The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to ask a significant but uncomfortable question. It is a question that has been in the distant background of many discussions about declining church attendance in the West for years, but now it has been brought to the fore as congregations grapple with the continuing effects of the pandemic on worship participation: What are we missing out on when we do not gather for worship?
The question assumes that we are in fact missing out on something when we do not gather. Yet what exactly that something is may not be apparent, especially to many Protestants, who historically have had a hard time explaining exactly why the church and its worship matter.
Several years ago, New Testament scholar Richard Hays observed that there is a clear line of thought about Jesus’s relationship to the church that runs through the beginning, middle, and end of Matthew’s Gospel. In the beginning, Matthew describes Jesus’s arrival as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23). Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, is not merely a human figure but is God in human flesh.
In the middle of his Gospel, Matthew shares Jesus’s teaching on what his disciples are to do if another “member of the church sins against you” (Matt. 18:15). After setting forth a process of reconciliation in the church, Jesus states, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). Matthew 18 is one of two passages in the Gospels where the term we translate “church” (ecclesia) appears. In this passage, Jesus identifies with the church to such an extent that, where the church is gathered, he—God himself—is present.
At the end of his Gospel, Matthew narrates Jesus’s appearance to his disciples on the mountain after his resurrection. The disciples worship him, and then Jesus sends them with the promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The risen Jesus affirms to the disciples worshiping him that he will continue to be present with them.
In the beginning, middle, and end of his Gospel, Matthew presents a high view of Christ and of the church. Christology and ecclesiology fit together: Christ is God with us, and the church is the community in which God continues to make his presence known on earth until the kingdom comes in its fullness. This high view of the church as the community that conveys God’s presence on earth is not a denial of God’s omnipresence, nor is it a claim for the church’s absolute purity. It is simply an affirmation that God has attached himself in a particular way to the people who gather to worship his Son. In the worshiping community, especially in the hearing of the Word and the reception of the Lord’s Supper, God offers himself to his people, sustaining and sanctifying them by his gracious presence.
What we are missing out on when we do not gather for worship, then, is the presence of God. This is not to say God cannot work in and through online worship or that online worship is not a vital tool for ministering to people who cannot come to worship in person. Yet it is to say that online worship is incomplete. Scripture and the great tradition of the church have always affirmed the goodness of material reality. God came to be with us in human flesh, choosing to dwell fully in a human body, located in a particular time and place. Likewise, it is to particular communities gathered in the flesh that God comes again and again by his Spirit. As Augustine said of the church, “We are the place of God” (Tractates on John’s Gospel, 111.3).
If God is present in a unique way in the embodied worship of the church, then it follows that, when we cannot gather together as a whole community, we experience a real loss.
If God is present in a unique way in the embodied worship of the church, then it follows that, when we cannot gather together as a whole community, we experience a real loss. This is something we should acknowledge and grieve. The situation is not unlike Israel in exile—when they lamented the loss of the temple in Jerusalem. “This is my resting-place for ever,” the Lord had said of the Temple. “Here I will reside, for I have desired it” (Psalm 132:14). Israel in exile longed for the day when they could return to Jerusalem and worship the Lord together at a rebuilt temple. Paul, it should be noted, describes the church as God’s temple, for it is the community where the Spirit now dwells (1 Cor. 3:16). Like Israel in exile, then, we lament the disruption of worship and long to gather once again as a whole community, in the presence of the Spirit.
As we live with the pandemic, let us continue to devote attention to improving our online ministries, including online worship. Let us continue to find creative ways to connect with people who are isolated. But let us also be sure to point people to the great, distinctive gift that is the gathered worshiping community, for it is here that Christ has promised to be with us, in a special way, “to the end of the age.”