New Horizons

The Physicality of the Church

John W. Mahaffy

The congregation I serve in Newberg, Oregon, loves to gather for worship. Yet, for the past month, as I write, we have not, both because corporate worship would put others in danger of contracting COVID-19 and because of restrictions on any gatherings.

Since we cannot meet physically, we, like many churches, have moved to livestreaming. We cannot not worship. We will not stop worshiping. But we have changed how we gather for worship.

That has been a learning curve for me. Arrangements are jury-rigged. The camera stand is a folding chair set on a table. The borrowed laptop is connected to an ethernet cable unrolled across the lawn. It’s makeshift, but it works. Following the livestreamed service, we open a Zoom session for informal fellowship.

As I worked to arrange the livestreaming of services to be held in a building empty except for my wife, the pianist, I was struck again by the physicality of the church. We are believers who actually meet together. We greet one another. We raise our voices together in praise. We do something very countercultural: we sit in the same room and listen to the reading and preaching of the Word. We eat physical bread and drink the fruit of the vine as the Lord feeds us from his heavenly meal, anticipating the banquet in the new heavens and the new earth. These livestreamed services are so different. The members of the flock are in their own homes. Yes, we sing, but we cannot hear one another.

Our congregation normally celebrates the Lord’s Supper at each Lord’s Day morning worship service. Several members have told me how much they miss the breaking of bread together. We are being reminded of how important these elements of worship are.

Despite the frustration of what we cannot do, Sunday worship is not a disappointment for me. I soon realized that I was not preaching to an empty church building. Rather, I was preaching to and leading in worship the body of Christ, scattered to their homes because of a pandemic, but still united before the throne of grace. I remembered again the truth of Hebrews 12, that whenever the church gathers in worship, it is not simply the many or few believers at a particular time and place, but a glorious assembly that includes the saints and angels in heaven—and our Lord himself present with us.

Our present circumstances detract from the physicality of worship. We dare not allow the separation triggered by the pandemic to normalize absence from gathering for public worship. Beware, lest the wonders of technology lure us into replacing meeting together with virtual church.

The constraints of our present worship situation remind us that even the best of our earthly worship is marred by our sin and imperfections. If there ever were a “perfect” worship service in which the preacher never stumbled over his words, in which the pianist never missed a note, and in which everyone in the congregation sang on key—even that service would need the intercessory work of our ascended Savior, because even the best we offer is tainted by our sin. Is our livestreamed worship service less than perfect? Absolutely! But our Mediator still presents it to the Father as an acceptable offering. Even so, we look forward eagerly to the time when we assemble together physically once again.

The author is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Newberg, Oregon. New Horizons, June 2020.

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