Articles

Corporate Worship Is Essential … to the Church

05/21/20

Stan Guthrie

As governments have divided the world into “essential” and “non-essential” sectors, some churches and pastors have struggled to point out that corporate Sunday worship falls into the former category and not the latter. Perhaps they should use the same energy to make this point to their congregations.

Reports of congregations defying stay-at-home orders across the 50 states are newsworthy because they are relatively rare. Frequently we see stories of cranky, out-of-the-mainstream pastors who insist on their First Amendment rights. A growing feature of the genre is the church that opened “too soon,” experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, and had to close again.

As well, many Christians say they are doing just fine without corporate worship. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of U.S. adults report that their faith has strengthened because of the pandemic, while just 2 percent say their faith has weakened—“even as the vast majority of U.S. churchgoers report that their congregations have closed regular worship services to the public.”

How is it that as corporate worship goes down, personal faith goes up? Certainly we cannot overlook God’s grace. In Communist China, explosive church growth happened despite—or perhaps because of—persistent persecution and control of Christian worship. Let’s keep in mind that such grace occurred among a people who were prepared to pay any price to participate in gathered worship. Are we?

While I agree that gathered worship presents undeniable risks, I have heard precious few Christians in America protest the draconian restrictions on churches today—even as liquor stores and Costcos continue unabated. This is not an argument to ignore the public health. (I’m all for masks inside or in close quarters, social distancing, thermometers, etc.) It’s a plea to be concerned about our spiritual health, too. Many Christian leaders, in their necessary zeal to protect the vulnerable, seem to have forgotten the balance.


While I agree that gathered worship presents undeniable risks, I have heard precious few Christians in America protest the draconian restrictions on churches today—even as liquor stores and Costcos continue unabated.


I’m beginning to suspect that, in contrast to our Roman Catholic friends, a lot of us Protestants have a pretty low view of corporate worship (as something that’s optional and nice to have, but certainly not essential to our faith). While we may say Roman Catholics miss the mark in their dogmas about transubstantiation and the Mass as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” their resulting zeal for gathered worship can put us to shame. Some in our ranks (though certainly not all) seem perfectly fine with online church and are in no hurry to return to the pews.

On one level, this is perfectly reasonable, as we’re grappling with a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of our neighbors and friends, and Christian charity demands that we care about our neighbors’ safety. And there’s no doubt our adapting nimbly and creatively to this new reality now will likely pay unforeseen dividends in years to come. However, online worship isn’t a viable long-term strategy for healthy churches. It’s our least-bad option right now.

But on another level, it’s a little unnerving to see so many of us shrug our shoulders at losing something that previous generations saw as worth dying for. We moderns need a better ecclesiology.

Is a church service just something we can watch on a screen, like a TV show or a YouTube video, which we can consume and then discard without further thought? Or is it a holy gathering in which the Lord uniquely comes to His people (and us to one another)?

In the New Testament, “church” is the English translation of the Greek word ecclesia, or “assembly.” According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the meaning depends on the context. Ecclesia can mean an assembly, the whole body of the redeemed (including the “invisible catholic church”), a few Christians observing the ordinances, all the Christians in a city, and all professing Christians in the world. Christianity was never meant to be an individualized faith.

Clearly, the ideal is for Christians to gather when possible to worship their Lord and Savior, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). It’s hard to see all those “one another” passages as anything but a call to community.

Calvin and the Reformers believed the proper worship of God is essential. “Calvin put worship ahead of salvation in his list of the two most important elements of biblical Christianity,” scholar W. Robert Godfrey stated. “In the Institutes Calvin noted that the first four commandments of the Ten Commandments relate to worship. He concluded: ‘Surely the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God.’ In his celebrated defense of the Reformation, ‘Reply to Sadoleto,’ Calvin noted that ‘…there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.’”


My plea is that Christians do all we can to return to corporate worship as soon as we can. We can do it in relative—not absolute—safety. Yes, we’re still learning. And, yes, as careful as we are, there will be casualties. But there will be casualties if we don’t—spiritual casualties.


So if we must stay home (assuming such government orders are reasonable, based on science, temporary, and not discriminatory), shouldn’t it hurt us? At least a little? And if we’re not aching to return to church, something’s wrong. Is it any wonder that our friends and family feel the same way?

In this season of COVID-19, I’m not arguing that Christians should blindly throw caution to the wind, assert our constitutional rights, and selfishly put our neighbors at risk—far from it! But there is a balance between looking out for the good of others and comfortably relying on worship via Zoom for months on end until we discover a vaccine, or until another government decree gives us the “all-clear” signal.

My plea is that Christians do all we can to return to corporate worship as soon as we can. We can do it in relative—not absolute—safety. Yes, we’re still learning. And, yes, as careful as we are, there will be casualties. But there will be casualties if we don’t—spiritual casualties.

After all, going to church is essential.

Stan Guthrie’s latest book is Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.

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