Why Meet in Person?
Over the past few months, most churches have stopped meeting in person. A global pandemic, government regulations, and a desire to serve each other and society have kept us from gathering. Instead, we’ve held “services” online, met “virtually,” and used technology to connect.
Many churches are now resuming our meetings, or will soon. But these new services feel strange. Our sensitivities are heightened, our differences are on display, and we have to endure restrictions and protocols that are awkward, inconvenient, and frustrating. Then, no matter how safe we make it, some of our church family still can’t come.
With all this in mind, some believers may feel tempted not to come at all. If our restored gatherings are so different and restricted, our online options so available and convenient, and our physical presence a genuine vulnerability, why should we even meet in person?
This is a valid question. But before we make our decisions, we need to reflect on the importance of our gatherings so that our desire to meet grows instead of atrophying.
So unless you’re someone who needs to stay home for health reasons, here are ten reasons to come back to church.
1. We’re embodied creatures.
God made Adam from earth’s soil, Eve from Adam’s side, and humanity from their union (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:18–25; 3:20). We’re embodied souls, male and female, in his image. We’re not ethereal beings made to float in virtual space. We’re not just pixels and screennames, headshots on Zoom and Facetime. We’re human beings. We’re designed to see and hear and taste and touch and feel our way through the physical world God’s made. In recent months, we’ve seen the power of our online world. But we’ve also felt its limitations. No loving couple gladly accepts a “long-distance relationship” as ideal. Neither should a loving church family.
2. The church is one body.
The Bible consistently teaches that the church is Christ’s body on earth (Eph. 1:22–23). Each believer is a different body part, but we’re intricately knitted together (Eph. 4:15–16). We’re not independent but interdependent. Our spiritual gifts are like eyes and ears and hands and feet that each play their part in the body’s growth and mission. Yes, even at a distance, we’re still Christ’s body. But like any healthy body, we shouldn’t want to stay dislocated.
3. The Spirit is drawing us.
Not only are believers one body; we also have one Spirit (Eph 4:4). The Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity—inhabits God’s church, and he’s always drawing us toward unity. God’s Spirit can’t be divided, so when believers are separated involuntarily, we feel the tension—like a rubber band stretched too far. The Spirit within us yearns for us to be together, like that same rubber band pulling us back in.
4. We’re a spiritual family.
In the church, God is our adoptive Father, so we’re all spiritual siblings—God’s “household” (1 Tim 3:15). With our different ages and genders, Paul even calls us fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters (1 Tim 5:1–2). But families aren’t meant to be separated. Healthy families live together, laugh together, cry together, and help each other. Parents with grown children love when the adult kids get together—and those parents are only fully satisfied when everyone’s present. We must be faithful during this season to reach out to those who can’t safely join us. But all who are able should seek to gather for our life-giving family reunions.
5. Preaching is a sacred moment.
Our generation is used to John Piper sermons and Beth Moore videos and Ravi Zacharias clips. Phones and screens and apps are now our default medium. In just three months, we’ve even grown used to watching our own pastors and leaders teach God’s word through WiFi and glass. In this digital environment, we must remember that preaching is fundamentally a live, sacred moment (Acts 20:20, 27). Yes, it can be streamed and recorded and posted, benefiting both virtual attendees and future hearers. But for a local family of believers, God’s word is best communicated live as the Spirit empowers an appointed preacher and trusted shepherd to articulate God’s word personally in a moment pregnant with purpose and possibility. In these moments, pastors shepherd their own sheep, and sheep hear the voice of their shepherds. In these moments, we’re struck not only by the content of the message but also the gravity of the moment. When we hear God’s word taught in a congregation, we resonate not only with our risen Lord and his royal word, but with each other. A feast enjoyed together is better than food eaten alone.
6. There’s nothing like singing together.
There’s no experience on earth like congregational singing (Ps 95:1–2). Singing together glorifies God by re-enthroning him in the hearts of his people. Singing together brands our minds with truth and warms our hearts with grace. Singing together symbolizes our unity as we harmonize over the gospel. Singing together expresses our emotions to God (and we have lots of emotions right now). But we don’t just sing to glorify God; we also sing to encourage each other (Col 3:16). And we can’t sing to each other through a screen. Yes, we’re vulnerable: Congregational singing could get an American Christian infected, just like it could get a Chinese Christian arrested. But like the underground church has always done, God’s people will figure out how to praise him together, as faithfully and safely as possible. We’ll wear masks, or clean the air, or meet outside, or recite psalms, or even whisper. But ultimately, God will hear the rising praises of the Christian church, and it will be good if we’re there to express them together.
7. We need baptisms and communion.
Whether your church has practiced these ordinances “virtually” or not, every believer needs to see and taste these gracious symbols so that we can sense the gospel story once again. Baptism and communion remind us that God communicates to us in sensory ways. In these two ordinances, we taste and touch and see and hear the gospel, whether the splash of water in a baptismal tank as a new believer dies and rises with Christ, or the broken bread and crushed grapes that feed us with the remembrance of his sacrifice (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 11:26). The way we practice these things may look different for a season, but our hearts will need them more than we know.
8. You have a job to do.
If you’re a believer, you have a job to do when the church gathers. The work of ministry isn’t mainly for pastors and leaders. It’s for every Christian. Every believer has spiritual gifts meant to be used, and every church body desperately needs every body part to be active (Rom 12:4–8; Eph 4:15–16; 1 Pet 4:10–11). When we stay home, we can still listen and give and call and text virtually. But there are many ways we simply can’t serve or encourage or build up Christ’s body unless we’re physically present.
9. Our worship is a witness.
Each week our friends and neighbors and coworkers walk through the same broken world we do, but without our hope and our map. Each week they suffer challenges and tragedies that make them wonder where grace and truth can be found. Yes, there are ways we can minister to them online, and we should rejoice that God’s now reaching new people with new methods. But the unbelieving world also needs to see the gospel’s transforming power embodied in a local family of Christians who love God and serve each other in the most gracious and gritty ways.
10. Greetings change lives.
It may seem strange to end with the act of greeting—a simple activity that’s become so restricted and complicated. But all over the New Testament, the writers not only greet the churches but ask Christians to greet each other. These greetings aren’t just an afterthought tacked onto the end of their letters. These greetings symbolize the reconciling power of the gospel and foster our family dynamic. The way we greet each other—and the fact that we greet each other—is central to the church’s life and witness. Happy greetings remind us of the gospel unity we enjoy in Christ. Awkward greetings declare that the healthy church shows no partiality. Avoided greetings remind us to resolve our conflicts and reconcile our hearts. Every greeting reflects God’s love, reunites Christ’s body, enables hospitality, cultivates selflessness, opens doors for ministry, and bears witness to the God who’s welcomed us through Christ. Even if these greetings are masked, touchless, and distanced, they’re still life-shaping micro-events in every church. Just recently, our church held an outdoor worship service in our parking lot after not meeting for ten weeks. What were the happiest, most explosive moments? Our greetings. We need to see each other.
You may not be able to return right away. You might need to exercise caution for yourself or those you love. You might need to keep watching from a distance for a while. But when the time is right, God’s people can and must gather again, and I hope you’ll join in. After all, our gatherings are ultimately a taste of heaven. The Bible’s vision of heaven doesn’t look like a quarantine, a livestream, or a Zoom call. It’s a “face to face” encounter with the risen Christ and a worshipful reunion of both saints and angels (Heb 12:22–23; Rev 22:4). In the life to come, we won’t be siloed and segregated in mansions of glory, but living and working and loving and serving together in a new world where righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13). So once we know it’s safe, wise, and no disservice to our communities, let’s gather together again—in person—until all things are new.
[June 13, 2020]