“What’s wrong with me? I don’t like watching church online.”
You’re not alone. There are Christians all across the country who are not as excited to tune in to a live stream as they would be to pull into their church parking lots. There are good reasons why you are not excited to watch church online. Perhaps there are reasons for concern too.
If you have found it difficult to transition from “Weekend Mode” to “Church Mode” in your living room as a family, you’ve made it to the right place. We are all here together. On the struggle bus.
The purpose of this post is to prepare our hearts for church services without assembly, especially this week. Easter is the Super Bowl of pastoral ministry. Pastors look forward to this week more than any other week on the Christian calendar for many reasons, not the least of which is because people who are typically unwilling to attend church will consider attending a church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Attendance is usually up. Giving is usually up. Energy is usually up. So, while American churches are not assembling for worship together this year for Holy Week due to COVID-19, church attenders are preparing for something other than usual.
Here are some reasons you might be struggling to “tune in” to church.
Something is missing. Some theologians would say that sermon broadcasts online are not the ekklesia prescribed in the Bible. Are we watching “church” online? Something is missing, but we are not sure what it is. Neuroscience can describe for you what is missing right now in our society while we are in temporary isolation. Being together in person and being “together” online is not the same thing.
But let’s consider this idea theologically. The Bible assumes church is an “assembly” (ekklesia) of embodied people. Sure, there are legion of intrasquad debates on multi-site, video venues, house churches, etc. who argue the definition of what qualifies as church assembly, but there is no doubt that the Bible assumes “church” as something that happens when God’s people assemble together in congregations. If your church moved from an in-person only mode of gathering to online only, then it is likely you will have to evaluate your new normal, regardless of your interpretation of ekklesia. This is a normal struggle.
Church online reminds us we are not together. Sadness is not a bad emotion. If you are sad for a good reason, sadness is a good emotion. And if you are sad because church online is not the same as what you regularly experience with your local church, and if you are sad because you want to be together with your fellow church members, and if you are sad because you long to image the Body of Christ to the world on Easter—that is a very good reason to be sad.
Church online is building desire for family reunion. Each week we are apart, the anticipation builds greater and greater for our coming back together. My greatest hope this Easter is that we hear reports from churches who describe an explosion of ecclesiological vitality that comes from built-up demand for what we once took for granted. When it is safe for us to be together again, I hope we will wonder why we ever skipped church for brunch.
If any of the above describes you, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, there is something very right with you. I believe God is using the coronavirus pandemic, among other things, to focus our attention and gratitude where it belongs—toward Him. If you are caught up in the goodness of being with and belonging to your church, don’t lean away from your sadness.
Reasons for Concern
However, there are some scenarios that raise concern. And we are all vulnerable to these threats. All of these reasons come from personal experience, so consider me the leader bad reasons to resist tuning in to church online.
You have been exposed. Isolation has exposed that church is only an extrinsically motivated experience for you. There is a significant difference between intrinsic and extrinsic The problem with extrinsic motivation is that when external force is removed, the object of the force is no longer pushed in the right direction.
And if you are like me, there are many Sundays you find yourself in the sanctuary at church unsure of how you even got there. Maybe you’re at church because you know someone you hold in high regard would notice your absence. Perhaps you are there because everyone else in the house is going to church. Or maybe your habits carried you from the garage to the worship service.
Now, the extrinsic motivations for church activity have been removed by the COVID-19 pandemic. No one will likely notice if you don’t tune in. Everyone is looking around the living room asking, “Are we going to do this?” And there is no church online habit for you (yet).
If you lack any intrinsic motivation to participate in spiritual things, it might be time to ask yourself the difficult question, “Why is that the case?”
You are struggling emotionally. Admittedly, there is a fine line between simple sadness and signs of a more dangerous emotional struggle. But the difference is night and day. Many of us don’t know we have been struggling emotionally until after the fact. We tell people, “I’m doing great; how are you doing?” before we even stop to think. We have been in weeks-long depression but have been telling everyone who asks that we are fine. And that’s the problem; it is difficult to overcome emotional struggles if you don’t even know you are struggling.
Ask yourself, “Am I struggling to participate in church activities online because I’m struggling emotionally?” There are wonderful helps, provided through telehealth platforms, to diagnose and serve those in a mental health crisis. It would be more surprising if this period of social isolation didn’t have some emotional effect than if it did.
You are struggling spiritually. Could it be the case that, now that there is no external pressure to participate in church activities, this situation has exposed a weak desire for fellowship with God?
When we gather together with God’s people at church, Christians believe God is an active participant in the assembly (Matt. 18:20). Could it be the case that you are not intrinsically motivated to seek out spiritual direction because you are avoiding confrontation with the condition of your soul? Of course, it’s possible. Every Christian has struggled spiritually (and will struggle again). Perhaps the first step forward is confession to God that your desire for fellowship with Him is weak, rather than waiting until you have it all together.
We are complex, simple creatures. Intellect, emotions, spirit—there are no compartments; we are just people. We talk about these things sometimes as if it is not the case, but everything is interconnected. So, it should not go without saying that it is likely that you are struggling in more than one area. All of these matters are components of a complex web of factors that make up how we inhabit this season of grieving a lost way of life.
5 Ways to Engage in Church without Assembly
It is possible to have a great Holy Week, and every week in isolation thereafter, while our churches wait together to gather. Here are a few ideas:
1. Call a family meeting to talk about your Easter (and after Easter) plan.
You don’t normally have family meetings? Even better. Call a family meeting and talk about what you are going to do this Easter. Which room in the house are you going to stream the sermon? What time should everyone be there? And perhaps most importantly, what are we going to eat?
2. Schedule an online appointment this week to talk to your small group, Bible study, or Sunday School class.
Express your longing to get back together when the time is right. Would you be surprised to know that many of the New Testament books of the Bible begin with exactly that sort of greeting? Now’s the time to apply those verses to your life.
3. Give to your church online.
Remember, this is Super Bowl week for your church. But, without intentionality, giving is going to be way behind budget. Don’t bankrupt your church this year; become an advocate for giving online among your sphere of influence. What if it were the members, not the pastors, who advocated for increased giving during this season? Your community is going to need your church when all of this is over.
4. Encourage your pastor.
They are just like the rest of us. They are uncertain about the future. Their burden is heavy at work, just like yours. This is supposed to be the biggest week of the year! Even if he indicates like everything is ok—sound familiar?—take the opportunity to pray for him, and send him a note of encouragement. Your community needs your pastor now and will need your pastor when all of this is over.
5. Reach out to your neighbors and invite them to participate in anything your church offers online.
I wish you could invite them to church too. But could it be the case that our neighbors are open to spiritual things more now than ever before? Could it be that the coronavirus pandemic has rendered your neighbors more open to checking out your church than before the pandemic? If you have a neighborhood Facebook page, or have another way to get in touch, instead of scrolling through memes, share your church’s content to connect the lost and searching to resources that can help.
Nobody would choose the circumstances we are in, especially not our pastors. But opportunities abound for Christians to be the church even when they cannot assemble in churches.