Around the world, churches have begun to “reopen” for in-person gatherings (though some have already shut down again due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases). Likely, over the past months you have seen or read countless tweets and posts around the following ideas: “The church has never been closed” or “The church isn’t a building; it is a people.”
Yes, the church is a people—the “called out” ones, which was more a political descriptive in antiquity. But I only half-agree with the premise “the church has never been closed” with regards to the shutting down of in-person gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis.
The church’s gathering has been closed in many cases, and seeing that as a bad thing and a necessary thing are not contradictory.
We need to think through more about how gathering really matters.
The church, like God’s mission, has a centripetal force and a centrifugal force—it has both a gathered and a scattered function. And when people espouse that the church has never been closed, in my mind they are saying this “new normal” of not being able to gather is acceptable.
That’s not the best way to think of it, I believe.
Theologically, if the church cannot gather corporately (in-person), an element or part of the essence of the church has been closed. And, in line with being closed, we need to prioritize it being open—and see it being closed as a deficient practice to be remedied at some point.
To be clear, I am not arguing that churches should have never postponed in-person gatherings due to COVID-19. And I’m not arguing that churches should reopen as soon as possible.
Here I want to simply provide four (broad) theological categories as reasons why gathering with the saints is an essential component to New Testament ecclesiology and thus argue that an element of the church has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
And that we should yearn for reopening if we are currently closed.
First, the church is the ekklesia.
In an age where the culture is rapidly becoming digitized, the church must not lose its analog—assembly—nature. The Greek word ekklesia means “called-out ones.” In antiquity, especially in Athenian democracy, the ekklesia gathered (frequently) to inform their body politic—public policies—as a city-state.
Applied to the church, the church is the assembly of the kingdom of God, united under King Jesus, that gathers for:
- Singing songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)
- Praying (Matt. 21:13)
- Preaching/Teaching the word (Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2)
- Observing the ordinances (1 Cor. 11:26), and thus
- Corporately worshipping the king.
I understand many would respond to this and say they are doing this online. They are “gathering” to sing songs, pray, preach/teach, and even practice (in some form) baptism and communion. I know that the local church that I am part of has been doing these things.
Let me ask a question, however: Would you really call this assembling with your family every day? If you received Marco Polos (an app to send videos) from your wife and children every day, would that really count as being assembled? Would that really be sustainable? Growing up, what if the only way you saw your siblings was through video chat?
When watching church via video, I find my heart longing to be assembled with my family.
I am just not convinced that the digital connection is the same thing as the corporate gathering. This may be why, according to Barna, online attendance is dropping. However, this doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t continue to utilize the digital platform as a ministry and mission tool.
In short, the ekklesia—the assembly of the King—is a mark of a biblical church and we should want it, long for it, and work toward it.
It can’t be OK to stay away, even if we must for a season for the sake of our church community and our neighbors.
Second, gathering is part of being a covenant community.
We need to gather with feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars. Furthermore, gathering is central to the church’s identity as a covenant community.
We can be the church without gathering for a season— millions are in churches like that right now. Churches don’t cease to be churches when they lack a mark of the church. For examples, biblical leadership is a mark of a church, but a church that is leaderless for a season does not cease to be a church.
However, what is normative should be pursued. Churches without biblical leadership should seek to raise up such leaders. And, churches that don’t meet should not only long to gather again but seek to meet in some form.
Part of the reason is that we need to be in community with one another, gathered for worship (which typlically means weekend worship and small groups in our context).
In an article I wrote on membership, I explained:
“We find in Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth that they were putting people out of the body. So Scripture teaches that we can be a part of the body, and we can be apart from the body. It is difficult to get around Scripture when it talks about being brought into the body and also being put out of it.
And yet for most churches there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in. While there seems to be flexibility according to various bodies, there is no such thing in the New Testament as a church without some recognition of belonging—of membership in community.”
An online community makes such accountability difficult, if not impossible. For many, they don’t use their own names on the screen, and we hardly ever present our true selves online.
I know accountability and church discipline aren’t popular topics in the church today. Although they aren’t popular, they are still biblical. And the Bible describes accountability and discipline happening within the church gathered.
I don’t see how accountability and discipline happen outside a gathered community of believers. Imagine trying to parent your children virtually. How do you think that would turn out? The physical distance between you and them would become a barrier. The same rings true for the church.
Third, part of discipleship happens within the oikos—the “household of God.”
There are so many discipleship tools— books, articles, sermons, online resources, podcasts, and Bible studies, to name a few—that can be used in isolation for one to grow in their walk with Jesus.
While believers should take personal ownership and responsibility for their discipleship, they must remember that discipleship ultimately doesn’t happen in isolation. True biblical discipleship is a community effort, or a “a group sport.” This understanding is as old as the Trinity.
I know some will point to technological platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout, and how they provide a space to digitally connect. I completely get that. I believe churches should leverage such platforms as tools to facilitate discipleship.
However, at the core, discipleship is about the family (oikos—household) of God gathering together to learn what it means to be conformed into the image of Jesus and thereby learn what it means to reflect the glory of God in all spheres of life.
Discipleship is thus the convergence of the imago Dei and missio Dei fleshed out in the domus Dei.
Could you imagine Jesus discipling the 12 through Zoom? I couldn’t. I could see him utilize the digital platform as a tool, but not as the model. Discipleship requires proximity and presence, which is the last reason why gathering (corporately) with the saints is essential.
We should see online community as a tool, but not the norm, for discipleship.
Fourth, the church (gathered) is a place where God meets with his people.
Since the Garden of Eden, God desires to dwell in the midst of his people. Fast-forward in scripture, and you see God dwelling among his people via the tabernacle and temple.
And at the very end—which is the beginning of all eternity, we read, “Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God” (Revelation 21:3).
So, if God wants to dwell among his people, where is the presence of God manifested today? Given that Jesus was the incarnation of God’s presence, and the church was birthed by the kingdom as Christ’s body—the church would be the designation of God’s manifested presence today.
Sure, while each individual believer is a micro temple (1 Cor. 6:19–20) whereby the Spirit of God dwells as they live sent and scattered, it is the church (or local churches) that is the designation whereby God’s Shekinah Glory resides as they gather as the assembly of the King.
Jesus said that he would build his church (Matthew 16:18). In addition, we read in places like Ephesians 2:19–22 and 1 Peter 2:5 that the church is God’s temple and spiritual house.
So, I would argue that when believers “assemble” together in corporate worship—through songs, prayers, teachings, giving, and observing ordinances—God reveals himself in unique ways compared to what he does in private worship.
According to Donald Whitney, long before there was a pandemic.
“There’s an element of worship and Christianity that cannot be experienced in private worship or by watching worship. There are some graces and blessings that God gives only in the ‘meeting together’ with other believers.” (Spiritual Disciplines, 92)
Tim Keller also has something to add regarding the corporate gathering of the saints for worship. Keller believes that “something unique happens [to believers] in corporate worship” that doesn’t happen apart from it (Serving a Movement).
In closing, Christians don’t get from “watching” church what they do from “being” with the church. Gathering is part of what makes a church a church.
For that to be restricted, there must be significant reasons. Historically, there have been times when churches could not meet due to persecution, natural disaster, or disease. Today, in many places, we are in such a situation.
While an aspect or function of the church is to be scattered—living on mission by sharing and showing the gospel—another aspect or function is to gather with the people of God for the edification and building up of the body.
And it is this function, in its entirety, that has been “closed” or prohibited in this lockdown for many.
So, what now?
I’m not calling for churches to open indiscriminately, but let’s grieve when we cannot meet. Let’s know that something is wrong. Something essential is missing. And, we cannot wait for all risks to be gone for something so essential to resume. Acknowledging the loss and the yearning for restoration is important. We should ackowledge it to our people, so they can hear how we value that gathering. Gathering must not be causally disregarded. It is part of who and what a church is.
That also means that, when we can, we should gather. Maybe that is with 25% capacity and masks, or with people in different rooms, or in house churches in yards, or however. Gathering shows what we value and takes steps to restore what is central to church life. Gathering cautiously shows that we care about our people and about our community.
Each community is different, and local churches need to be discerning, and to have those conversations with their local authorities. However, finding ways to meet is valuable and appropriate— whether in scattered house churches or in carefully created worship opportunities. It’s not my place to say what everyone everywhere should do, but the place of gathering in the life of the church matters to the writers of scripture, and it should matter to us.
On Easter Sunday, Beth Moore tweeted, “Next year in church.”
Of course, I want that gathered church to be realized well before Easter, but the tweet resonated with me and many others because of what it expressed. That longing is not just for Easter, but for gathered worship itself.
A rightful understanding of the church should not lead to casually dismissing the assembling of the church. It should be central, essential, and worked towards.