Why Return to Church In Person?

I have friends in places where the church is now able to meet again.  Here we are able to have small groups gathering for home groups (limited in number, and only outdoors).  Eventually we will be able to meet on Sundays as a whole church.  But even then, there will be limitations and hassle – social distancing measures, some restrictions, some unable to meet because of heightened personal vulnerability.  It is going to feel complicated for quite a while!

So, after months of “meeting” online, or even just watching some elements of church services online, we have all grown accustomed to a much freer Sunday.  It has become normal to just tune in on a Sunday, or if anything else is going on, to not bother at all without anyone knowing.  And most churches will presumably continue to livestream in some way because some people can’t be there in person.  So why return to church and meet in person if possible?

I was thinking about this and then saw David Gundersen’s article on the Crossway site giving 10 reasons to return to church.  His reasons are: we’re embodied creatures, the church is one body, the Spirit is drawing us, we’re a spiritual family, preaching is a sacred moment, there’s nothing like singing together, we need baptisms and communion, you have a job to do, our worship is a witness, and greetings change lives.

Without repeating too many of those good reasons, here are 5 more reasons to meet, in person if possible, from me:

1. To let your shepherds shepherd you.  I think I can speak for most in church leadership when I say that we have been trying, but it is much harder to care for people you can’t meet.  So we have been praying for you, trying to stay in contact with you, and learning how to put elements of church online for you.  But we’ve also discovered even more keenly how hard it is to shepherd without the regular interactions of normal church life.  That is where little conversations and interactions allow people to notice when each other are struggling, or just “not themselves.”  Meeting in person if possible is key to knowing where to pour pastoral energy.

2. To play your part in building the body of Christ.  What is true for those in pastoral positions of responsibility is true for us all.  Your brothers and sisters at church need you to care, encourage, ask questions, greet, smile, check in, share life, and every other aspect of lively fellowship.  A normal Sunday may not seem spectacular, but just as others can make a difference in your life, so you make a difference in theirs.

3. To show yourself who you are.  I’m not sure how to write this one, but let me try.  You can say you belong to Jesus and are trusting Him for your salvation and with your eternity.  But if active in person participation in the body of Christ becomes an option again, but instead you would rather be less inconvenienced and just watch a bit of church online, or maybe not at all … what are you really declaring to yourself?  I’m trying not to move into guilt trip zone and twist your arm to be there because you should.  I just mean what are you saying to yourself?  We are all capable of self-justifying with the “I can worship God just as much on a walk in the woods or in my living room at home as I can at church” type of statements.  But do you?  Maybe it would be healthier to be honest with ourselves, “I love Jesus and his people a bit, but I love my own comfort and this TV show more.”

Drifting spiritually is a danger for us all and being honest about it is much more helpful.  The red hot coal soon cools off when separated from the fire.  Maybe you have decided you aren’t trusting Christ for salvation any more and don’t want to be part of his people after all – that is desperately sad, but say so, say it so you can hear it yourself and make sure you are settled on that course.  Don’t just drift and deny you are drifting – that is such a rubbish way to go.  And if you aren’t giving up on Christ, then jump back into in person church when you can – its actually only a small statement to yourself in the big scheme, but it is an important one.

4. To reconnect with family.  Your church may have handled the lockdown differently.  We have combined livestreaming with some Zoom gatherings.  But some people really struggle with Zoom for various reasons.  You may not have interacted with those choosing to only view the church service elements for months.  In person if possible will be a family reunion.  You are part of the family and it will be precious to be together.

5. Because the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.  John Wesley said that and he was right.  As you read through Acts and the epistles you will see reference after reference that assume ‘in person if possible’ is the context for church life and health.  Lockdown hasn’t changed that.

5 Post-Lockdown Regrets

The initial novelty of lockdown has worn off.  Now people are settling into this new normal and understandably longing for it to end.  Pastorally we are probably being drawn to people suffering with grief, loneliness, marital difficulties, financial hardship or mental health struggles.  But even those who seem to be doing well need to be shepherded.

What regrets can we all anticipate already and pre-empt with changes now?

Lockdown initially stirred feelings of concern and uncertainty at levels that are rare for most of us.  Some commented about how helpful this time could be, and how they don’t want to come out of lockdown without being changed in the process.  Now as we settle into the rhythm of it, that internal sense of having our world shaken may start to fade.

As I spoke with a good friend yesterday, we were pondering how lockdown does not create new spiritual or emotional issues for us.  It is the kind of pressure that merely reveals issues more blatantly.  So now is a good time to anticipate how we will feel coming out of lockdown.  Why?  Because now we still have time to make adjustments.

Some will emerge grieving.  The very nature of the pandemic means that many will lose loved ones during these weeks.  If you have not lost anyone yet, don’t just cross your fingers and hope you won’t.  As Christians we can do more than just avoid spreading the virus.  Be sure to get close to the One you will need when death does strike closer to home.

Some will miss the simplicity of lockdown.  I don’t think this is as simple as extroverts craving interaction while introverts love pottering around at home, although there may be some truth to be found there.  So much of life is stripped away right now that some people are discovering joy in time with family, or in time spent in the garden/yard, etc.  For some who emerge untouched by personal grief, the lockdown may well be remembered fondly.

But many will emerge saddened by missed opportunity.  I don’t mean the missed opportunities in “normal life” that we are missing by being at home.  I mean the unique opportunity this time is presenting to us, but that we may miss.  How much time are we not spending travelling, commuting, running errands, watching sport, participating in activities outside of work, church ministries, etc.?  And for those furloughed from work – how many hours a week does that add?  When does life ever present us with extra tens of hours in a week, for week after week?  How easily those cumulative hours have already filled with other things!

Here are five post-lockdown regrets to anticipate and act on now:

1. Bible time.  In the busy swirl of “normal” how often do we say, “I was just too busy to read my Bible”…?  Don’t emerge from lockdown saying “Actually, I regret to announce that I have discovered I just don’t have any real appetite for what God has to say.”

2. Prayer time. Again, normal life can so easily squeeze out times of extended prayer, or even any prayer at all.  But with hours added to our weeks, are we finding ourselves to be Daniels normally thwarted by the modern world, or actually just not very prayerful?  That too can be changed now.

3. Fears Revealed But Unaddressed. So much of “normal” life and busy activity insulates us against deeper feelings like fear – we are often simply too distracted.  Don’t emerge from lockdown simply having discovered a fear of death, or of change, or of financial lack, or whatever, but without having gone to God for help to process that fear.

4. Being a Taker More Than a Giver.  “Normal life” may have filled your week so full that one volunteer role at church felt like you were giving a lot.  Don’t emerge from lockdown and realize that you did even less during these weeks.  Inhaling multiple series of a show on Netflix is no achievement.  If you only consume, it will feel empty.  What can you do for others, now?  Practical help?  Prayerful support?  Personal encouragement?  Pastoral concern? (That also applies on social media – don’t just moan personally or politically, don’t simply purvey time-wasting opportunities, instead look for ways to build others up.)

5. Idols Still Standing.  God has stripped away so many things that may have stood as idols in our lives, even without us realising it.  Are you craving clothes shopping, or live sport, or travel, or hobbies, or socialising?  Maybe this lockdown is letting us see the flashing lights of warning on our personal dashboard.  When lockdown ends, will we hold these privileges with a looser grip and more gratitude toward God for every blessing?  Or will we rush to bow at the feet of our dear missed idols that could and should have been smashed during this unique time?

Feel free to add more to this list of anticipated regrets we can adjust now.  The bottom line is really this: Some will look back on lockdown with a deep sense of regret at having missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow closer to God.

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Here is the latest video playlist … Bible highlights from 2 Corinthians:

And a short sermon highlight that may be encouraging (originally preached several weeks before lockdown began, but increasingly relevant)…