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What I’ve missed while not gathering with my local church (Part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series

"What's missing in virtual church"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Throughout my life, I have very rarely missed church services. Because of our governor’s “Stay-at-Home” order, this season has been one of the most prolonged periods I have ever spent without attending local church services.

Here’s my hot take on the situation: not being in church really stinks.

For several reasons, our church has opted not to hold “live streaming” or “video” services online. Instead, I have tried to keep our church together by sending a common service order (including hymns, scripture readings, and prayer requests) for private and family worship, along with a link to a previously recorded sermon. That’s what we’ve tried to do, for better or worse.

Before I begin, let me make something clear. While I don’t believe that virtual church or live streaming church is corporate worship or a viable substitute for corporate worship, I think it is good to “make due” when you cannot gather with your local church. This is true, not only during a time of pandemic where our government authorities are restricting large gatherings, but whenever a believer is unable to attend corporate worship. It’s like we’re all deployed in the military right now.

So do not misunderstand me. I believe that private worship (which is a most helpful category to describe what believers are doing in their homes when they cannot gather with their local church) is a necessary activity for all believers. Furthermore, I not only believe that private worship is necessary, I believe it results in great spiritual benefits through the grace of the Holy Spirit. But there are some spiritual benefits that come only through the corporate-ness of the gathering of the local church.

No matter what your church is doing to bridge the gap, it’s not the same. Here are some reasons why (more to come in subsequent weeks):

1. Life is better in person. I’d rather see my wife in person than by video. I’d rather see my friends in person than over Hangouts or Duo. I’d rather see the performance of Sibelius’s violin concerto in person than listen to a recording. When face-to-face experiences are impossible, I am thankful for the technology that bridges the gap–whether correspondence or phone calls or video calls. But life is better in person. This fact should not surprise us, for the Word of God itself attests to this: Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 Jn. 1:12 ESV)

2. Our church gatherings best facilitate interaction with the body of Christ quantitatively. Yes, I can reach out to members of my church by email or a phone call or text when we are unable to gather. But when the church gathers together, I can interact with many of them easily and naturally. I don’t have to have long conversations with everyone, but I can communicate with more of my brothers and sisters when we’re all gathered together. I can be there better for them when we’re all together. Sometimes a week goes by, and I don’t get a chance to interact with everyone, even though the church I pastor is relatively small. Yet one thing is for certain: my interactions with the members are quantitatively better at our regular meetings.

3. Our church gatherings best facilitate interaction with the body of Christ qualitatively. That is to say, not only do we have more interactions with the whole body of Christ when we’re regularly meeting, the substance of those interactions is superior. I acknowledge that this is not always true. There are times where a shared meal or office visit or even phone call results in a deeper, more fruitful conversation than you have at church. Yet, when you take the average quality of interactions, church gatherings facilitate quality over time. Phone calls can allow for lengthy conversations, but the face-to-face conversations we share are just better. You make eye contact, read one another’s body language, and interpret social cues better. It’s like being part of a family who regularly has family reunions, but better. I’ve missed our gatherings for this reason too.

In short, the absence of our gatherings has made it very difficult to fulfill the one another commands as well as we should.

Those are my first three reasons. More reasons will be posted later.

For all these reasons, you might counter that they are not insurmountable, and that they all can be overcome with technology and hard work. That’s really my point. It’s difficult enough to be the church member we should be in person. Add to that the roadblocks of separation and distance, and the hurdles become even taller when we have to use technology to leap over them.

What do you miss about the weekly gathering?


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About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).