Many of us are very grateful that during the COVID-19 pandemic the technology has been available for the broadcasting of church services and the connection of members in Bible studies and other programs online. It has enabled us to continue to sit under the word of God and, albeit in an attenuated way, to enjoy fellowship with one another. Breakout rooms for prayer after a church meeting have actually added a new dimension to the hour after church for many. Some who have had no access to our gatherings have been able to ‘tune in’ and many churches have recorded numbers of ‘viewers’ far in excess of their usual Sunday attendance. Some have joined evangelistic follow-up groups as a result. There have been conversions. Yes, there has been a lot for which we can give God thanks even in the midst of this pandemic.
Can we, though, rejoice at what God has enabled us to do during this crisis and still recognise it is not all that God has for us as his people? Can we avoid the suggestion of some that this is ‘the way church should be done’ from now on? Or that it should be an ongoing alternative to physically getting together? As the crisis has dragged on and the first flush of enthusiasm for this new mode of connecting with God’s people has begun to wane, we have settled into a different rhythm which is a little less demanding and less accountable. Church at a distance can be adjusted to fit my timetable. Skipping out on the ‘meeting’ this week seems less significant. I’ll catch up on the sermon later. I’ll make do with my Zoom Bible study group this week. I know church is there, only a click or two away, but I don’t have to be there at the same time as everyone else, do I? I can watch when I’m ready and do something else on Sunday morning. Will we resist the call to return to meeting face-to-face at a fixed time and engage in the work of mutual edification within 1.5 metres of each other, all for the sake of a newfound convenience?
It is important that we keep a clear view of what the Bible means by church so that we don’t confuse this emergency online provision with that settled reality. From the very beginning God created us for relationship: a relationship with him but relationships with each other as well. We were made to hear from God and to talk to God, but, just as crucially, to talk to each other about God. We were made to love and serve each other, to work together, alongside each other as stewards of the world God created. The pattern was established in the Garden of Eden and repeated throughout the Old Testament: God bringing his people together under the rule of his word, guarding, guiding and growing those around us as his precious possession (Gen. 1:26–30). The great gatherings of the Old Testament, the gathering at Mount Sinai where God’s Law was given (Exod. 19:1–6), the gathering of the assembly of Israel at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:22–62), the gathering at Mount Carmel for the confrontation between the living God and the counterfeits who had stolen Israel’s heart (1 Kings 18:20–40), the gathering after the return from exile when Ezra read to the people the word of the Lord (Neh. 8:1–12) — each of these looks forward as an anticipation of the gathering to come. In the New Testament, the gathering of the disciples (Luke 6:12–16; Acts 2:42–47), the gathering of converts in towns and villages visited by Paul and his colleagues (Acts 14:21–23; 16:5; 18:7–11; 20:7–8; Rom. 16:5) and the great multiracial gathering on the last day around the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 7:9–12), all point to this unchanging purpose of God: bringing his people together under the rule of his word, guarding, guiding and growing those around us as his precious possession. Put in another way, we are Christ’s redeemed people, brought by the Spirit to sit under the word of God and to exercise the gifts we have been given so that those gathered with us might grow in faith (1 Cor. 14:26).
The apostle Paul wrote letters, Christian leaders and thinkers through the centuries have written books, for decades sermons and conference talks have been recorded (and now posted on the internet), but none of this has been a substitute for meeting face to face. The same Paul who wrote to the churches of the Mediterranean undertook three missionary journeys so that he could meet with the young Christians in those places and encourage them. He kept on saying that he longed to see them (Rom. 1:11; 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:7; 1 Thess. 2:17; 3:6, 10; 2 Tim. 1:4). It was a wrench when the Ephesians realised they would see his face no more (Acts 20:37). Of course there remained moments when the letters or the books or the tapes or the podcasts would have to be enough. And, indeed, these things have brought immeasurable benefit to many, whether isolated or not. Isolation is not always a choice and we need to keep providing for those who are simply unable to leave their home. But these things are not a substitute for meeting together face to face when that is possible.
Fellowship requires presence. A friend of mine likes to use the word ‘propinquity’ (nearness, face-to-faceness, proximity, closeness in space and time). We are physical, temporal, and geographically located persons. It is part of what it means to be human in this age. Long distance relationships are certainly possible but they always contain a measure of longing, longing that we could be together, experience the touch of hand, hug each other, just talk with nothing in-between us. We have been unable to share together in Christ’s gift of the Lord’s Supper, which gives us a very tangible way to remember our common salvation. In the end, the discomfort we feel when we are in isolation is itself an indication of how we were made and the corporate dimensions of our salvation.
Each local gathering is a manifestation in a particular place of God’s great gathering in heaven around his Son (Heb. 12:22–24). It is a testimony in the heavens to the manifest wisdom of God, who overcomes our rivalry, enmity and division, and brings together people from every nation, every social grouping and occupation, every background, as brothers and sisters sharing a common salvation and exercising a common allegiance to our Saviour (Eph. 3:10). The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’ (Heb. 10:24).
The success of the emergency online provision during this pandemic has largely traded on the pre-existing fellowship between those who must for a while gather only in this virtual way. In my breakout prayer group this week I get to talk to people I have seen before but may have never engaged in conversation before. Yet because I’ve seen them and recognise them as members of this particular community of God’s people, I rejoice at the very prospect of this.
So, yes, we have much for which to thank God in the technology that has allowed us to stay connected, pray together and hear God’s word proclaimed even while we have stayed in isolation. Yet it is only natural that we should long to return to physical gatherings as soon as possible — only natural, because our nature is social and relational, we are made for other-centred sacrificial love following the example of our Saviour and Lord. Wherever the gospel has taken hold in the hearts of people, they have gathered (sometimes in secret and at great cost). This emergency online provision is just that, an emergency online provision, and, please God, that emergency will soon be over. May God speed the day when it is possible to meet together physically again without restriction, in anticipation of the great gathering to come.