Over the past few months, churches have rejoiced at the sweetness of returning to worship in person. The turbulence of 2020, with Zoom meetings replacing handholds, has highlighted the importance of in-person worship and fellowship to the Christian walk. In Collin Hansen’s words, “the hands and feet and ears and eyes need to be assembled for this body to work for the good of all.”

And yet not all disciples who worship can gather. As we lift our voices in thanksgiving each Sunday, we mustn’t forget our brothers and sisters whose seats remain empty. Some of them are immunocompromised, and at high risk for COVID-19 despite vaccination. Others suffered from crippling conditions long before the coronavirus became a household word. In all cases, disciples among us find themselves cut off from the body of Christ, just as they’re enduring trials when they most need God’s life-giving Word.

Alone, When We Need to Connect

My friend Alice knows this lonely road. Her church cautiously reopened just as she began chemotherapy for cancer. While brothers and sisters gathered at long last, her fragile immune system compelled her to self-isolate.

“There was this dichotomy of going through something difficult and being at my most vulnerable,” she said. “What I needed most was hugs from others, being with others, and having people lay hands on me in prayer, but I couldn’t do that because of my immunity situation, plus COVID.”

Another friend, Jean, underwent an organ transplant just as COVID became widespread. She’d anticipated a period of isolation after surgery, but not for several months while she awaited a vaccine. Then, after this long period of waiting, she learned of the vaccines’ diminished efficacy in transplant patients, and she felt gutted. “Church has been vital for me for as long as I can remember,” she said. “My dad was a pastor. My mom was an organist. If I couldn’t attend church again, I knew I’d become depressed. But what choice did I have?”

Those grappling with illness often don’t have the choice to worship in person. These believers remain a part of the body, God’s adopted children, and as vital as any disciple to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–13).

These believers remain a part of the body, God’s adopted children, and as vital as any disciple to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. 

Here are three ways the church can help, and three ways those at home can cling to hope.

Three Ways the Church Can Help

1. Bring Ministry Home

Visits, phone calls, and video calls from church leadership can offer a cool cup of water to those thirsting for God’s Word. “My pastor and one of the elders set up a regularly scheduled Zoom call with us to read through some verses and pray together,” Alice said. “That was a sweet time of fellowship with the leadership of our church, and it encouraged me.”

This highlights the importance of bringing ministry home to those who cannot gather. Home visits, when possible, may offer light in dark circumstances.

2. Love Your Neighbor

All the people with whom I spoke cited fellowship with brothers and sisters as life-giving. My friend Helen, whose caregiving responsibilities for a loved one kept her away from church for over a year, found comfort from phone calls. Jean noted solace from visits with church friends. “It really helped when people visited and prayed over me,” Jean said. “I loved having kids come by, too, and being able to talk about things other than my disease. It reminded me that my identity was in Christ, not just as ‘the person waiting for the new organ.’”

Alice said she saw the Spirit at work through the outpouring of love from church members. “I have been so touched at the breadth of the body of Christ,” she said. “We do not have to know someone well to send them encouragement and prayer. God is so much bigger than our little circle.”

Alice encouraged those who can still attend church to “be the hands and feet of Christ: encourage, share, listen, pray with and for (even on Zoom), look for ways to provide for tangible needs, reach out.”

3. Offer a Recorded Option

Livestreamed church can’t replace convening together, but it can nourish those who can’t attend. Helen called the online services during her difficult period a “lifeline.” Alice said, “As is true in most difficult times, just about every sermon or song spoke to me more poignantly. . . . If I had skipped church altogether, I know I would have missed vital encouragement for my soul during that time.”

As many churches move away from livestreaming, these women’s stories suggest a role for digital recordings of services, perhaps selectively distributed to those confined to home.

Three Ways to Cling to Hope

1. Stay in the Word

Scripture is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105) In times when we’re disconnected from the body, study of God’s Word can buoy us through the storm.

“During this period, I was able to see much more from Scripture than I ever have,” Helen said. “It gave me time to sit and think, and not talk to anybody else but the Lord.”

In times when we’re disconnected from the body, study of God’s Word can buoy us through the storm. 

Alice said, “I think about my isolation in my own home, and wonder if this was a forced rest for me—‘He made me lie down’—not because I had the inability to choose rest, but I would not have particularly gone about it in the same way.”

During this period of separation, while you pine for fellowship, consider if the Lord is calling you into a period of stillness (Ps. 46:10), during which you can lean into deep study of his Word.

2. Pray Without Ceasing

God hears our prayers, and calls us to place our concerns at his feet (Phil. 4:6). When illness isolates us, our prayers can become all the more fervent—and can anchor us in hope.

“All I felt I could do in my faith walk (and maybe all God was asking of me?) was to stay faithful, stay in the Word, and keep praying,” Alice said. “Even if I couldn’t answer the whys and hows, even if I did not have eloquent words in my prayers and was just crying out to him for help, he is tender and loving and did not turn me away when my faith felt weak.”

Our Savior can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). And he hears our prayers, no matter the circumstances (1 John 5:14).

3. Remember Who You Are

When illness tears us from the disciplines and fellowship we hold dear, we can lose sight of who we are. Remember that when no one sees you in church, God sees you. Your worth doesn’t derive from your self-reliance, talents, health, or independence. Rather, your worth springs solely, wholly, beautifully, and immutably from Jesus.

Your true and foremost identity has nothing to do with your ability to attend church, and everything to do with the truth that you are an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26), loved by God (John 3:16), and made new through Christ (Rev. 21:5). And nothing—not a disability, not an illness, not a virus that has rampaged across the world—can tear you from God’s love for you in Christ (Rom. 8:38–39).

Kathryn Butler (MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) is a trauma surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She explores medical issues through a Christian lens in her books Between Life and Death (Crossway, 2019) and Glimmers of Grace (Crossway, 2021), and is also the author of The Dream Keeper Saga (Crossway 2022), a kids’ fantasy series with Christian themes. She lives in Massachusetts and blogs at Oceans Rise.

[published Aug. 29, 2021]