Today is first time in sixteen years of pastoral ministry that the government said that we cannot meet for public worship. The good news is that the magistrate, in the banning of public gatherings 250 and over, is not deliberately attacking the word of God but intends to preserve life due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I believe we should honor the governing authorities in this pursuit as it fulfills the purpose for which God established them.
My concern is the solution offered by many churches in response to the government ordinance. Some churches were still able to host normal Sunday worship services, some were not. As I looked on the Facebook this morning, I saw church after church livestreaming what I call “ghost town” worship services. The buildings were empty, and the pastor, with musicians in view, and with only a camera looking back, officiated worship in the same manner as if the bodies of real people were present often telling the people that they were gathering “in spirit.” The people were encouraged to follow along with the liturgy at home. Some did this well in making clear distinctions from Sunday gatherings. I am not questioning the good, sincere intention of these pastors to care for the flock in a distressing time like this. This love for the flock in commendable. Please hear me when I say this.
The danger in livestreaming worship in this way is that we communicate to the world and our own people that these are true corporate worship services. The corporate worship of God, however, is a special, public “gathering” or “assembly” (see Gen. 4:26) of God’s people, called out from the world to gather before the throne of grace. Here the special means of grace are given by God in the Word and Sacraments, and overseen by called upon elders. This activity is the most holy and separate activity we engage in as the people of God during our time on this earth. The ability to physically come as real, bodily people to God is the greatest privilege that Christ’s work has achieved for us. What I saw today, however, was the saddest of all sights, pastors ministering without real people. Empty buildings of pastors speaking to phantom bodies and just numbers flashing on the screen—23, 26, 21…
One of my greatest concerns for the church today is the underappreciation of why public gathering for worship matters. The churches are emptying. The gnostizing of the church has been our greatest challenging in post-modern Christianity. “We are the church” has become the common axiom; “Be the church” has become our service mandate in marginalization of worship, and all of it has programmed the people to think nothing special of Sunday gathering anymore. Though not intentional, designating corporate worship this way, without God’s people physically present, feeds the gnostizing of the church and undermines true worship.
How I Long For your Courts, O Lord
Without question, this is an exceptional circumstance for American churchgoers. Christians have had it so good for so long in this country, our opposition to the faith has never been met with the government saying “No” to us. What a remarkable blessing we have enjoyed. Yet, how many pastors complain of the apathy and lack of hunger for God’s Word among their people? How often is frustration expressed by the lack of desire for worship among the people?
Some will respond by saying that we should use all the avenues we have to minister to our people at times like this to help people in their desire to worship God? But could it be that we have made “access to God” so commonplace that few appreciate the fantastic privilege they have to “come with boldness” before the throne of grace in public worship? And who again lacks boldness today in coming before the Lord? Now wedge corporate worship on Sundays between the over-supply of spiritual podcasts, forums, radio, social media, blogs, with endless bravado from the multitude of users, and one can appreciate why there is concern that the whole activity is being assimilated into meaninglessness.
There is another possibility, however, that is rarely considered. Might the coronavirus ban have the purpose of giving us a small taste of what it would be like if worship were taken from us? What does it sound like when the blessing of the worship of God is taken away?
This: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God; These things I remember, as I pour out my soul, how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise…(Psa. 42:2ff).” Or this: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord. (Psa. 84:1-2)”
In Psalm 42, the psalmist describes being banned from gathering with the saints for some unknown reason and he pours out his heart for return to the Lord at Zion with his people. Livestreaming Sabbath worship to Mount Mizar, the place of banishment, would not be an answer for him. To the Jewish mind, to watch worship from afar and not be able to come, would have been isolating, agonizing, and depressing! The wide acceptance of this practice in our day without a hint of concern for missing the assembling of the saints, demonstrates how individualist the American mind has become. For the Psalmist, however, in God’s providence, the banishment had produced prayer and longing for return to worship of God, as he was reassured that God was still with him in his banishment. “Why are you cast down, O My Soul, and why are you with turmoil within me, hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God! (Psa. 42:11).”
While Christians never desire nor request these hardships, there should be a recognition that the Lord has a good purpose in his providence when these things are taken away. These banishments invite the people to long for what they have always had and didn’t always appreciate when the privilege was common.
A Solution For the Present Ban
This article in no way disparages the use social media for the advancement of the gospel. This article is about protecting the corporate nature of public worship. Exceptional moments do require exceptional actions. I encourage all people to pray that God would again open a door for the gospel that people might turn from fear to the living God who is a refuge and strength to all who call upon him. I encourage fathers to lead in family worship in the home. This allows for actual participation in family worship rather than merely being spectators before a screen. Parents have a wonderful opportunity to minister to their children in private family worship.
I encourage pastors to care for the flock within the limits that providence has placed on them. Messages and prayers livestreamed can be of great help to our people. Pastoral visitation, if possible, is a wonderful way of ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. But there should be a clear distinction that what we are doing before empty seats and a camera is not corporate worship. This will give our people something to earnestly pray about, namely, the freedom and desire to return as a real people, in body and soul, to the worship of God. That longing is healthy and beneficial for the saints, promoting the creation of what Jesus designated as true worshipers of God who worship in spirit and in truth.