Most churches across the US (which are open) are running anywhere from 40-60% of the Sunday AM gathering attendance that they were six months ago. We’ve been gutted. What has surprised us pastors the most, I think, are not the pockets of elderly and vulnerable who have not returned. What has caught us off-guard is that for every person who hasn’t yet returned there is likely a unique reason for not yet returning. This has given me pause, and inspired me to ask a question for myself.
If I were not a pastor, would I be attending an in-person service on Sunday AM? Why would I come?
To hear the preaching of the Word? I can do that online.
To join in corporate worship? I can sing along with the band and my family. Does that count?
To be around other believers? Six feet of social distancing makes it difficult to do much more than a wave and a “how you doing?” shout. I can just as easily engage through a text message.
To exercise my spiritual gift? I can teach my Sunday school class on Zoom. I can send encouraging messages through Facebook. Do I need a Sunday AM to exercise that gift? Can’t I serve and do missions without being physically present on a Sunday AM?
What is there at the physical gathering that I cannot do at home? Corporate worship isn’t the same, I’ll give you that. But why do I need to show up whenever it’s a hotbed of controversy? For some people, wearing a mask is a symbol of being a leftist or a fraidy-cat who doesn’t have faith. For others, not wearing a mask is a symbol of being a right-wing conspiracy theorist who cares more about themselves than other people. I’d argue few people fit either description, but still, the question remains. Why bother coming when your mere presence will offend somebody?
Because there is no such thing as mere presence.
There is something which the generations preceding me understood that I believe has been lost upon my generation. And that is the power of showing up.
There are two areas here where our generation has swung the pendulum too far in an opposite direction. First, in regards to the importance of a gathered body. I think there was an overemphasis in the past on the church building. One of my greatest pet peeves was when someone would here a teen say one of those banned words and the response would be, “hey, you cannot say that here in God’s house”. I think that’s a misunderstanding of the nature of the temple and the new covenant community. BUT, we responded with a complete deemphasis of the sacred gathering. There is something special about the local gathering of the body of Christ. There is something to sacred space where God’s Word is opened and the gospel is preached.
Secondly, there were families wrecked years ago by ministers of the gospel who felt they (and their entire family) had to be physically in the church building every time the doors were opened. There developed a somewhat legalistic checking of boxes on church attendance. BUT, we responded with a complete deemphasis of the power of personal presence. There is something powerful about you being there.
I can’t seem to keep Bonhoeffer’s Life Together on my shelves during this season. I keep pulling it down and reading it. The longer we find ourselves with our communities ever transforming due to COVID-19, the more I’m finding depth in his words. Consider this:
The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Bonhoeffer, 10)
What Bonhoeffer is alluding to here is the fact that each believer is in union with Christ and has the Spirit of God residing within. There is power—Christ within you—by you just showing up.
So this is my answer as to why, even if I weren’t a pastor and didn’t have any particular job to do, I would still show up on Sunday morning as long as I was able. It is because I believe that Christ is within me and I believe my brothers and sisters in Christ need that Christ within me. There is power in my presence—because it’s a symbol of the very real presence of Jesus Christ among us.
And so, and please hear me well, I want to show up because to not do so would be to diminish Christ. I know some could read that and say, “what about those who cannot attend?!?!? You are making them feel horrible for something which they cannot control.” This is my response. Whether it be because of conscience or health concerns, my aim here is to give words to the very pain which you feel. I’m sharing why we mourn with you that you cannot gather with us. Fellowship with other believers is a precious gift. You know this deeply and it’s why you ache, and toss and turn, and feel as if something deeply important is missing in your life. It’s because it is.
As Bonhoeffer said it is “an unspeakable gift of God” but also one which is “easily trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” COVID-19 has given all of us an opportunity to mourn with our shut-ins. It has widened that number and opened our eyes to the value of in-person gathering. And the deep mourning which accompanies no longer being able to gather.
But this is also why I feel a deep conviction, as long as I am able, to gather with the body of Christ. To not gather, to treat it as some insignificant thing, to consider it an option to my walk with Christ, would be to trample under foot the gift of the presence of Christ in the life of another believer. I’ll admit it was wonderful for a few weeks to wake up on a Sunday morning, smelly breath, wild hair, still in my pj’s and “gather” online with other Christians. But for me to continue to do this by choice when the church is gathering, would be to value the comfort of my Wal-Mart bought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jammies over the blood-bought community of the living God.
This article originally appeared here.