The Practice of Presence in a Quarantine World

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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These are testing times for the church and church leaders—and for the whole world. But crises spark opportunities for adjustments and innovations.

We live in extraordinary times. The virus of 2020 will join a long list of plagues and pestilence that have beset our fallen race under the sun. No one can say how much worse it will get, but it will get worse before it gets better. And odds are, things will never quite be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. How will these new realities affect our worship, giving, and fellowship when we may not be able to meet publicly as we used to? Parishioners are looking to church leaders for wisdom.

However much the times change, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). His church remains the Body of Christ, a body so strong and enduring in Christ that the gates of hell will not hold out against it (Matthew 16:18). We belong to a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, yet all else will be shaken before the End comes.

Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).

How might our gratitude to God be reflected in acceptable worship during a time of quarantine, sheltering in place, social distancing, financial crisis, and general anxieties about what was unthinkable just a few months ago?

We need to balance concerns for public health with a zeal for proper worship and fellowship. Since I wrote on this in my article, “Sustaining A Distant Church During The Coronavirus Pandemic”, I will only note that we should obey the civil authorities in restricting public gatherings (Romans 13:1-7). That is not a compromise with the world, but a needed public health measure. In this article, I will delve more deeply into our theology of the church meeting and how we might honor God when we cannot gather face-to-face.

Distance is no Substitute for Real Presence

We should take stock of what is most important about the gathered church’s time of fellowship and worship and what we lose when we cannot come together. As long as services must be offered online, pastors and other leaders should make clear to their congregations that this is second best. It is necessitated by a crisis. But it is not the new normal, since the physical and spatial aspects of biblical fellowship are nonnegotiable. It is abnormal, substandard, and (we hope) short-lived.

Of course, putting services on television or online has always helped those who cannot get out (the shut ins, as we used to call them), but it is not a substitute for embodied fellowship and worship. Even shut ins need personal presence, so the church should come to them when possible. (I was so grateful when my church came to my home and served my wife and me communion when Becky was dying of dementia.)

During a time of crisis and accommodation, church leaders can ponder deeply their theology of the church service and the meaning of the Body of Christ as a living and embodied community of servants and worshippers. No church should want to become another “Saint Pixels,” an entirely on-line “church” where people attend by taking on an avatar and joining the service (I am not making this up. I am not that clever.)

Some years ago, I was on a BBC program discussing this ecclesiastical eccentricity. I was assured by a leader of Saint Pixels that the congregants in this virtual sanctuary were very “authentic.” I asked how he could know that since he was only seeing a cartoon representation of a person!

My hope is that the season of social distancing and sheltering in place will cause us to crave embodied fellowship and to never take it for granted again. The Apostle John yearned to be with those to whom he wrote:

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13-14).

Preaching Online

Evangelicals value strong preaching. As Paul wrote, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17). Preaching is not hard to offer online if we have the technology. But even with the best technology, the interplay between preaching and listening is reduced when a preacher is looking into a camera and not at the flock.

I experienced this situation in a different setting recently while recording an apologetics course for Denver Seminary. For the first five twenty-minute sessions, the woman behind the camera was my audience. She was interested in apologetics and responded well. Still, it was odd. I kept looking about the empty room, trying to make eye contact with the walls and video equipment. For the second two sessions, I invited in one of my students, who was happy to learn and be supportive.

Preachers may want to preach to several people in the room even if they cannot be in their sanctuaries with the whole congregation. They should also consider what kind of background is most conducive to hearing the Word of God. I saw a very strong online sermon that was streamed from a distracting environment. The church realized this and will change the background for the next online sermon. We learn as we go, and God is patient with us.

Worship Online

A church service is far more than preaching. The whole service should be a time of worship in its different modes (hearing the Word, giving, speaking), but church services involve group singing and (in some cases) reciting biblical truths together. Can that be done online? Yes and no.

One church I know is streaming their service at 10:00 AM Sunday morning. The whole service occurs at this time, but with only a few people in attendance. Some aspects are simply gone, such as greeting each other and receiving communion. However, one can pray along in real time with those leading the service and sing with the worship group.

The church I attend does not have the resources to do what I just mentioned. So, our pastor sends out an order of service that we can follow at home, preferably at the time our church usually meets. Several worship songs are linked in the email the pastor sends out on Saturday for the next day’s service. He also records his sermon online, so that the flock can be growing together in biblical truth.

These are testing times for the church and church leaders—and for the whole world. But crises spark opportunities for adjustments and innovations. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and according to the wisdom of the Bible, we can and should continue to be a worshipping community—even if that means living with the second best for a difficult season.

© 2020 Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved.

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