COVID-19 took the push for “online church” to an entirely new level. Out of necessity, many churches moved their worship services online as a way to stay connected with their church members.
The logic was that it’s better to do an online service than no service. My own church, Pillar Church of Washington, D.C., came to this same conclusion.
While online gatherings aren’t the same as being able to gather physically, we were thankful we had a way to continue to build up the body through the teaching of the Word and to stay somewhat connected during the lockdown phase of COVID-19.
But there was also never a doubt in our minds that as soon as it was reasonably possible to resume in person gatherings, we would do so. Since June 8th, that’s exactly what we’ve done.
We are still streaming our worship service on YouTube and Facebook for our older and at risk church members, but the majority of our church now gathers in person.
But there are some making the argument that “online church” is here to stay and that it’s a good thing. There are some voices calling on pastors and church planters to continue to step up their online presence because the future of the church is on the interwebs.
Whether you are a pastor trying to navigate how much effort you should put into your church’s online presence or whether you are a Christian considering how important it actually is for you to attend church in person, I want to give you 4 reasons it’s good (and biblical) to gather for worship in person.
#1 – God is with His people when they are gathered in a way that He is not when they are not
Jesus said in Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”. If you want to be in the presence of God, then gather physically with other Christians.
You may respond, “But Jared, isn’t God omnipresent? Can’t I worship God by myself in my home?”
Yes, God is omnipresent. And yes, you can worship God alone and pray in the privacy of your bedroom with no one else around. Those things are true.
But it is also true that God’s presence is with us in a way when we are gathered that He is not when we are not.
God has always been omnipresent, but His manifest presence was in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel in a way that He was not with other nations.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” – Exodus 40:34
Similarly, the New Testament teaches that the Church is the new temple of God. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5 that every Christian that makes up the Church is “a living stone being built up as a spiritual house”, the dwelling place of God.
When we gather in Jesus’ name as those who trust Him as Savior and Lord, He has promised to bless us with His manifest presence.
Sure, you can hear biblical preaching and inspirational worship music watching a service online, but you cannot replicate the presence of God amidst His gathered people in an “online experience”. Put simply, when you aren’t with God people, you miss out!
#2 – The church needs you and you need the church
Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9). Every Christian also has spiritual gifts. God gives us spiritual gifts not for our own benefit, but for the building up of other believers.
While it’s possible to some extent to use your spiritual gifts to build up the Body while not physically gathering, it’s definitely more challenging. The Church needs you. We are not meant to be consumers.
And not only does the church need you, but you need the Church. No one is a church unto themselves. Neither you nor I have all of the spiritual gifts. We are each a member of the Body of Christ.
“The hand cannot say to the foot, ‘I have no need for you’” (1 Cor. 12:21)
Church leaders, here’s the bottom line. If you encourage or validate an online worship gathering as the norm, you will unwittingly foster a culture of consumerism in your church. There’s just no two ways about it.
You can tell people until you are blue in the face that they ought to be contributors, not consumers. But if hundreds of people are watching a handful of people use their spiritual gifts on a screen each week while they curl up in their Snuggies, you’ll cancel your own message.
I think it’s important to note at this juncture that because each believer needs the gifts of the entire body, we also need to be very intentional about caring for church members who are unable to gather physically due to health concerns.
This is not new. Pastors have been entrusted with the responsibility to minister to the elderly and the sick who cannot attend worship for centuries.
During the pandemic, that responsibility has only increased. This is why we continue to offer online streaming options to our church. But we don’t stop there, and we don’t pretend that it’s a suitable replacement for a physical gathering.
If anything, we are more intentional about ministering to those members who cannot gather physically because we know they are missing out on something valuable right now by being unable to gather for worship with other believers.
#3 – We are holistic beings
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that your body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit”. That means that physical presence matters. We can’t become body-less people. God did not create us that way.
While the technology to have a virtual conversation is impressive, it in no way is an adequate substitute for person to person interaction.
There seems to be this misunderstanding today that somehow our spiritual lives are disconnected from our bodies. It’s as many have compartmentalized their lives into the physical and the spiritual.
But the Bible clearly teaches that what we do with our bodies is worship. Where we go, what we watch, what we listen to, what we think with our brains, etc… It all matters.
#4 – You can’t obey God alone
It’s impossible to obey all of the commands of God alone. Just consider all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament. 59 times Christians are instructed on how to treat one another.
“Love one another” (John 13:34), “Serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), “Encourage one another” (1 Thess. 5:11), “Pray for one another” (James 5:16).
While you may be able to practice a few of these to some extent virtually, there’s no way to truly obey all of the “one anothers” if you are not in relationship with people in your church.
You cannot love those you do not know. You cannot show hospitality toward those you never see. You cannot pray for people when you don’t know their needs.
It becomes next to impossible to do things like, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
How can we encourage one another through the joy of congregational singing if we are not in one another’s physical presence? We cannot.
The Need For Nuance & An Exhortation
While Zoom calls and YouTube streaming can be valuable tools that should be leveraged for the building up of the Body, we must not devalue the primacy of a physical gathering.
You would never want a situation where you only saw your immediate family on Zoom calls every week. How much more important is our church family!
We are certainly living in unprecedented times. There is need for much nuance in these conversations. Every church has a different context and different circumstances. There’s not a one size fits all solution that every church should follow.
I hope and pray that the tone of this post has communicated that there needs to be grace infused into how we carry out these decisions to gather.
But I also hope and pray that you see the beauty in God’s design for the physically gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. I pray that you see the importance of it. I pray that you prioritize it.
Jared Huntley is a church planter and the teaching pastor at Pillar Church of Washington, D.C.
Check out this week’s podcast from In The Trenches as Jared and Logan go more in depth talking about the importance of gathering physically for worship.