Could social distanced worship be good? Even before the COVID-19 physical shutdown of gathered worship services, congregations were constantly trying to discover and create good worship. So, they expanded their song catalogs and adjusted their presentation methods in an effort to find a formula to help them accomplish that goal. Some just bypassed the heavy lifting altogether by imitating the worship practices of other congregations and called it good.
But as congregations are starting to regather with new limitation guidelines, those conversations of “what is good worship?” in this new reality have radically changed. Social distancing, masks while singing, a smaller critical mass of gathered congregants, and the potential absence of choral and instrumental music has moved the conversation way beyond song catalogs and presentation methods.
If we begin with Scripture, however, to figure out what good worship is we are always returned to those worship principles that should be framing our worship practices. The principles haven’t changed even when our practices have. So as long as we begin with those principles, then our distanced, masked, and choirless worship practices can still be considered good.
What’s Good About Social Distanced Worship?
Scripture speaks to the issue of worship that is or isn’t good on several occasions. The book of Isaiah outlined worship God doesn’t like when the author wrote, “The Lord said: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service, yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me” (Isa. 29:13).
Amos criticized worship that is ego driven when he wrote, “I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
The minor prophet Micah faced similar challenges as he responded to the shallow worship practices evident in the lives of the religious leaders of his day. He vigorously condemned the dishonest, corrupt and meaningless worship prevalent in Judah and Israel. According to Micah, outward appearances indicated they thought their worship was good. But their worship character wasn’t consistent with what God calls good. So, Micah wrote, “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).
Discovering good worship in this new reality means we will have to lay aside the unflappable pursuit of our own satisfaction, entertainment, pleasure, or routine in order to pursue God and ask him to reorder our priorities and passions. It’s going to be a new and different process than we have been used to and it will require us all to be stimulated by God’s grace and imagination.
So what we once considered good worship may no longer be feasible for a season as our congregations gather again for social distanced worship. But just because it is no longer the same doesn’t necessarily mean it can no longer be good.
 Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Books, 2007), 170-71.
This article about social distanced worship originally appeared here.