by John Ellis
My daily social distancing-approved walk takes me past the sprawling athletic complex that houses the baseball fields where my son’s Babe Ruth league plays. Played. Most days my eyes sweep the empty fields as I wonder when my son will again join with his teammates on those fields. Yesterday, though, my gaze landed on a single gentleman. An elderly man, sitting alone in a camping chair placed alongside the fence intended to separate the game’s participants from those watching the action. He was sitting there on the frontend of my walk, and was still there, nearly an hour later, on my return home. Alone. Facing a well-manicured yet empty baseball diamond, I imagined the man replaying past games in his mind, longing for the return of the happy, youthful players.
The image of the empty baseball field juxtapositioned with the lone fan made me thankful that I had my sunglasses on. The few people passing me on the trail were unable to see my tears. While struck with grief at what we are all losing in this unprecedented global crisis, my tears were also accompanied by prayer and thanksgiving. Prayer for a quick ending to this disruptive scourge. Thankfulness for how the beautiful baseball field reminds me of God’s sovereignty. Hope reigns in the heart of the Christian. Just like the City of Winter Park keeps the fields up in the belief that life will one day return to normal, those repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Jesus, even in the midst of suffering and tragedy, rest in the promise that their Heavenly Father will one day reverse the Curse and make all things right. God knows our beginning from our end, and for those who are His, our end is an eternity of untold joy and delight dwelling with our Savior. And in that moment along that walking trail, I also gave thanks to God for my church’s online worship service during this time.
Last Sunday, as my family settled into our couch to watch our church’s online worship service, I was simultaneously saddened and filled with joy. The gravity of the current situation set in as the worship leader led us in songs of praise and worship. This is not the way this is supposed to be, I thought. Like all of creation, I groaned for King Jesus to return and undo the bonds of corruption, granting the full and final freedom of the glory of the children of God. “Return quickly, King Jesus,” I prayed. “Gather all of your people to yourself so that our voices can be physically joined together in the praise and worship of our Creator.”
And in that prayer, I also rejoiced and gave thanks. For while my heart longed (and continues to long) for the physical corporate gathering of my church family, I was encouraged and blessed by the online corporate gathering. One of the benefits of modern technology is that we could see the number of devices streaming the service. The corporate gathering wasn’t just abstract because, to be blunt it’s not abstract. In that moment, my heart soared as I praised God for my brothers and sisters in Christ who had prioritized that time to gather together, even if only online, to sing praises to our God and to be fed by the preaching of His Word delivered by our pastor.
Our online worship services are not a substitute for the corporate gathering; they are the corporate gathering. While also acknowledging the validity of their grief at things lost, one of the things we try to gently stress to our kids during this time is the blessings of modern technology. As scary and boring and disappointing as this global pandemic is, we are going through it with conveniences and hopes that our ancestors did not have generations ago. And one of those blessings is the ability for local churches to gather corporately via the internet, a blessing the churches did not have during the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early 20th century.
I do not want to be too hard on my well-intentioned brothers in Christ who have concluded that online worship services are not best practice. For one thing, they answer to God and not to me. For another thing, I do not doubt their sincerity, nor do I doubt their love for the people God has placed under their pastoral care. However, I do believe that those churches who are refusing to offer online worship services (who have the capability to do so) are doing God’s people a disservice. By refusing to gather together at a set time on Sunday mornings, they are depriving Christians the joy of the corporate gathering and the accompanying means of grace. Many blog posts and articles have been written extolling the virtues of not streaming the worship service. One recent blog post gives six reasons why the author and his fellow pastors have decided not to host online worship services.
I’m not going to engage in a bullet point rebuttal, nor am I going to link to this brother’s post. I don’t know him and, by God’s grace, I’m assuming the best about his heart and motives. But his post does a good job of summing up the consensus for those churches who are not holding online corporate gatherings, and so I’m using it as a stand-in for the overall arguments of those who disagree with me.
One of the main reasons this brother isn’t hosting an online corporate gathering is the belief that not doing so will increase the longing for the physical corporate gathering. That belief is based on the assumption that once people get in the habit of streaming the worship service, they will want to continue to do so, forgoing the physical gathering once we’ve returned to normal. Sadly, it’s probably true that some will prefer to stream the worship service when their brothers and sisters are able to physically gather again. But that’s a heart issue, not a technology issue. And I don’t think it is best practice for churches to base their decisions on how the selfishly sinful may respond. Not when it comes to the corporate gathering. And make no mistake, the online corporate gathering is not a substitute; it IS the corporate gathering for this time and place. It’s what God in His sovereignty has decreed for His people during this season. Yes, the ideal is a physical gathering, but we are united in the Spirit. Corporately praising and worshiping God via modern technology does not hinder the Spirit’s work nor does it pose a threat to our corporate unity. Furthermore, for those not steering into selfish impulses, gathering corporately online stokes our desire to see a return to a physical gathering as it increases our desire for the return of King and Savior Jesus Christ. Instead of denying the blessings that comes with modern technology, churches should be striving to adopt to changing circumstances with a heart of thankfulness for the unique blessings God has given us that our past brothers and sisters in Christ did not have.
In his post, this brother in Christ comments that by not holding online corporate gatherings, his church is encouraging family worship. To be blunt, I can’t help but wonder if those pastors who have landed on the “do not” side of online corporate gatherings held the position a priori and then were forced to come up with a list of reasons to support their decision after the fact. I mean, it seems fairly obvious that we are engaged in family worship when we gather corporately online. We sing as a family. We pray as a family. We hear the preaching of God’s Word as a family. And we discuss the worship service as a family. Gathering corporately online is not only a gathering of our larger church family, it’s also a gathering of individual family units.
An added bizarreness to many of the posts and articles I’ve read urging churches to not hold corporate gatherings online is that every single post and article encourages families to watch or listen to the preaching of God’s Word offered by others during the time they would normally gather. While instinctively understanding the value of listening to the preaching of God’s Word delivered online, these brothers are denying those under their pastoral care the immense value that comes from God’s people hearing their pastor’s voice during this crisis. Instead of encouraging their people to listen to John Piper or Tim Keller or whoever else, they should be ministering via the preaching of God’s Word to the church family God has entrusted them with.
My pastors do not want to record a worship service in an empty sanctuary. Nor does my church family believe it’s ideal to gather together online over gathering physically. But we don’t yet live in the ideal world as God intended, even when, Lord willing, we return to gathering physically. The effects of the Curse have snaked their way into our lives in unprecedented ways during this crisis. Thankfully, our online corporate worship service encourages our hearts that the God is still in control and that while we may be physically apart during this time, we are united through the Spirit. And it’s also a taste of the joy that will be ours when we gather again, be that in the new heavens and the new earth or be it in a return to our physical gathering every Sunday morning to praise and worship God. Pastors, if at all possible, do not deprive God’s people entrusted to your pastoral care the joy and benefits of gathering corporately online to praise and worship God.
Soli Deo Gloria