Is it really necessary to gather physically in order to have fellowship and worship God as a church?
Over the past 4 months Christians have got used to online church and actually quite like some of its benefits - no stressful 10am rush to get out, no need to find a parking space, a comfortable seat (with coffee in hand) is guaranteed, and as soon as the service is over we can walk into the next room and have lunch. What's not to like?
Perhaps all those physical services were an anachronism - necessary before we had Zoom and YouTube, but like printed hymnbooks and pedal-organs can now be dispensed with.
Or is there something more profound about physically meeting together? Might there even be a theological basis for physically gathering even when the digital alternatives seem much more convenient?
Let me argue that there is.
No proof text
The start of lockdown created what was often a furious debate as to whether it would be legitimate to have a Communion service online. Strong arguments were made on both sides - but neither were able to point to a ‘drop dead’ biblical text in order to seal their case. Both had to build from what they felt was the tenor of Scripture rather than explicit commands.
Similarly, in arguing the case for physically gathering together (where possible) - there is no single proof text to appeal to. Even texts such as ‘when you come together’ (1 Cor 11:18) and ‘not giving up the habit of meeting together’ (Heb 10:25) could be interpreted as not necessitating physicality if other ways of gathering were possible.
Weight and tone
Nonetheless, there seems to be a weight and tone in Scripture that pushes towards God’s people being together in the closest possible ways. John craves ‘face to face’ over ‘pen and ink’ (3 Jn 13). Paul is constantly frustrated that he can’t close the gap between himself and fellow-Christians but has to communicate with them remotely. In both cases it’s a recognition that physical distance inevitably creates some measure of relational distance.
Now of course, in the absence of being together physically the apostles used the other means available - and those weren’t ineffective. Today Zoom clearly closes that relational gap significantly beyond letter-writing – but it doesn’t entirely. Which is why for all the usefulness and benefits of online meetings they often leave us with a degree of dis-satisfaction.
From the dust of the ground
The reality is that human beings were not created virtually but as physical and embodied creatures. We are tangible, multi-sensory, only wholly functioning and fully experiencing life when all five senses are in play.
In the image of God
Coupled with our physicality is the divine image of a Trinitarian God imprinted on us. That is, a God who has relationships at the core of his being. It is what gives us our instinct to be in community and connected with others.
Put both of those physical and relational components together – and we understand the desire to be with others in the flesh.
God with us
The Incarnation is another powerful signal to us in all this. It was of course, a necessity that in order to be an authentic substitute able to secure our atonement, that Jesus shared in our humanity (Heb 2:14).
Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus became flesh and blood opened up a way to relate to God that is profound beyond words. God the Son touched the leper, children sat on his knee, John leant against him, he took Jairus’ daughter by the hand. As John later put it, almost bursting as he did so, ‘our hands have touched [him]’ (1 Jn 1:1).
Expression & Experience
Distance as noted, even with the best will in the world, creates some measure of division. Apart from each other physically we will lose some degree of empathy, of solidarity, and of feeling. That is not to say that non-physical connections can’t be good – but they can never be the best.
When we gather physically (in the same spatial location) it is an expression of our unity – ‘look, here we are together!’ But it is also to experience that unity as embodied and relational beings. It's the reason why people still want to go to restaurants, the cinema and football grounds despite the fact that Just East, Netflix and Sky can provide the content more cheaply in the comfort of your home.
Differences in a time of Covid
Now of course in a time of Covid there can be no touching, handshaking or hugging - whether physically together or not. Does that mean that Socially Distanced church services are no better than FaceTime? Well no, because physical connectedness is more than just physical touch – it’s about proximity and reality.
It’s the difference you feel between seeing a picture of the Queen and being in the same room as her. It’s the difference to you and your bereaved friend between being at the funeral service and saying you watched it on the livestream. It’s the difference between watching the baptism on an overflow screen in an adjacent room as opposed to sitting beside the tank.
So the question is not: is it ok to watch church services online? But would it be better, if safe for me to do so, to be at them with my brothers & sisters – to give physical expression to the unity of God’s people and to experience it in the fullest possible way that I was created to do?