In light of the present circumstances surrounding “social distancing,” most churches (using that in its familiar sense) have opted to cancel in-person services choosing instead to go the route of virtual, online services. A minority are attempting to meet by allowing the congregants to sit in their cars, tune their radios, and partake in the service that way. However, even this has drawn the unwelcome attention of government officials – and will continue to do so. Both of these options reflect the fundamental flaw, now bordering on fatal flaw, of evangelicalism – particularly the Western variety: resignation to the status quo at all costs and a failure to examine our practices in the light of Scripture.
In this post we simply want to ask, “What constitutes a gathering?” Said differently, “What makes a church service an official church service?” To do so, in this post we will raise a series of questions. Then, in a subsequent post we’ll examine some Scripture passages in an attempt to answer these questions.
First, is THE building necessary? By that I mean the building with the pulpit, pews, chairs – the building with the sign/marquee out front. There’s been a lot of talk about how this social distancing has allowed the “church” to leave the building. That’s certainly a praiseworthy sentiment. For centuries the meaning and use of church has been tied to a building, a use that is unsubstantiated in Scripture. As we’ve seen in numerous posts, beginning here, ekklesia never refers to a building, rather by its very definition it refers to a congregation, assembly, or gathering and almost always has a local, physical gathering in mind. Despite the best efforts of some to show that the church is not tied to the building, the opposite is true in practice. This was certainly true prior to the outbreak and continues through the online services – performed at the building by the “worship team” or staff pastor. Further, this is evidenced when cars gather in the church parking lot. We may say that the building isn’t necessary, meanwhile we are now flocking to the building virtually.
Second, does a gathering need to have staff pastors and/or ministers present to be considered an official church service? Must a gathering of believers be led in an official capacity by a “pastor”? Unfortunately, this component is almost always tied to the previous one. It seems like this is primarily why the online services are broadcast from the building and generally the pastor/minister is one of the few who are present. Similarly, the fact that there has been a massive increase in online viewership of church services and a large number still desiring to sit in their cars is further evidence that the two go hand-in-hand. Not surprisingly, for most churches the two biggest budgetary expenses are pastoral salaries and building fees (mortgage, lease, maintenance, etc.). Is it coincidence that these two pillars are linked together and are still holding on to business as usual?
Third, what are the essential parts of a “church service”? Here we are not talking about the marks or attributes of a church, rather we are asking what is supposed to happen when the church gathers? Is there a set liturgy? What we’ve observed during our present circumstances is that the show must go on, all of the old parts are still going on, despite the sometimes awkwardness of singing in an empty room or preaching to empty pews (or stadium seating). As pointed out several years ago, nearly all evangelical churches follow a similar pattern of greeting, singing, a prayer, tithe, and preaching. From my observations, almost all of these are continuing via the online platform, but should they? Is there Scriptural warrant to support these liturgies? Is there Scriptural warrant to abandon some or all of these parts, particularly given our recent pandemic?
I don’t want to criticize effort here. I know this is a difficult time, but it is not unprecedented. Throughout Christian history, believers have had to overcome obstacles, be they state imposed or otherwise, in order to meet. They gathered in graveyards, forests, barns, homes, hillsides, literally anywhere and most often away from the eye of the public. It seems as though these challenging times have caught many of us off-guard. The majority of churches and pastors are trying to do their best but unfortunately these efforts are focused on maintaining the status quo; to find a new normal that resembles the old. However, what if that is not God’s purpose and plan for this. What if God wants us to examine our traditions which we hold so dear and to consider our ways in the light of Scripture? What if in doing so we find that things need to change drastically? Are we willing to make those changes? What if the current pandemic is an opportunity to return to the Scriptures, examining them to find out if our practice matches what God has set forth?
If/when this pandemic is over, will we be content to return to “normal”? What, if anything will we have learned?
We are all agreed in saying that you can only decide the question [what is the nature of the church] by the Scripture, but, as I have already hinted, when it comes to the realm of practice and the realm of actual decisions so often we are influenced more by tradition and history than we are by purely biblical exposition. We are so influenced by the need to maintain the status quo that we start with that rather than with the scriptural teaching.Martyn Lloyd-Jones – ‘Consider Your Ways – The Outline of a New Strategy’. Knowing the Times. Banner of Truth, 2001, p. 178