A recent study showed that 98% of congregations in the USA have experienced lower in-person attendance when reopening after lockdown. The same study showed that almost a third of churches are at less than half their previous Sunday morning numbers.
No doubt there are many reasons people are staying away. Some are absolutely legitimate. A small minority must stay at home because of real and serious health concerns. Some of our members were already (or are now) housebound. Covid has actually helped us discover new ways to serve them. However, despite the demographics of many congregations – which skew toward the elderly, it’s surely inconceivable that this group amounts to half of our people!
Here in the UK, as the vaccine rollout continues at pace, and as rates of infection, hospitalisation, and death continue to plummet the time has come for us to say to the vast majority – we must go back to church!
We can’t say for sure that Covid will never return but, while we are able, we can make an absolutely priority of attending services in-person. I’m speaking here to those folk whose churches have been able to re-open. I’m conscious of – but not primarily addressing – churches in rented buildings or with large congregations who simply cannot get access to buildings or accommodate the whole flock with social distancing still in force. Large congregations undoubtedly have complex logistical problems to navigate.
But let’s get real. The vast number of churches in the UK are small. Many can fit the whole congregation into their building in a single sitting, even with social distancing in force.
With churches in Scotland allowed to re-open from this Sunday (28th March 2021) many of us could go in-person. The question some are asking is “Why should I go in-person?”
This is a live issue. They say it takes around 60 days to form a habit. Most of us have switched to online church for much longer than that. Even those who have remained committed to regular church ‘attendance’ by watching live every week are now comfortable at home on a Sunday Morning/Evening with our coffee and (perhaps), in our jammies. We might reasonably wonder – “what am I missing by staying on screen?” Or “what’s so essential about being in person?”
My point here is that “in-person” is not merely a preference or an ideal, but really represents what the church is at its very core. Here are five reasons why.
God came to us in-person
When we needed a Saviour the Lord came himself. He took on flesh. He stepped down from the majesty of heaven to the mire of earth. God did not stand at arms length. He came in-person. There are all kinds of implications here for Christian ministry. To do ministry like Jesus is to be along side people, in the flesh. The digital world has its uses but Christian discipleship cannot be relegated there.
The incarnation of Jesus also shows us that physical stuff matters. So often we end up thinking more like Greek philosophers (rarely a good idea) than Biblical Christians. The Greeks often considered the soul/mind to be spiritual but the body immaterial (pardon the pun). From beginning to end the Bible tells a different story. The same God who gave us this physical world to enjoy and rule, sent Christ, who took on a flesh to save us for his New Creation; a physical reality where our souls will be reunited with our resurrection bodies.
In other words. Don’t buy the Greek nonsense. Matter matters. Being together maters.
There are some adaptions the church should not, indeed cannot, make and still remain authentically the church. A physical bookshop may transition completely from bricks and mortar to e-commerce and still legitimately be called a bookshop, the church cannot do the same.
God has gathered us in-person
Our English word “church” translates the Greek “ekklesia”. In the ancient world ekklesia was used simply to mean a gathering or assembly. So in Matt. 16:18 Jesus more literally said “on this rock I will build my gathering”
This doesn’t mean we cease to be the church when we aren’t physically together but it does surely stress that our regular physical gathering is vital and central to who we are as Jesus’ church.
Through Jesus God has not only gathered us to himself – as if salvation were just an individual matter. No. From the beginning he has been calling a people to himself. The Gospel doesn’t just heal our fractured relationship with God, it mends the broken bonds of friendship with our fellow men.
Don’t get me wrong, live-streams have their place. They can be a great tool for folks to hear the news of Jesus for the first time. Ultimately though, the Gospel calls us, not into on-screen anonymity, but in-the-flesh community.
God is present as we gather in-person
Most will know the famous words of Jesus,
“…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”. (Matt. 18:20)
Of course, in his great power God is omnipresent: “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” (Prov. 15:3).
And, of course, the Lord dwells in each of his covenant people: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts…” (Gal. 4:6).
Yet there remains an important sense in which he comes to be with his people as they physically meet.
Present with us, he then speaks to us in Word and Sacrament (more of that later). Despite the heroic (and necessary) efforts to take church online during these exceptional days, in the long term online church is a seriously impoverishing experience.
This promise of Jesus’ presence in the gathered church (Matt 18:20) is also echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 and it’s instructive that in both passages the context is about church discipline. We all need the accountability and discipline of belonging to a real-life, in-person church family. The kind of life-on-life discipleship that the New Testament has in mind is simply not possible from behind your iPhone alone.
God speaks to us, through us, and to the world as we gather in person
There’s nothing wrong with watching Bible teaching online. I do it regularly. In fact the ability to immediately access wonderful preaching from anywhere in the world is one of the great blessings of our time.
And yet there’s no doubt we lose something by not being there in-person. There’s something intangible here that’s hard to communicate – but it’s no less real for that.
Watching sport on TV is good, but nothing beats the real experience and the roar of the crowd. Going in-person to your congregation means coming under the teaching of your minister and elders who know you, your family, your village/city in a way no celebrity speaker can. And even if you can tune in to your own congregation from home let’s be honest – hearing the preaching from home is wrought with difficulties and temptations. There’s the option to switch channels and find a “better speaker”, the distraction of dishes to do and lunch to cook, plus the added temptation that church can be postponed altogether. “I’ll watch later” we say, but how soon before “later” becomes “never”?
Something else that is subtle yet dangerous can happen when we relegate the preaching of God’s word to just another on-screen experience. The danger to consume church as if it were merely entertainment is already very real. How much more might this attitude prevail when Sunday worship is mediated to us via the same screen we use to watch Netflix?
When we gather God, by his word, speaks to us.
But he also speaks through us to others.
When the church gathers its members come both to engage with God and with each other. Paul says that, when we gather each person should come with something to contribute – a word, or a song, or some revelation or encouragement to share with others (1 Cor. 14:26). That’s why ‘chatting over coffee after the service’ is actually so much more than that. Masks, social distancing and the prohibition of refreshments certainly restrict our capacity for encouraging interactions with others – but they don’t remove it together. In addition please don’t discount the fact that your very presence may be an encouragement to others.
When we re-opened after lockdown #1 a older saint said to me – “I’m just so encouraged to see other believers”.
As we gather God speaks to us and through us, but another message also rings out loud and clear – it’s a message to the world. In a day when everything is digital the sight of people flocking to buildings on a Sunday morning gives a clear visual message; the church is still here and her members think she’s important.
As the Covid crisis unfolded one of the reasons we closed our buildings was send the right message to our culture – to avoid bringing the Gospel into disrepute. We wanted to demonstrate love for our communities by willingly sacrificing something precious for the sake of suppressing the virus. We now have the opportunity to send another message. Opening up with as full an attendance as can be safely managed (within the guidelines) shows how precious Jesus is to us, and that he should be to others too.
God gives grace through the Sacraments as we gather in-person
There have been lengthy debates on the subject of online communion. Others have argued the case well that virtual sacraments are not simply undesirable but, in effect, impossible: they are physical and communal in their very nature.
We often speak of the Lord’s supper as a “means of grace”. It strengthens us, teaches us, and demonstrates the gospel for us in a visual, tangible way. Christ himself is present in it, by his Spirit, as we take bread and wine. To be so long without Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is a great source of loss and regret.
By contrast as we regather these sacraments can be celebrated (and we should gladly bear with temporary modifications to our practice so as to have the great benefit they bring).
The signs from the States don’t look encouraging. In-person attendance has halved in 1/3 of churches. Many people are clearly staying home.
After some deliberation we in Burghead don’t plan to turn off our live-stream. It’s a great tool for reaching in to the housebound and reaching out to those without Christ. However I want to appeal to Christians (who aren’t staying away for serious medical reasons) to rise from your sofa, put down the coffee, take off the Jammies (please replace them with something else) and come back to church.
We can’t wait to see you, facemask or not.