Virtual Church?

Virtual Church?

Everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer

Isaiah 56:6-7

Dear church,

I am delighted to share with you that with the updated guidelines, we can now have up to 200 people in the outdoor service on Sunday evenings. Indoor limit of 100 remains unchanged for us. If you want to come and if the signup is full, please email and one of the deacons will be in touch with you. At times there are no-shows, so they should be able to let you in if there are vacant spots.

We encourage you to “Come and Worship” just as our website splash page says. I mean it! Unless you have legitimate health reasons to not be in public gatherings, I encourage you to gradually re-incorporate in-person Lord’s Day congregational worship – morning, evening or both, into your weekly liturgy. The outdoor evening services have been really sweet, and the Lord has given us favorable weather every time. Speaking for myself and my family, we have really enjoyed being in worship together with God’s people morning and evening on the Lord’s Day (e.g. Ps. 92:2, Ps. 113:3).

When it comes to the virus, let’s be wise but let’s not be fearful. Take meaningful precautions but don’t become prey to anxiety or paranoia. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs on your heard are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-30). Let the fear of the virus be replaced with a holy fear of the Lord – which is true wisdom. The spiritual viruses that are making rounds are no less deadly.

Most pastors, myself included, are growing in their concern for their flocks that have become remote, virtual and likely lacking spiritual vigor and vitality. For many of us, if we are honest, unhealthy patterns and habits have become a new normal, especially with a lowered guard against digital technology and media buzz. The pseudo-freedom of aloneness may seem more comfortable than the grace of communion – with the Lord in worship and with one another in fellowship, which is all the more needed in a testing time such as this. Satan’s preference is to isolate you. This is a spiritual battle. You will also have to fight your own instincts to re-enter into worship and fellowship and regain spiritual health. May the Lord give you the grace and faith you need to do so. Amen.

As a young pastor, I am coming to realize that the Lord’s Day worship is the fountainhead of the spiritual life of the church. Our Immanuel, the Lord Jesus, says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Psalm 22 prophesies the details of the crucifixion of the Messiah who was pierced in a “company” of evildoers who “encircled” him, mockers “surrounded” and “encompassed” him. Sounds like a vile kind of gathered worship. Indeed, this was Gentiles executing a long-foretold sacrifice of the Lamb of God. That very psalm speaks of worship in this way: “Yet you are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel” (v. 3), “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22), “all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (v. 27) and “they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (v. 31).

God of the Bible is the only omnipresent God. Yet, in the gathered worship of the church he is manifestly present, enthroned, high and lifted up, poured upon his people, his presence palpably experienced, his being unmistakably revealed, his voice powerfully heard, and his face gloriously shown – in the praises, prayers and shouts of his people, in the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of gladness and joy, in the reading and proclamation of his word and in the ministering of the sacraments he comes even to be tasted (Ps. 34:8)! And it is only by the Father’s grace and loving condescension to his children, on account of the shed blood of Jesus Christ the Son, that the Holy Spirit proceeds forth to fill the congregation of the saints with God’s presence even as the cloud and fire and the glory of the Lord filled the top of Mount Sinai, the tabernacle of Moses in the wilderness, the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and the Jewish diaspora on the day of Pentecost.

But such a high and elevated understanding of the church and her worship is mostly lost on our Evangelical church. I am myself a newcomer to this. The Reformation did well to teach us that Christless Christianity is dead. But it is time for us to realize that churchless and worship-less Christianity is comatose. Somehow, we have come to accept that the church is a loosely defined reality in the New Testament. Nothing can be farther from the truth. While the New Testament gives large measures of cultural and linguistic freedoms to the church that is now comprised of every nation, tribe and tongue – it is quite clear in what the church is theologically – having members (1 Cor. 12:12), elders and gifted leaders (Eph. 5:11-12), preaching and teaching of the word (1 Tim. 5:17, 2 Tim. 4:2), administration of sacraments (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and church discipline (Mt. 18:17), etc. The church is commanded to come together regularly (Heb. 10:25). Five times Paul uses the words “when you come together” in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 – the section on the Lord’s Supper – which made it clear to our session that unless we come together physically there is no communion with the Lord.

But what happens to worship and discipleship in a disembodied, displaced and a digitalized world? Can a virtual church be a virtuous church? Can true worship and effective discipleship be divorced from gathered fellowship? Do our physical bodies have to be in a physical place at a physical time for us to worship God? If we are worshipping physical idols (like Hindus) – the answer to this last question would be an absolute yes. Even religions that forbid idols (like Islam) require assembling in houses of worship and making pilgrimages to sacred sites. But what about us, Christians, who are called to worship “in spirit and in truth”?

What is curiously missing is in the New Testament concerning the church is an emphasis on a place. We are accustomed to calling a place or building a church. Though that usage is absent in the New Testament, yet, what we find is that local churches are grounded and located in a certain place – church in Rome (Rom. 1:7), church in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:1), churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), etc. Paul, per the book of Acts, plants churches (i.e. raises up a body of believers) and appoints elders among them in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (Acts 14:23). We are officially called “Covenant Presbyterian Church of Issaquah” and our denomination is called “Presbyterian Church in America.

My best understanding so far of the relationship of the building we call “church” to the people called “church” in Scripture is analogous to that of a home. Home = Family + House. House is important, but it is secondary. Yet it is not unimportant. House is the place where the family is planted, nourished, cared for and protected. When the Samaritan woman sensed that Jesus must be a Jewish prophet, she asked, in effect, “Where is the place we ought to worship? At Mt. Gerizim like our Samaritan ancestors or at Mt. Zion as the Jews insist?” Jesus gives an answer which we often (mis)take to mean, “wherever the wi-fi works best.”

To the amazement of any Jew or Gentile, Jesus replies, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Jesus was helping the Samaritan woman lift her eyes above the mountains, above territorial worship wars, up to a God who is spirit, a God who transcends geographical, political and ethnic boundaries. What he requires of his worshippers has less to do with their physical location and tribal customs but more to do with the posture of their heart (spirit) and their knowledge of the eternal God (truth).

This does not mean that the place is not important. John tells us that the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) “had to pass through Samaria” and was sitting beside Jacob’s well at noon (John 4:3-6) when this woman came to draw water. The eternal Son of God was found in flesh and blood at a certain place on a certain time to reveal himself to this woman as the Messiah, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26).

Jesus Christ, by whom the whole world was made, confined himself to be born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, do ministry in Galilee and was crucified outside Jerusalem. He became a walking temple (John 2:19). Why? So that the we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon us and be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). God in Christ is spreading his church to the uttermost corners of this world. Not so that we may be isolated individuals staring at screens in our dens. Since “there is one body and one Spirit – just as we were called to the one hope that belongs to our call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The church becomes a scattered worldwide temple, gathered in every city as a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).

Until the New Jerusalem comes, this is what God is up to: not to displace his church, but to fill the earth with his glory through the church: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). That’s my long-winded way of saying: Come and Worship (Mt. 11:28). Go and Witness (Mt. 28:19).

In his grace,

Pastor Shiv