Judith M. Dinsmore
Elizabeth Pearce was one of three people driving to worship at Church of the Covenant OPC in Hackettstown, New Jersey, in late March when the country was, state by state, shutting down. She is the church pianist; the pastor and the sound guy were the other two members of the skeleton crew.
“I cried on the way there because I was experiencing for the first time just how precious worship is,” Pearce remembered. They set up the livestream, and the simple service commenced. “It was so surreal to be putting together the bare bones of a worship service. … I am never going to take worship for granted again—how sweet and necessary it is to be together.”
As OP churches trickle back into corporate worship and restrictions are slowly lifted, members may similarly find that their understanding of church life has changed or expanded. What do we lose from not being gathered together? What do we learn about worship from not having it?
Scott Pearce, brother-in-law to Elizabeth Pearce and a deacon at Church of the Covenant, hosts a twice-monthly small group in his home. A few weeks into the stay-at-home order, they had their first Zoom meeting. “Practically everyone who even occasionally comes to our small group was there,” Pearce said. “You could just tell that everyone was starved to see their church family.” It was a bit like finally sitting down to a full meal when you’re famished. “You don’t know how hungry you are until you take that first bite, and then you just devour the whole plate,” he described.
Elizabeth Pearce leads a women’s Bible study of ten to twelve women that also gathers twice a month; about half the group is from church, half from the community. The group adapted quickly to meeting virtually.
“Even our most senior member, who’s in her nineties, logged in,” Pearce said. One woman can’t look at a screen because of health issues, so she put a big teddy bear on her chair as a stand-in and talked from the side. Another woman, a young mom, was interrupted by a toddler on a nap strike who ended up on her lap during the study. “She was frustrated by the disruption, but we were so happy to see her little son, and we could encourage her in that,” Pearce said.
On the opposite side of the country, Covenant Presbyterian in Marina, California, has also turned to Zoom for church fellowship. Attendance at Sunday school actually went up in the move from in-person to video-conferencing.
“People are super eager to be in contact with one another, to be in some odd sense together,” said pastor Joel Robbins.
Covenant’s Sunday school, prayer meeting, women’s Bible study, systematic theology discussion, and even a weekly discussion of great Christian poetry, all happen over Zoom. When the meeting is finished, they purposely leave the meetings open for informal fellowship. “Sometimes chatting afterward goes up to an hour,” Robbins said. (Like some OP churches, Covenant decided against a livestream worship service by conviction and instead emails out a packet for household worship each week.)
At Harvest OPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, most ministries were moved online, and members have enjoyed and taken advantage of opportunities to connect—more even than expected, according to Pastor Wayne Veenstra. An online congregational forum drew upwards of one hundred families and an online prayer meeting drew over fifty families. Some small groups are meeting more frequently via videoconference than they are accustomed to in person.
No one, however, is writing love letters to Zoom.
By mid-April, after a few weeks of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, researchers all over the internet were pointing out that our bodies weren’t meant for virtual connection. You can’t read body language or pick up on someone’s mood in the same way. When group calling, two or three people usually start talking at once. And what would be a comfortable silence in person is confusing on a video call. Zoom fatigue is real.
“It takes so much work to attempt to relate normally when you’re on Zoom,” Joel Robbins summed up.
As a psychologist, Elizabeth Pearce knows well the importance of listening and speaking face to face. “God created us to need that physical contact. It’s not that I sit there and touch everybody!” she laughed. “But it’s that joining of your life, of the soul, that only happens when you’re in the same room, because you can see the look in the other person’s eye and read what they’re really saying to you non-verbally.”
That same dynamic is intimately familiar to pastors during corporate worship. They speak in front of their congregations each Sunday, personally addressing, in the name of the Lord, a certain group of faces whom they know and love. It’s not a one-way communication. Speaking to a camera during a livestream or for a pre-recorded sermon is not the same.
And it’s not Matthew Holst’s strong suit. As pastor of Shiloh OPC in Raleigh, North Carolina, Holst and co-pastor David Okken record sermons each week that the session sends out with a bulletin for family worship on Sundays. “I preach from notes, not a manuscript, so I normally have a good degree of eye contact with the congregation. And when they’re not there, it’s somewhat disconcerting,” he said.
Looking into a camera affects the quality of the preaching somehow, he thinks. “I’m not sure I know how to describe it. It almost becomes subjectively more speech-like than sermonic in its quality.” There is something artificial about it that Holst doesn’t care for. “It makes me feel a bit like a politician with a sound bite,” he added wryly.
Not only do congregants and pastor communicate with each other during corporate worship in a way not replicable over screens, but congregants communicate with each other, too: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19).
“We benefit from little ones belting out the doxology. We benefit each other by saying amen at the end of the prayer. It’s the body of Christ coming together to work together, to serve together, to edify each other. … It’s irreplaceable. Nothing can come close to God’s people gathering together,” Holst said. Virtual worship is not corporate worship, he explained; it is less than corporate worship. It is not without blessing and not without the grace of God, but it is still not corporate worship.
“How sweet and pleasant it is when brethren dwell in unity,” Holst quoted from Psalm 133. Without corporate worship, “we can’t do what we love to do.” Shiloh OPC eagerly moved to open-air services by the middle of May.
Catching a pixelated representation of a beloved face via video-conferencing is nothing like sharing a pew and a hymnal. But even this points us to our eternal hope of joining with all the saints to worship Christ himself face to face in glory.
The loss of corporate worship affects each church member, including kids.
Shiloh OPC is a congregation full of children—just about a third the congregation is under fifteen, Holst said. “One of the things I enjoy most about church is that I hug all the kids every week. And they love being in church.”
Children learn by tasting, sniffing, scratching, listening, watching, and, yes, hugging—and often all of the above during one worship service. Without church, they lose not just doctrinal instruction or time to play with friends after worship, but the very presence of a holy God with his people that they are busy absorbing in a sensory way even while they squirm in the pew. Screens are no substitute.
Pastor Wayne Veenstra of Harvest OPC, himself a dad of two young children in a church full of children, is guessing that there may be more squirming in the pews when families return to church after weeks of living room worship, as children may have forgotten their hard-won habits.
The line Joel Robbins hears over and over from his congregants and acquaintances is probably one that many of us have said ourselves: “I just can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”
Churches in states that never issued stay-at-home orders are still tasting normal. When states lift stay-at-home orders but keep social distancing, smaller churches will be able to space out congregants and return to corporate worship more quickly. Hardest hit will be larger churches in areas where COVID-19 orders have been most restrictive.
The effects of no corporate worship for months, however, will not be erased even when restrictions lift. “I have a certain level of concern that it’s possible the effect is going to be negative,” Robbins said. “We just so easily get used to things”—things like staying home on Sunday mornings. “I’m hopeful that instead it will be something that fosters a greater delight,” he concluded.
Holst similarly hopes that one of the hidden blessings after this crisis will be that people will realize just how valuable corporate worship is and recommit themselves to a fuller expression of what corporate worship is in the life of the church. But he, too, is concerned.
“When worship isn’t right, a lot of things don’t go right in our lives,” he said. “Corporate worship is the engine for the Christian life.” Not having corporate worship—even if we have something similar—wears and tears at us. With quarantine comes, at the very least, the temptation to be less diligent. “We’ve got time on our hands, and we’ve got to fill it with something. The question is what we fill it with,” Holst observed.
The Onion, a satirical “news” source, recently ran a mock article about a fictional man who discovered that being laid off and socially isolated was surprisingly not the catalyst he needed to meet all of his long-held personal goals. Some of us may similarly discover that more time on our hands does not result in more fervently seeking the Lord or training up our children in righteousness—but rather, perhaps, less. It should be no surprise if staying home on Sunday mornings hurts our repentance and faith.
“I would be surprised if we don’t find out after the fact that a lot of Christians have struggled in their assurance and in their holiness because they’ve not been able to gather for corporate worship.” People who are struggling are often reluctant to ask for help in the moment, “and I get that,” said Holst. But when we can meet together once again, it behooves us to assume that COVID-19 brought difficulty of one sort or another to each one of us.
More positively, when COVID-19 is old news, the unprecedented shutdown may stir our sympathies for those who may long to be in worship but cannot, sometimes for years, due to ill health or imprisonment or other circumstances. “It gives a new view on what it means to be a shut-in,” Holst said. “I’m learning what it’s like to be on the other side of things—what it’s like to be distanced from God’s people on a regular basis.”
For the foreseeable future, Elizabeth Pearce will continue to drive to church for a three-person service on Sunday morning. But she is cheerfully resting, not on what our eyes can see, but on the church’s one foundation.
“Our church, when we have a new member or baptism, circles around and sings, ‘Blest Be the Tie That Binds.’ What unites us and binds us together is just so much more precious and so much more important than this whole difficulty. [Through it] we know more of life and hope and the promises we have from Christ through Scripture, and that is what our world is aching for more than ever.”
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, June 2020.