Pastors face many challenges in leading their congregations through this health crisis and time of COVID-19 social isolation. None bigger than not being able to gather corporately for worship. Simply put, churches exist to meet. For all of our talk about the church being the people, and not a building or a place (which is true), the unique thing about the church is that it meets. It assembles. It gathers. Pastors are not equipping isolated, individual believers, they are equipping a community of the Kingdom.
This truth means while we should be as creative as possible in providing resources to help people spiritually thrive in the uncharted territory of a pandemic there are also things, we must be honest, that we cannot provide. This Easter, in an effort to gather in some fashion, I preached to our congregation in a drive-in service where we were car-to-car rather than face-to-face. Prior to our current social isolation, I could never have envisioned our congregation doing such a thing.
Nevertheless, one of the most important ways pastors will disciple their congregations in this pandemic is by teaching them what they are missing. There are some things for which there is no substitute. Things that cannot be experienced by a church during a time of social isolation.
If we are too quick in offering substitutes for things that don’t really have substitutes then we will cut our members off from the spiritual growth found only in longing for that which we ought to long when it is absent. During this time of social isolation, two of the things I want my congregation to miss are corporate worship and preaching (I will share the third tomorrow).
Missing Corporate Worship
By definition, the corporate worship of the church cannot be done individually, in small groups, or online. The local church is an assembly who gathers for worship on the Lord’s Day. There can be no such thing as a virtual church. So, in a time of mandatory social isolation, what are we as church leaders supposed to do about the Lord’s Day worship with the church?
What our church has chosen to do is talk to our members about equipping them for what we call scattered worship at home. We do not simply broadcast a worship service and tell our members to join us for worship on Sunday. They cannot do so. But they can, and must, worship on the Lord’s Day in their homes or wherever they are.
Our goal is to equip the members of our congregation, wherever they are, with helpful resources to use for their own scattered worship. As they worship scattered on the Lord’s Day, we ask them to keep longing for the day when we can again gather for corporate worship because, as helpful as we hope the resources are, we are still missing something vital to our spiritual lives that we should ache to experience again.
On Sundays, I have been opening the Bible and teaching live to a camera. I do not consider this act to be preaching because my understanding of biblical preaching involves proclaiming the truth in the presence of living, breathing people. I believe my people are helped by this biblical instruction I offer via live stream and that God is going to use it for gospel good during this crisis.
But I know, and want my congregation to know, there is something that we are missing while I am relegated to offering biblical instruction to a camera—preaching.
I agree with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Preaching and Preachers when he refutes the idea that watching a video or listening to an audio recording is of the same value as coming physically into an assembly and listening to a sermon with a congregational community. Watching a screen, according to the Lloyd-Jones, detaches the preacher from the sermon listener in a way that the biblical teaching is merely informational. When the living transaction between preacher and congregants is broken you can impart knowledge but what is left is no longer recognizable as preaching in any normative biblical sense.
It is a different experience when we gather together corporately to hear the Word preached on the Lord’s Day versus when we worship individually in our homes. We need both and one cannot take the place of the other. Corporate worship is a unique experience of being shaped by the Word of God in community, as congregants are accountable to the one who preaches and one another face-to-face, and no one has the ability to turn the preaching off.
Lamenting what we’ve lost can lead to spiritual gain
I will keep teaching the Bible to that camera in this pandemic and I believe God is going to use it, but make no mistake, it is nothing like preaching in gathered worship to the Lord’s flock he has called me to shepherd in his name. I physically ache to preach to my gathered people again. I hope the ache is mutual. May we all long for what we are missing by lamenting what we have lost. If we do, we have hope that this situation will be a time of spiritual gain.