It’s been a rather confusing year for worship. We’re called to stay focused on relationship.
By Justin Rossow
As COVID-19 drags on (and on, and on, and on…), our novel worship experience raises a new kind of question about how we should think, feel, and act toward fellow believers in the Church. Until recently, we only ever had two categories for church attendance: (1) people who came, and (2) people who didn’t. Over the last few decades, the category of “regular attendance” has shifted from 4+ times a month to about once a month, but the fundamental distinction between “people who go to my church” and “people who don’t” was still intact. Until recently…
Now we have brand new categories like “people who only attend online;” or “people who attend my church and a bunch of other churches online;” or “people who attend regularly online, and come once in a while to in-person worship.” The list goes on and on…
We could simply rejoice over the fact that online worship has actually increased worship attendance overall. But some of the feelings and thoughts we used to have about people who stopped coming to worship seem to apply fairly directly to people who still only (or mostly) attend online.
In other words, we want people to come back to church. And by that we mean, we want people to come back to in-person worship. So what are we supposed to think and feel about people who worship with us, but only or mostly virtually?
Personally, I have a rather mixed set of emotions about online-only worshippers. For me and my family, the sudden rise in online options precipitated by COVID-19 came at just the right moment. For the first time in our history as a family we didn’t have a church home, and when COVID hit, we still didn’t know where we were going to land next. Online options allowed us to worship at multiple congregations across the country and feel connected to the Church even when we didn’t have a home congregation. I also found it kind of nice to worship with my family from our living room, discuss the sermon and the service together, and then seamlessly transition to brunch.
Now, a couple of years later, I still value the option and ease of online worship, even though I have a home congregation I attend weekly. Online worship gives my busy family options, and therefore allows us to make decisions to stay engaged. On a recent Sunday morning, I attend in-person worship at one location while one of my daughters attended in-person worship at a different congregation (in a different city) and my wife and two of our kids worshipped online before they headed out for a busy afternoon. I value in-person worship. But I kind of like online worship, too.
Not everybody feels that way. Already back in January I started getting requests to write something that would motivate people who were only worshipping online to get back to in-person worship. I have seen pastors as well as lay people share frustration on social media about people not coming back to church. As we get closer to another Advent/Christmas cycle, the heat behind that feeling seems to be rising.
From what I have seen, the push to get people back to in-person worship has intensified. The feeling of frustration has even boiled over in some instances to questioning the spiritual status of these online attenders. More and more, people are thinking and feeling about online-only the way we used to think and feel about delinquent members: they aren’t here; they aren’t part of us; they are probably lazy; their faith is in danger; we love them and want to win them back (or at least take them off our membership rolls).
Even if that characterization can be unkind at times, I get the perspective. People who are not with us face to face don’t feel like they are part of us the same way everybody else in the room seems to be. Some aspect of our life together certainly don’t translate as well (or at all) to a virtual gathering. Some people who worship online only may well be lazy (sometimes I worship online just because it’s easier). And some of them probably are falling away from faith to some extent, or at least falling away from our local community of believers.
On the other hand, I know that some people see online worship not as mere convenience, but as a life line. For health or scheduling reasons, online worship offers a real connection that would otherwise be all but impossible. At the very least, virtual services offer people an option between the absolutes of either skipping worship or being at a specific location at a specific time. Online options sometimes make worship possible in ways face to face worship does not and cannot.
Even if the reasons for virtual attendance sometimes seem like excuses, I understand the perspective of people who prefer to worship remotely. With hectic schedules and divided opinions about masking and vaccinating, online can feel like a safe option that not only makes worship convenient, but possible.
So how are we supposed to think and feel about people across the spectrum on the virtual vs face to face worship continuum? I think the Apostle Paul, in his very low-tech communication environment, might have some help for us.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica is a study in long-distance relationships. In chapter 3, Paul makes this comment:
We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.
1 Thessalonians 3:10 (ESV)
Paul seems to think the Thessalonians are missing something, something they can only get face to face, in person. Without further context, Paul’s words could seem like clear biblical support for an “online worship isn’t really worship” perspective, or at least for a “you are missing something important if you aren’t here in person” approach. In fact, without further context, you might assume Paul is concerned about the faithfulness or even the faith of these Thessalonians, lacking as it is in something essential that can only be delivered face to face.
Read around in 1 Thessalonians a little bit more, however, and a very different picture emerges. At one time, Paul was indeed concerned about their faith—but with the recent report from Timothy, Paul is almost giddy with love and affection for these people he dearly misses.
Paul uses all kinds of relational images to describe his long-distance relationship to the Thessalonians. Paul can describe his own ministry among them as a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” (2:7) and “like a father with his children” (2:11). Paul is both father and mother to these faithful believers, and they are at the same time like his parents, for losing a face to face relationship with the Thessalonians was dramatic and traumatic from Paul’s perspective: “when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” (2:17).
Paul says their ongoing separation was caused by Satan himself, but that obstacle to their relationship could not hinder familial love and longing. Paul’s abundant joy in hearing of the Thessalonians and their faithfulness and ongoing relationship brings rich praise to God and a renewed longing to see them in real time, face to face.
From everything Paul says in his letter, it’s clear that the Thessalonians aren’t lacking something when it comes to trust or salvation. In fact, Paul celebrates their faith! So what is the thing “lacking” in their faith that Paul thinks he can only remedy by an in-person visit?
In context, I suspect the thing they are lacking that can only be remedied face to face is being together with Paul face to face. The one thing you can only get in person is being together in person. And being in the same room would be valuable both for Paul and for the Thessalonians, so much so that Paul prays, longs, and plans for that face to face visit, even though he already knows his friends are standing firm in the faith.
In the meantime, Paul uses all of the resources and technology at his disposal to maintain a relationship with these people he dearly loves, even though he cannot see them face to face right now.
- Paul sends Timothy to them in person, as a virtual Paul, to spend some face time with the Thessalonian church and share encouragement with them and from them.
- Paul prays earnestly and repeatedly for these people he can’t see right now, and invites their prayers.
- Paul uses the most current communication practices—writing a letter and having it read to everyone in the group—as a means of expressing relationship and passing on encouragement for faith and practice.
Paul does everything he can to stay connected to the Thessalonians while at the same time longing for that part of a mutual relationship that happens uniquely face to face.
Here may be a way forward for all of us wondering how to think and feel about online worship attendance. On the one hand, we recognize and long for the unique benefits of being face to face. On the other hand, we do absolutely everything we can to uphold and maintain the relationship, even during a time of separation. And above all, the love and longing and encouragement we share in Jesus drives us to pray for each other, and to pray for the time when we get to share faith in person again.
So if you have been frustrated by the people who have been slow to come back to regular, in-person worship, take a cue from Paul and find ways to express your love and longing for them as valued individuals more than you express frustration at their absence. Satan does want to divide us, and that includes dividing our hearts from each other as well as making face to face discipleship more difficult than ever. Use every communication tool at your disposal, including online worship, to maintain and encourage a faith relationship of mutual respect and trust. Pray for the people you miss seeing in worship.
And if you are still avoiding regular, in-person worship, take a cue from Paul and find ways to express your love and longing for your community, especially for people who may sometimes wonder if your faith is still strong and if you still love them like you used to. Paul’s joy at hearting Timothy’s report about the Thessalonians reminds us that we need to communicate relationship even more clearly when we are apart for a time.
If you aren’t attending in-person worship right now for whatever reason, look for ways you can still follow Jesus in some kind of face to face relationship, with even just one or two other people. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together, and Paul seems to think some aspects of our faith can only be supplied face to face. Then pray for the people in your faith community, even when you aren’t in person on Sunday morning.
Looking toward the future, I don’t see us getting less busy any time soon, so weekend schedule aren’t going to suddenly become more free. The threat of the next variant or the next pandemic means that, at any time, meeting virtually could suddenly become a necessity again. Seeing businesses and schools find new ways of making online work for them, I imagine some kind of online options will become all but necessary for congregations to meet people where they live, as people live more and more online.
The current mix of emotions and practices we are experiencing with virtual worship right now is a dress rehearsal for the new norm of online and face to face existing side by side in community. Whether that scares you or excites you, you’ll want to move into that new reality with Paul’s letter to his beloved Thessalonians ringing in your ears.
Can we imagine a mix of people who worship in a variety of ways, some almost always in person, some almost always virtually, and some who find themselves fluctuating between online and face to face–who all still love each other and belong to each other?
Can we imagine those people continuing to express love and longing for each other, whether together virtually or in person? Can we imagine mutual prayers, and clear communication that expresses longing more than frustration, unity over division, common faith over fear, and love over all else?
How might we take note of the schemes of the devil to divide and separate us, and then find the trust in Jesus that makes those schemes seem weak and futile? How might we maintain connection and relationship even as we muddle through the confusion of how and when and where to be together face to face?
Those questions go beyond getting people to come back to in-person worship. They speak to what kind of community we are going to be as we grow into a new communications environment. Will we get it right? Certainly not! Or at least, not right away.
But already now we get to play in the swirling currents of online and in-person learning, and formation, and worship, and faith in confidence that, even though we only see as through a glass, darkly, the time will come when we will see face to face.
Come quickly, Lord!