[note: this post first appeared on March 17, 2020. Circumstances have begun to change gradually of late but “normality” is still far away. Thus, the point of this brief writing, edited from the original for clarity, is still applicable.]
This post content wasn’t at all what I was thinking about when I started this series on worship, but the breakneck speed at which our world has changed, especially church schedules and worship activities, has got me to thinking about one of the presumptions of corporate worship. And that is that corporate worship presumes the Body of Christ is gathered together.
But for the last 60 days or so we haven’t been together. Many, if not most, of our churches have made the agonizing decision in the light of the coronavirus pandemic to suspend in-person services as acts of good citizenship, love for our neighbors, and protecting the flock. And while these decisions seem prudent in the light of current information, I say they are agonizing because our leaders recognize that the activity of gathering together is, to a large degree, the constitutional potency of being a church. By that I mean that the action of assembling together in the name of Christ to seek the face of Almighty God is essentially what it means for a body of believers to become a “church.” This may be seen in the origins of the very word, “church”, which comes from the Old English circe, meaning “a place of assembly.” Even more significantly, the New Testament word usually translated church is ekklesia which means an “assembly” or “the ones called out.” So, if we’re not together the experiential element of “church” is undermined.
There are too many instances to mention here, but notice some examples of how the church is referred to in the New Testament:
• For where two or three have gathered TOGETHER in My name, I am there in their midst. Matt 18:20
• On the first day of the week, when we were gathered TOGETHER to break bread, Paul began talking to them . . . Acts 20:7a
• (A)nd let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling TOGETHER, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. Heb 10:24-25
When the New Testament talks about Christians, there are stories of individuals. But when it talks about the Church, there are stories of TOGETHERNESS.
Next, consider how the Church is described at Christ’s return:
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up TOGETHER with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thess 4:17
Yes, there’s that TOGETHERNESS again. And then, what is condition of the Church Eternal in heaven? That’s right; we are all TOGETHER, worshiping our Savior!
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Rev 7:9-10
Since assembling together is the New Testament model of “doing” church, we presume that this is God’s intent for today, as well. But many of us, for the foreseeable future, are prohibited from meeting together. And, even though we are pushing ahead in this crisis and maintaining “virtual” togetherness as best we can with God’s providential provision of technology, I am persuaded that this is not what it means to be a church nor to practice corporate worship. Of course, these circumstances are neither outside God’s plan nor surprising to Him. So, what ought we to make of being restrained from meeting together? Is God’s plan thwarted? Of course not! We know He is aware of and in control of today’s circumstances (Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Matt. 10:29). But, if God is aware of and in control of today’s circumstances mustn’t we consider whether He is speaking through this inhibition of gathering? And, if He is speaking, it would be most tragic to ignore Him, doing as Isaiah recorded: “when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen” (66:4b).
What God is saying I won’t presume to suggest. But I am thinking that today’s circumstances shout out that we, His people, need to attend to His voice and seek His face. As Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 3:40, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” However, since our worship services have been so heavily stricken, that practice is one area that I do suggest begs close examination. Going to church, calling the LORD’s name, participating in religious ritual and the like, have never been pleasing to God if our hearts are insincere or our behavior is otherwise immoral. Consider what the LORD says in Amos 5:21-23 (NAS):
I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
Here, and in other passages, the Lord makes clear that ceremony, ritual, and activities are not what please Him. Rather, his expectations are clearly shown in the immediately following verse in Amos:
But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
and in Psalm 51:16-17:
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
and in Micah 6:8
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
So, as I contemplate how to react to the changes brought about by this virus, the upheaval in our schedules and mutation of “normality,” I must consider what God may be saying to us (me) through the denial of liberty to assemble together in God’s presence. Let us (me) then examine our hearts, and with contrition and a broken spirit, and a renewed devotion to justice and righteousness, seek the Lord’s face for mercy, deliverance from this pestilence, renewal of our devotion to Him, and restoration of the assembly of the saints, so that the church may once again be TOGETHER.
James Lawrence Wirth
Robert, I enjoyed this article so much! (I assume you wrote it.) I teach a worship class of high school seniors & want to share it with them.
Thank you, James! By all means do so.