can experience and enjoy great times of communion and blessing with the Lord when we are alone, there is a particular blessing associated with the corporate gatherings of the Church. Martin Luther, the 16th Century reformer, when facing spiritual hardship found great uplifting in corporate worship: “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigour in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”
Since March, the Coronavirus lockdown has seen Church doors remain firmly shut both throughout Scotland and most of the world. Some services were suspended voluntarily, prior to the lockdown, whereas government measures quickly ensured the ceasing of all Church services throughout the land in an effort to slow the spread of this virus plaguing our nations. On the one hand, social distancing is a sensible and responsible approach towards slowing the spread of the virus, yet, on the other hand, social distancing is very much at odds with God’s call for the church to gather together corporately.
Prior to the lockdown, you would be hard pressed to find many churches who didn’t make their audio sermons available online, for instance on SermonAudio.com. Furthermore, some Churches had already been in the practice of live video streaming their services on platforms such as YouTube. Generally speaking, however, this was never intended as a substitute for the physical corporate gathering of the local church. It was, instead, intended for those who were unable to be present at public worship or for others to watch and benefit from, over and above their attendance at their own local services.
Since the lockdown, many churches throughout Scotland have made a sudden and unforeseen move towards online video streaming. Under normal circumstances, some may never have entertained the notion, given that coming together as a church requires a physical gathering, and given a concern that live streaming services may give people the impression that they are genuinely participating in church, when in reality they are actually only observing it. Yet with social distancing, and a looming period of isolation stretching into months, almost overnight we have become a virtual Church.
The Shortcomings of Virtual Church
By definition, corporate public worship cannot be conducted individually, in small groups, or online. As the local church is a gathering together for worship a virtual church is really a contradiction in terms. However, at a time of social distancing and mandatory isolation, we can – and must -continue to worship at home, despite the undoubted shortcomings of doing so. As we cannot physically meet, this means, for instance, that we cannot partake of the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, which cannot rightly be administered online. This is keenly felt here in the Western Isles given that the Communion Season is so emphasised in our Island churches. There have been recent cases of wedding postponements and, grievously, also of funerals being restricted to immediate family only, giving little chance to mourn with those who mourn the loss of loved ones.
There is a definite difference between live streaming preaching and a gathered congregation, physically sitting together under the preached Word. There is a difference for the minister who preaches into a mic in an empty building or looks into a camera, rather than into the faces of those he has been called to shepherd. There is also a difference for the hearer as the gravity of sitting under the Word in a gathered congregation, much like when Christ preached at the Sermon on the Mount or Peter on the Day on Pentecost, is removed.
If you have attempted to partake in virtual congregational singing, over Zoom for instance, an online video and audio conferencing platform, you will know just how disjointed and unworkable these platforms can be for that purpose. At a time like this, we are reminded of the blessing of participating in and hearing the collective voice of the gathered congregation, however large or small that gathering may be. Furthermore, Scripture makes known to us that in singing the Psalms in the gathered congregation, Christ Himself is present, and actually participating in the sung praise, “in the midst of the assembly I will praise You” (Psalm 22:22).
The Blessings of Virtual Church
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have been very adept at using new technology for the glory of God. In the days of the early church, the Roman roads were built for the purpose of trade and carrying soldiers, but the Church saw it as a way to send missionaries out with the Gospel. At the time of the Reformation, Christians harnessed the printing press as a means of furthering that Reformation. The same can be said in relation to the internet, which has for many years been used by the Church, not only to reach out with the Gospel, with online sermons and publications, but also of making doctrinally sound reformed material widely available.
Notwithstanding the very evident shortcomings of a virtual church, the current crisis does serve to highlight our need to give thanks to God for the positives of modern technology. Whilst technology is an evil master, it can be a great servant. At a time like this, technology can genuinely help us keep virtually connected at a time of isolation and social distancing. Aside from online video streaming and audio services, many of us have been able to make use of Zoom and similar platforms for prayer meetings and fellowship, which wouldn’t have been possible in years gone by.
The Aftermath of Virtual Church
Conversely, there are dangers inherent in an enforced virtual church. One such danger may be the temptation for some to remain online, rather than returning to gather together, after the lockdown has been lifted. The incentive of watching preaching in the comfort of your own home may attract some to take such a step – as may a perceived lack of accountability. We must remember that there are graces and blessings which God only gives when gathering together with other believers. We would forfeit such graces and blessings if we “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).
We must ask ourselves this question: how will we emerge from this pandemic? For too long many of us have taken public worship for granted. Some have attended infrequently, whilst others have neglected it altogether. Perhaps we will sympathise more with those who are older or unwell, and can no longer attend public worship as they once did? Maybe we will understand in a small measure what much of the global church experience, unable to meet together due to the very real threat of persecution. We ought to love, be thankful for, make full use of, and highly value public worship as we gather together as Christ’s Church – our own small part of the great and glorious mystical body here on earth and gathered in heaven. Finally, perhaps in the future the singing of these words will take on greater significance for us:
“I joyed when to the house of God,
Go up, they said to me.
Jerusalem, within thy gates
Our feet shall standing be.” (Psalm 122:1-2)
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