A four-year-old boy in my church said to me the other day: “When the virus is over, we’ll all meet again for church like normal.” He perfectly expressed the deep longing I’ve been wrestling with over the past few months. I have wanted so much to get back to ‘normal’ – to meet together, sing together, hear the Bible taught together.
As a church worship director, I’ve felt a profound sense of loss and dissatisfaction as we’ve taken church online. Sure, I’ve been blessed by seeing so many people’s faces, by singing along, joining in with reciting the liturgy and listening to the scripture and sermon, but it’s not the ‘real stuff’ of gathered worship.
It is hard to understand why God would take gathered worship away from his church at this time – why this could possibly be a good thing. But perhaps one thing the Lord is doing is pointing us to something better. As we long for the ‘real thing’ on Sundays, maybe God is showing us we should feel that longing all the time.
In short, online church points us to heaven. Not because heaven is a disembodied existence of never-ending Zoom calls (please God, no!), but because online church is to ‘normal’ church as ‘normal’ church is to the heavenly gathering.
When I lead singing at our church in London on a normal Sunday, I look out and see people’s faces and hear people’s voices. People of different ages, ethnicities, nationalities, social backgrounds, singing abilities, people I love and who love me, all joining together in one song. Unity in diversity. It’s a picture of the gospel as God brings different people together to worship him. Now during lockdown I look down a camera lens to pre-record the music.
I love joining with my united and diverse community as we humble ourselves before God and confess our sin to him, come to him in prayer, and declare our faith through the creed. But now we watch on a screen and only hear our own voices with the leader.
Christianity is a relational religion. The Christian God is unique as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a Holy Communion of love. Jesus Christ instituted a meal as one of the main things that would mark his people when they meet. He said: “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” And Christian worship is relational too.
Going back to church
It’s also embodied. During the early weeks of lockdown, I visited our church building a few times to pick up some things I needed for creating online worship. I noticed that our 18th century Georgian church has a distinct, familiar smell. I can’t describe it exactly, but it smells of church – some combination of old wood and stone.
I sang a little bit while I was there – and the building sang back to me with its glorious acoustic. Nothing of course compared to how the building sings back when it’s full of people singing to God in worship.
I sat on a pew. The creak as I put my weight on it, and then the discomfort of the hard wood against my back. I miss that.
The sight of the stained glass, the pulpit, the communion table. I remembered the taste of communion bread and wine.
There’s nothing all that special about our church building. London has many churches that are much older and grander, but going back reminded me what we’re missing.
Christian worship is embodied because Christianity is embodied. God became a man. Jesus physically rose from the dead. He gave us visible and physical signs to experience his grace – Holy Communion and Baptism. He calls us to worship him, not just with our brains or our emotions but with every part of us.
In lockdown we don’t physically arrive at church – so we don’t get that experience of gathering. We don’t share Holy Communion in the same way, if at all. We do a sending out (of sorts) at the conclusion of our virtual services, but we don’t actually go out anywhere afterwards.
Sunday trains us to worship God in all of life – in this embodied, relational way. It makes us more human and it gets us ready for a glorious future when Jesus Christ returns to make all things new. When we feel the loss of Sunday worship, it gives us a longing for something better. Something like this:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
Just as virtual worship pales in comparison to our ‘normal’ Sunday services, our familiar gathered worship in church is only a picture of where we’re going – of that pure, fervent and eternal gathering of all God’s people now in heaven and continuing forever. Perfectly embodied, perfectly relational, perfectly God-focused and true. Every time we meet on Sundays, whether online or in person, we long for the real thing.
Jonathan Saunders is corporate worship director at Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell, a Redeemer City to City affiliated church plant in London. He writes liturgy and music and is passionate about crafting church services that enable all types of people to worship God.
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