It felt like taking a breath after holding your head underwater for a really long time. Or wiggling your arm after it’s been entombed in a cast for months. Finally, you can scratch again.
That was how it felt to worship together again at my local church.
I’m not prone to hyperbole about the wonders of church attendance. Honestly, some of the least relatable verses of scripture are, for me, the psalms that talk about entering “his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4). Typically, I enter his gates embroiled in a wrestling match with a thrashing toddler. Or what about those that proclaim “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10)? Sometimes, I wonder if the psalmist got the ratio the wrong way round.
But I can’t deny the enormous spiritual impact of coming back to this ancient tradition of sitting in an ordinary room, with a handful of ordinary people, hopeful for an encounter with something – or someone – who is utterly, supernaturally extraordinary.
Digital gatherings were (and are) great for some. But, for me, they miss the inexplicable ‘something extra’. Seated on my sofa with the world’s most talented worship leaders and preachers just a remote click away actually felt a little hollow compared to being seated in the pews, witnessing what looks like, to the world, pretty average ‘performances’.
The Christian faith has always been about an embodied, tangible approach to the divine. It’s about grabbing hunks of bread and taking gulps of syrupy wine, being plunged into a body of water and dragged back up again, coughing and spluttering and grinning like a maniac. It’s about a God who himself recognised the inadequacy of meeting us remotely and, in Jesus, took on human flesh – who barbecued smelly, salty fish to eat with his friends on the beach and let them poke their probing, doubting fingers into his wounds.
You may be wondering about the timing of this message. Surely, by now the faithful have all found their way back to their usual seats, hymnals in hand? But my experience has been that, while the virus put a pause on gathering, the vaccine has not yet coaxed us all back again.
The last few years have exposed deep cracks in the foundations of evangelicalism. Scandals were (and are) abundant. Typically, loud pockets of the Church have been deafeningly silent on matters of social justice or have vociferously denied any problem in their ranks. The Bible has been regularly wielded as a political weapon.
Understandably, then, many of my peers are not in a rush to get back to church as it was before, and I can definitely sympathise. But I don’t want our justifiable issues with Christianity to keep us away from the presence of Christ. Because it is a beautiful, rich and soul-satisfying thing to join as a congregation in worship. I know, because I literally just experienced it.
Don’t give up meeting together. Because “where two or three gather in my name, there am I [Jesus] with them” (Matthew 18:20). And that’s too good a promise to let go to waste.