Back once again in the valley of decision: Online or onsite?
Back in February, we published an article, COVID-19 and the valley of decision: The unbearable pressure your Senior Pastor is under, in which we detailed the thought process a church leader faced when deciding whether or not to keep services going, until the Government helped make that decision for all of us by calling for the circuit breaker in April.
Back then, we described the Senior Pastor’s decision as being potentially life or death:
“Dear Christian, these are tough times for you, because you worry about your life as the threat of illness looms. How much more so is that pressure for the Senior Pastor, when the lives of many rest in the decisions he or she will make.”
Now it is your turn.
You now have to make a life-or-death decision, just that the only life at stake is your own.
Risk it all by stepping out the door on Sunday morning and heading to church, knowing there are still new coronavirus cases in the community reported daily?
Or stave off death by bunkering up in your bedroom and flipping on the online live-stream, as we’ve all become so accustomed to?
Many churches have opened their doors since the Government first allowed services to resume with 50 members in attendance in July.
From October 3, with new coronavirus cases remaining low for a few weeks, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has announced that up to 100 members will be allowed in religious services.
Live worship singing – with up to two unmasked singers – will also be piloted in a few churches from this weekend.
Finally, we are the Church with open doors again. But will you enter its gates with thanksgiving in your hearts?
Anecdotally… not really. Most church leaders we’ve spoken to have confided that it can take a few weeks before even the reduced service of 50 seats are all filled up. It’s discouraging, they confide.
Back in June/July, a survey jointly conducted by Thir.st and Salt&Light saw less than half (45.6%) of the respondents say they would attend physical services as soon as they resume.
There are many valid, unarguable reasons not to come back to church.
For example, those from more vulnerable groups – pregnant women, elderly, those with certain pre-existing health conditions – who the authorities recommend not to go out unless absolutely necessary. Or parents with young children who can’t attend until Sunday School resumes, too.
Some churches are just so large that there is no reasonable way to reopen without disappointing the large majority of members. Or the building isn’t suitable for restarting under the current guidelines.
For those in such categories, there is no valley of decision – it’s quite clear. Submit to the authorities, show more grace to those in greater need, and sit it out until circumstances permit.
But there exists another growing school of thought among able-bodied, perfectly mobile Christians. The thought process goes something like this:
- Online service is so good! I worship just as well, and I’m learning from the sermon. I even tithe online! I’m not missing out on anything.
- Also, this is a great chance to evangelise! I can share the online sermons to my pre-believing friends!
- And hey, I’m still part of Christian community. We talk all the time – over Zoom and WhatsApp.
- Besides, I’m a digital native. I’d rather not take up a seat meant for an older Christian who can’t access YouTube.
- Anyway, in the New Testament, the Church really flourished when they were dispersed! They didn’t have “worship services”, just house church, and they did fine. We’re really going back to the roots of the Early Acts Church.
Here’s a line-by-line response to the points above:
- Yes, but you can do all of that onsite, too. Should convenience be our key decision-making factor here? And, if you’re in such a spiritually good place, then maybe you should consider how we gather not merely for your encouragement, but so we can encourage others (Hebrews 10:24-25).
- Yes, but you can go onsite, then share the online link thereafter. Best of both worlds! Why spurn the onsite option?
- Yes, but when you connect onsite, you have the added dimension of true human physical proximity (with a bit of safe distancing buffer). Why reject that?
- Yes, but did you actually check the take-up rate for your church before you turned a seat down? Chances are, there are still spaces, from what we’ve been hearing from many churches.
- We can’t keep the response to Point 5, on intentionally mirroring the Early Acts Church in its dispersed model, to a single line. So here’s a summary of 7 of the main Scriptural principles at play here:
Did the growth of the Early Acts Church suggest we should likewise spurn large church gatherings?
- The physical gathering of the people of God always took place where possible. Often in as large a body as possible. This was true in Testaments Old and New, from the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:12) to the Judges (Judges 20:2) to Solomon (1 Kings 8:14) to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 9:1) to the Disciples (Acts 5:12). And this will continue even in the future, in the end-times (Matthew 24:31, Revelation 7:9).
- They only stopped physically gathering when it was not possible, not when it was not optimal (Acts 8:1-3). And even amid the persecution, still they gathered in large numbers (Acts 8:4-6)! So as long as it was possible, the people met. The motivation for meeting was never intrinsic – for personal comfort, at personal convenience. It was always extrinsic – because God desired it, because the king/priest called for it.
- Paul speaks with an expectation of “when you come together as a church” – when, not if (1 Corinthians 11:18, 14:23). This fundamental understanding of the people physically gathering was true for the Early Acts Church; there is no reason to suggest this has changed over time.
- There are specific things we are called to do as the corporate body. Examples include the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13 or Colossians 4:16), proclamation through healing (Acts 5:12-16) and even church discipline (Matthew 18:20, 1 Corinthians 5:4). Holy Communion is meant to take place as often as we gather (2 Corinthians 11:25). And in Hebrews 10:24-25, the call to gather is specifically so we can encourage one another towards love and good deeds.
- Yes, they did have worship services. No, they didn’t have the same access to our new-fangled sound and light systems, but they were definitely singing when they met with each other (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19). And surely they knew well and obeyed the Psalms calling them to make a joyful noise (Psalm 150:1-6), even bowing the knee corporately in worship (Psalm 95:1-6).
- They were able to do long-distance fellowship, but nonetheless, they always preferred the face-to-face option. They didn’t have live-streaming, but they had sermons delivered remotely – in the form of letters written to faraway churches for public reading. Today many of these letters have been compiled as the Epistles in the Bible. In many, Paul repeats how he can’t wait to see them in person again (Philippians 1:8, Philemon 1:22) – an “intense longing” to gather that is so vital to the Church that even Satan tries to prevent it from happening (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)! Therefore: Social distancing was fine if unavoidable, but physical proximity was always preferred.
- The time of persecution did indeed see the Early Church mushrooming. But correlation cannot be assumed as causation. This is what we know as a causal fallacy (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Otherwise, it would stand to reason that the best way to evangelise would be to permanently shut down the physical Church – but this would contradict all the earlier Scriptural principles spelt out in the 6 points just listed, a hermeneutical no-no.
What we see in the example of the Early Acts Church is the power of a redemptive God, one who turns the weeping of the night into joy come the morning. It doesn’t mean we should aim for weeping, just so we can experience the joy thereafter.
He turns that which is intended for evil to good (Genesis 50:20); it doesn’t mean we intend evil, to create the space for His goodness to flow in.
We just think of what is right and pure (Philippians 4:8), and where we fall short, we let the God of grace do the rest.
There goes a counter-argument that the technology that exists today didn’t exist in the days of the Early Acts Church, and so how we should define Church has changed. By this argument, to “gather” should therefore also include digital gatherings as equal possibilities; an “assembly” on Zoom is as good as an assembly in person.
But it is one thing to suggest that God’s intent could include such interpretations, and much more of a leap to suggest that it should, without strong hermeneutical agreement consistent throughout Scripture.
So, for example, we’re pretty sure smoking would displease God even though the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention cigarettes, because it’s consistent with what Scripture has to say about avoiding unhealthy addictions.
Or we allow the possibility that our pets could be with us some day in heaven because some verses speak about animals being there some day (Isaiah 11:6 and 65:25), but it’s another thing to definitively claim that dear Fido will be there with you.
Could gathering as a church on Zoom be God-pleasing? Sure. We’re grateful for all the technology that kept church life alive, especially in the thick of the circuit breaker.
Should this be the way forward at the expense of onsite attendance? If Scripture doesn’t definitively say so, why would we?
Would you have even asked the question of whether church service should be attended before the coronavirus struck?
Could vs Should. Or, as Paul expressed it in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “Everything is permissible for me — but not everything is beneficial.”
Maybe your church has reopened or is making plans to do so soon, and you are able to (notwithstanding the reasons listed earlier such as pre-existing health conditions or lack of Sunday School), but you find yourself asking the question: Why should I go?
Could we suggest seeing that question from the other angle: Why shouldn’t you go?
Would you have even asked the question of whether church service should be attended before the coronavirus struck? Has any spiritual/Scriptural value truly changed since then?
Or is it you whose values have changed?
One last point, and it’s a big one. In the original Valley of Decision article, we cited the example of the Israelites responding with obedience to Joshua, echoing his words and Moses’ to be strong and of good courage.
“All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” (Joshua 1:16 ESV)
If your Pastor, Elder or key leader is asking you to go to church – go.
Reap the blessings of submitting to the spiritual authority placed over you by God. Recognise that rebellion against them, as the Bible explicitly states, is rebellion against God (Romans 13:2).
Understand the slippery slope of choosing not to align on this one decision. If you say “no”, what’s stopping you from saying “no” to them on any other front, on the basis of your personal interpretation of Scripture or your personal reading of the circumstances?
It is the strong, heartfelt, Scriptural belief of those of us at Thir.st that now is the time to fill every available seat – even if it’s just 50 or 100 – in churches across Singapore, as the least we can do to show gratitude to a God who has sustained us this far.
Dear Christian, these are tough times for you, because you worry about your life as the threat of illness looms. But now the Government, backed by the encouraging trend in falling cases, has said it’s okay to return to church, with safety measures in place. Your Senior Pastor and staff team are doing everything they can to make it possible to restart services.
The decision is now down to you.
You have been missed. Once services resume, we urge you: Go. Go and rediscover that shaking off the inertia and joining the body of Christ can be an amazing, awesome experience.
Don’t insist the Lord come meet you in your house. Go meet Him in His house.
THINK + TALK
- Are you looking forward to going back to your physical church service? Why or why not?
- If your church has reopened, what’s stopping you from going back? Would you have even asked the question of whether church service should be attended before the circuit breaker?
- How would you compare the worship experiences you’ve had in the house of the Lord compared to those you’ve had at home? What is the value of meeting corporately as a church, face-to-face?
- How intentional have you been about setting aside time to join your brothers and sisters in Christ for worship and fellowship?