Search for the word “online” in any Bible version and you’ll get zero results. Search for the word “church”, however, and you’ll quickly realise the Bible has a lot to say about that! And whilst we could have a lively debate about whether you can break bread online, or whether singing on your own at home is worship, let’s focus less on what we do in a church service and more on the way we do it. What does the Bible say about the way believers should do church?
In the book of Acts, Luke gives us a beautiful summary picture of the community God is building. There are three words in this passage that help us understand what makes up a biblical church community: Together. Day by day. Devoted. Exploring the meaning of these words will help us to pursue such community even in the face of pandemic restrictions, fears, and frustrations.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47, emphasis mine).
In the original language of the text, the word translated “together” literally means “in the same place at the same time.” Coupled with the fact that the word “church” in the Bible means “gathering”—an assembly of believers—this helps us to see how integral to church community is the physical gathering. Indeed, the word church is repeated twenty-one times in Acts alone. You get the picture: the early believers physically met together!
In our culture, the geographical spread of families and increase of daily life spent online and on-demand mean our society no longer defaults towards together, same-place and same-time, activities. Attending church used to be an exception to this, but the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have motivated most churches to pursue some degree of online presence.
Indeed, church online has been necessary in the pandemic, but we must beware of it becoming on-demand, at our convenience. We must fight against this and seek as far as possible to do church together, at the same time and in the same place as others. Now for some who are clinically vulnerable (or supporting those who are), it may not be wise to physically gather in person at the height of the pandemic. But Hebrews 10:24-25 warns us:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (emphasis mine).
Where we can, we must commit to meeting with other believers. Whether two, or more, we meet so that we can encourage one another and spur one another on.
Day by Day
In Bible times, meeting day by day was easy because of frequent shared routines. Fetching water from the well or going daily to the market for food (because there were no refrigerators) did not necessarily make life easier or better, but these daily things meant relationships formed quicker and went deeper than they seem to do today.
Day by day living has become harder as the pandemic leads us to increasingly shop online. Delivery services are one of the few industries thriving in the pandemic! With fewer day by day shared routines, we need to find new ways of cultivating day by day friendships within the body of Christ. At the very least, we can commit ourselves to a local church, regularly attending worship services and meeting midweek for prayer or Bible study with others. The depth of our friendships is directly proportional to how much time we spend together. To put it starkly: if we don’t make time we won’t make friends.
Let’s be like John, who craved face to face over the inferior methods of “pen and ink” (3 John 13-14), or Paul, who said in Romans 1:11, “I long to see you.” Why do Paul and John want to meet with the church physically? Is it because they didn’t have Zoom? Perhaps, but I suspect it is because, however sophisticated your means of communication, physical distance inevitably creates some degree of relational distance. Paul longs to see the other believers. Longs to be able to meet with them day by day. If we don’t long for this, too, let’s confess that to God and ask that he would help us see how much we need one another day by day.
I love this word because it speaks of giving yourself completely to something, spending time, giving attention. It also carries undertones of loyalty, love, and passion.
It’s hard in our culture to be devoted to anything. Now that it’s possible for many to work whenever and wherever it suits us, it’s hard to be fully present anywhere. We always have one eye on our notifications, one earphone in. So, it is harder to be devoted because we are constantly bombarded by our connections to other times and places.
What does the Bible say about church online? Church is not about passive, on-demand consumption. Our Lord was so devoted to the church that he made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, humbling himself even to death on a cross to save us (Phil. 2:7-9). How could our response be anything less than complete devotion to him? This includes devotion to his church.
There is a struggle with our flesh in order to make this sacrifice: saying no to our comfort and yes to God. But as we express our devotion by setting the alarm, getting out the door, struggling for a parking space, masking up and showing up, we will find great blessing in the physical gathering with other believers. Luke 2:47 reminds us of the rewards of making in-person church a priority: glad and sincere hearts, the praising of God, and the enjoyment of all the people.
Though we grieve many painful losses and difficult changes caused by COVID-19, we can praise Jesus Christ for continuing to build his church. Online worship services may be one of the means by which he is doing so. But let’s also look to Christ to renew our longing for the day when we all meet face to face again, a flourishing community overflowing with gladness, sincerity, and praise.