It's Just Not the Same!
This Friday was our sixth online church service. It seems longer doesn’t it? I’m not just saying this to sound nice, but I really am looking forward to gathering together again as a church. My prayer from the very beginning has been that the Lord would help us as a church to love the corporate gatherings more. He has certainly answered that prayer in my own family’s life. I’m grateful for the technology and the expertise that the Lord has provided, to enable us to worship online on Fridays, but it’s just not the same!
I guess it’s true what they say, you don’t know what you have until it is gone.
John MacArthur once said “Worship on the Lord’s Day should be the crowning joy of our week. It’s our opportunity to engage our minds toward God. To enjoy His people. To bask in His presence. To corporately drink from His word. To give our talents and resources. To encourage and to be encouraged. To offer praise.”
The Lord’s day, for the last six weeks, has not felt like the crowning joy of my week, like it used too. Even though we have been using various forms of technology to encourage one another during this unusual season while the church is scattered, our situation has not changed, we are still scattered.
We have been live-streaming “services”, hosting virtual Bible studies and prayer meetings on Zoom. We have tried encouraging one another over whatsapp and even the cellphone. Last week, we have even put a virtual choir together. But our situation has not changed, we are still scattered because of this Coronavirus.
Gathering isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s part of what a church is. A meeting is, in part, what a church is. God has saved us as individuals to be a corporate assembly. The word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for “assembly,” ekklesia, is the same word the New Testament writers use to refer to the local church. It’s simply the term for a gathering. But when applied to the church, it carries the rich Old Testament connotations of standing together as God’s chosen people.
We are mourning the loss of the “great means of grace” which we normally enjoy every Friday here in the UAE. When theologians refer to means of grace, they are usually speaking about the ways God has provided by which we can regularly have our faith in His promises fortified. These ‘ways’ include prayer, preaching, Holy Communion and Baptism. These are known as the ordinary or common means of grace.
They are not ordinary in the sense of average, these common means of grace are used to do an uncommon work — the confirmation of our trust in Jesus and the strengthening of our wills to flee from sin and rest in Christ alone.
For the last six weeks we have not had any baptism’s or the more regular Lord’s Supper. Although some churches have tried to do this virtually, the scriptures tell us that the physical act of gathering is essential to this ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time. Click on this link for a further detailed explanation.
The “great” means of grace is the church God uses as a means of communicating His grace for our salvation and sanctification. Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology said that; "The Church may be represented as the great means of grace which Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, uses for the gathering of the elect, the edification of the saints, and the building up of His spiritual body."
The church itself is a means of grace not because it grants salvation apart from faith but because it is the God-ordained means his Spirit uses to proclaim the saving gospel, to illustrate the gospel, and to confirm the gospel. Right now amid much other loss and suffering, Christians around the world are suffering the loss of weekly, face-to-face fellowship with one another. All suffering involves loss. I hope that you, like me, have been feeling this loss.
We are trying to do everything we can to encourage and to be encouraged. We are trying to do everything we can to offer praise to our Lord and drink from His word through our online church services...but it is not the same! We can’t virtually replicate the church and we cannot help but suffer the loss of not being able to assemble regularly, as the author of Hebrews exhorts us too.
But this loss is not in vain. It should not be in vain. We need to remember that the Lord is sovereign, and in his providence, has allowed this pandemic for a reason. Maybe one of those reasons is to teach us through the temporary loss of these embodied, tangible, necessarily face-to-face means of grace, just how important and necessary the “great” means of grace – his church is.
One of my fears, after this lockdown is all over and done, is that many professing Christians are going to have become comfortable with the inferior substitute of these online services and argue that they don’t need to go to a building to “do” church, that they can simply watch a live-stream church service instead. Brothers and sisters let’s resist this temptation and ask the Lord instead, to help us to come out of lockdown with a greater appreciation to gather with one another as a local church. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Let us not waste these lessons the Lord is teaching us as a church! Let us long for that day when we will be able to gather to sing God’s praise together, to pray together, to read God’s word together, to listen and to learn together, to break bread together, to baptise, to bring in new members together, and to share together what God has taught us in these days.
The house of feasting—together, on Christ —is closed for now. But when these doors open, may our hearts resonate with the psalmist: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD’” (Psalm 122:1).