The saga of Pastor James Coates, the Canadian pastor who was arrested in Alberta for holding church services last month despite COVID restrictions imposed by the government, continues. Though it was reported he would be released last week, more recent news seems to indicate otherwise. So as millions watch mask-less basketball players body up, sweat, and breathe all over one another during March Madness, the danger of a church meeting for worship must still be too great for the civil authorities to handle.
This situation reminds us of the importance not only of praying for Pastor Coates' release, but for the church to gather physically for worship. Many shepherds of God's flock are noticing that though the Lord has mercifully lowered the death rate, is bringing warmer weather that lowers transmission rates, and provides vaccinations to many, a good number of the sheep are not returning to worship services. The ease of online worship, combined with ongoing fears, can make it difficult for people to see the need to return.
In addition to providing public worship services with protocol appropriate to their setting, the elders of the church need to keep teaching and reminding their people that online worship is an incomplete experience of worship for the people of God. As we discussed on a podcast episode and as this article points out, online worship is like worship in exile. One obviously benefits from virtual services in hearing God's Word or the pastor praying, but this type of worship falls short of God's expressed desire for His people. I offer eight brief reasons why online worship is imperfect, in the hopes that those reading this post will be spurred on to return to the house of God.
The church by definition is an assembly. The word for church from the Greek is a word that means "assembly", based on the concept of a congregation being those called out of the world by the gospel into the kingdom of God. Likewise, the synagogue, which the early church was formed out of as the gospel swept through the Jewish people (Acts 9:20; 13:5), also means "assembly" or the "ones brought together" by faith in the Lord. When God's people do not assemble, they are scattered all about like the Duplo blocks on our living room floor our grandchildren played with this weekend. Lots of shapes, sizes, and colors, but nothing definitive.
The church is to function as the temple of God and offer spiritual sacrifices together. Throughout the New Testament the apostles refer to the church as the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 1 Pet. 2:4-5) and its people as God's priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:5-6). As such, people are not only to serve the Lord as individuals but together with one another. When the church is wholly or even partially online, so much of the ability for people to communicate and cooperate in sacrifice and service is diminished.
God promises His special presence when the church gathers together. We know that Christ is present when ever two or three are gathered in His name (Matt. 18:20). More formally, God's Spirit dwells with His people as they gather before Him as the church. The Apostle Paul stressed this truth to the church at Corinth when he said,
For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, 'I will dwell among them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord. 'And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,' says the Lord Almighty (2 Cor. 6:16-18).
The body of Christ is meant to be together. The church is not only to be spiritually bound to one another, but to exercise a corporeal presence in one another's lives as well. Christ as our head expects the members of His body to be with one another to supply all that is lacking in one another's lives (Eph. 4:14-16). The New Testament says that God's people need to greet one another with holy kisses (appropriately applied!), encourage one another, accept one another, bear with one another, confess sins to one another, etc. You have to be present with one another to truly fulfill these admonitions.
The sacraments are only able to be experienced when the church is together. With the visible symbols of water for baptism, and the bread and cup for the Lord's Supper, as well as the needed actions to participate in their application, clearly the church must be together to observe the sacraments. By gathering as His body and observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, the church is testifying that Jesus came in bodily form to the earth, died for His people, and had His body raised in glory for our salvation.
The ability to sing to one another is lost. Often God's people think that the only one they are singing to in worship is God. But Paul said, "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16). Our singing is not only to be vertical to God, but horizontally as we encourage and strengthen in song our brothers and sisters around us.
The poor and lonely are not properly loved unless the church gathers. Part of our duty as we worship is to care for the lowly in our midst. We are to honor our weak and hurting members (1 Cor. 12:22-26), remember the poor and give to them (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4), and provide companionship and care to widows and other lonely people (Acts 6:1-6). The old saying "Out of sight, out of mind" particularly rings true in the church regarding the lowly, as the prophets regularly had to raise their plight to the people of God. If we do not gather, we will not remember them as we ought and fail in our ministry to them.
The church's witness to the world is mostly lost. Do you realize that the church witnesses to the world simply by withdrawing from it each Lord's Day and gathering together in worship? God calls the Sabbath Day a sign in the Scriptures, for it sanctifies or sets apart God's people from the world (Ex. 31:12-13). Indeed, the Lord's Day is a reminder to the world that Jesus will return and make a final separation between the righteous and the wicked. When the church does not gather, it loses this major aspect of its gospel witness.
As a case in point, Pastor Coates' wife was asked what could be done to help her husband. Her answer was simple. "Open your churches, and gather for worship."