I totally subscribe to the maxim, ‘Church is people, not buildings.’
But we are God’s gathered people, and something is missing when we are not able to gather.
It’s important for us to gather, because
- We are embodied people. See Gen. 1:26–27; 2:18–25; 3:20. As a grandparent, I have learned afresh from my 3-year-old grandchildren that seeing and hearing people online is not the same as seeing and hearing them in the flesh. Witness theirs – and our – reaction when they did, finally see us in the flesh a couple of months into lockdown! The online world is a powerful world; but it is not the real world. It offers us the possibility of a convenient ‘long-distance’ relationship, but not that of more costly intimacy.
- We are one body. See Eph 1:22f; 4:15f. Each of us offers something distinctive to the whole. Yes, we can still function when apart, but it’s as if the various part of the body have become dislocated from one another. The whole thing will simply not work so well.
- We are drawn together by the Spirit. See Eph 4:4. There is one Spirit, and he is constantly drawing us towards visible unity. Tension will be experienced when that unity is stretched too far.
- We are family. See 1 Tim 3:15; 5:1f. We are a mixture of ages and genders. Some are parents in the faith, others are spiritual children. Like earthly families, we are meant to spend time together – for support, for celebration, for tears, for dreaming. Like a loving family after a long period of separation, we should be looking forward to the day when we will be reunited.
- We need to hear God’s message to us, here and now. Preaching is bringing God’s word to these people, in this place, at this time. It’s great that we can listen to, and watch, online sermons. But they may well lack the specificity which characterises (or, at least, ought to characterise!) a sermon preached by, say, the senior pastor at 10.30 on a Sunday morning to a gathering of 250 members of his congregation.
- We are meant to be a settled people, not spiritual nomads. It is all too easy, in the online world, to wander into the next field, supposing that the grass there is greener and tastier. Too tempting to drift around the Youtube channels until we find a church which is streaming better music, better all-age activities, better preaching. The church today is already beset by consumerism. We need to resist this, and a good way of doing so will be to long to get back to our usual gatherings and spend more time, even now, asking, ‘What can I give?’, rather than, ‘What can I get?’
- We need the sacraments. Both baptism and holy communion have a inescapable physicality about them (water, in the one, and bread and wine in the other). Baptism is essentially a public occasion, an opportunity to bear witness to the transforming power of Jesus to family and friends. Holy communion involves a shared meal, and any online version cannot be quite the same as the real thing.
- We need to be shepherded. It’s hard to care for people you can’t meet. We need to have those little conversations that will reveal whether people are growing or struggling in their faith.
- We are all body builders. It is often assumed that the primary reason we ‘go to church’ is for the purpose of ‘worship’. It is better (more scriptural, that is) to view the main purpose of gathering as ‘mutual edification’. We meet in order to build one another up. And, if we cannot meet and have face-to-face contact, we cannot do that so effectively.
- We need to show up in order to show who we are. Streamed services, for all their value, treat us more as spectators, less as participants. They nurture the feeling that ‘I don’t need to go to church in order to be a Christian.’ When we make the effort to go to church, to mix with these people (some of whom we may not even like very much!) we are declaring to ourselves that we are committed to what God is committed – ‘that marvellous and extraordinary ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ (Geoffrey Paul). John Wesley was right when he said that the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. We show our agreement as we long for the day when we can reconnect with our brothers and sisters and show again that we are stronger when we are together.
- We all have a job to do. The work of ministry is for everyone (Rom 12:4–8; Eph 4:15–16; 1 Pet 4:10–11). There are some things we can do during lockdown – meet people online, deliver groceries to people’s doorsteps, and so on. But there are other things that are not possible unless and until we meet in the flesh.
- We witness by our worship. The sheer act of gathering is an act of witness before a watching world. And when that world sees Christian people coming away from their regular gatherings refreshed, energised, and full of good works it will be drawn to ask, ‘Who are these people? Where did they get these things?’
- We grow by greeting. This may seem trivial, but it is not. The New Testament writers not only greet their readers; they also ask their readers to greet one another. Writes David Gunderson: ‘These greetings symbolize the reconciling power of the gospel and foster our family dynamic. The way we greet each other—and the fact that we greet each other—is central to the church’s life and witness. Happy greetings remind us of the gospel unity we enjoy in Christ. Awkward greetings declare that the healthy church shows no partiality. Avoided greetings remind us to resolve our conflicts and reconcile our hearts. Every greeting reflects God’s love, reunites Christ’s body, enables hospitality, cultivates selflessness, opens doors for ministry, and bears witness to the God who’s welcomed us through Christ.’