As lockdown eases, many churches are preparing to open their doors. But after more than a year of Zoom, many Christians wonder if regular Sunday worship is worth the effort
If we can consume the word and worship from the comfort of our home, why do we need to make the trek back to our pews? It’s a fair question, and one many parishioners are facing for the first time.
For all its downsides, the pandemic gave Christians back their Sundays. And it is certainly hard to give up all the free time we got back. After a year of lockdown, what are the spiritual benefits of emerging from our bubbles?
To address this, we must first address the nature of the Christian life. Many of us have been raised to see the Christian life as primarily about our “personal relationship” with Jesus. The fact that we gathered for worship seems to have been a happy accident. Many of our worship experiences could have done without those who shared our pews. We showed up to commune with God, our focus was vertical, and often the horizontal seemed to get in the way.
However, this individualist Western perspective is unfamiliar to the writers of the scriptures. Jesus’ redemptive project is first and foremost a communal project. In himself, Jesus is forging a new humanity and bringing about a redeemed creation. The church is a microcosm of this project. In it, individuals are bound together by blood and baptism and endeavor to live out Christ’s new creation mandate. This means that our individual experiences need to be rooted within this communal project. Here are three reasons why I believe Christians should make the effort to attend phyiscal services:
1. Corproate worship forces us to de-centre ourselves
In our Western capitalist system, we are trained to think like consumers. All around us, companies cater to our likes and dislikes. Algorithms curate content to suit our political persuasions, and as a result, we look at life through the lens of what is best for us.
Our society deludes itself into believing that life is fundamentally about ourselves by putting the consumer in the enter of the universe. We approach church like consumers and make the entire experience about what we like and dislike - lockdown has exacerbated this reality. If the sermon is dull or the worship not to our liking, we no longer have to the hard work of leaving a church. Instead, all we have to do is go to YouTube to find an experience that satisfies us.
This is why we need to regather for worship. Worshipping together in a gathered community forces us to decenter ourselves. CS Lewis famously wrote:
“When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; … I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realised that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realise that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
His point is a powerful one. Solitude produces conceit. It reinforces the lie that life is all about our preferences. When we sing along to sixth-rate music alongside people we probably disagree with, we are forced to grapple with the complexities of what it means to live with others at the center. By gathering, we put aside our preferences and participate despite our desires. We stop being consumers. We learn to appreciate that which we often disregard. Corporate worship trains us to ask what is best for others before considering what is best for us.
2. Corporate worship dismantles the false-self
Church via Zoom often felt like Plato’s cave. It was a thin representation of the real thing. We watched shadows dancing on the wall and, over time, began to mistake them for the real thing. But this is also true of the people we became during the lockdown. Isolation and the constant pressure to curate our existence turned us into shadows of our former selves. Our capacity to be real, bare our souls, and be open and honest was limited due to the lack of personal connection. It’s easier to fake it online.
Christians have always struggled with the false self. We cultivate a false self to meet the demands of Instagram and the self we use to rebuff inquiring church elders. This isn’t a new issue, but after spending a year dislocated from our communities, it has become easier to lean into our false selves.
The best thing about the gathering is that we can’t escape the questions. While we can quietly log out of a Zoom call, it is a lot harder to sneak out the church’s back door. The questions asked by our brothers and sisters are an invitation to renounce the false self we have created and embrace the reality of our own brokenness and need for help. It is time for us to turn off the backgrounds and come from behind our screens. It’s time to get into the presence of real people and learn to be honest with them.
3. Corporate worship reminds us of the interconnectedness of human life
Before his death, Jesus prayed that we would be one.
This prayer is not just about unity in doctrinal matters or ecclesial structure. It is a call to realise our interdependency. However, individualism convinces us that life can be lived without the help of others and trauma teaches us to subsist on our own. The corporate gathering challenges both the lie of individualism and the impact of trauma. It emphasises our need for each other.
This past year forced many of us to go it on our own. We were cut off. But this is not the ideal. We are intertwined, complexity knit together to make a composite whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Gathering reminds us that no man is an island. In Christ, we are bound together, and in Christ, we discover that we need each other. This is the power of the Christian witness.
Karl Barth writes, “On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father.”
We all find our common ground in our relationship to Christ, and Christ teaches us that no matter how different or divided we look, we are at our core brothers and sisters. He invites us to be a new family and to live like a new family. This means we have things to teach one another and that we can potentially answer one another’s prayers. Any form of Christianity, isolated from the body, cuts itself off from the benefits of the body. Our interconnectedness is a witness to a divided and broken world. We stand as an example of new creation. When we gather together before the Lord’s table, we declare that the boundary lines between us are broken and that we cannot exist without one another.
As cities reopen and churches follow suit, I encourage you to get back to the pew. Hopefully, a year disconnected from one another demonstrates how much we needed each other all along. To gather is to be the people of God. We are the ekklesia, the gathering, and we need this gathering now more than ever.