We are living in a season of uncertainty and a season of change. Many things about all of our lives are vastly different than they were just a few weeks ago…work has changed, family time has changed, personal habits and routines have adjusted…and church has changed. I am thankful that God has not changed. He is the “same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). And as I said recently to our church family, though the way that we are forced to do church has changed, I know this for sure—God’s church will continue to thrive. I am certain that if “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His church]” (Matt. 16:18), neither will any pandemic.
One of the changes we have experienced as a church is that for the last three weeks, we have had no church gatherings or physical meetings of any sort. Like thousands of other churches, we have done our best to provide a venue for “virtual gatherings.” We have continued to hold a Livestream service each Sunday morning, a teaching meeting on Wednesdays, and tried to stay connected with our church family in a multitude of creative ways. The reality, however, is that we are not “meeting” as our church has for the past nearly 45 years.
The question this brings up is an important one. While we are thankful for the digital options that we do have, how do we address the Bible’s command to “not forsake the assembly”? And is online church enough? Or is it important that we would “physically” gather together?
Theology. First, we want to make sure that we understand the Biblical foundation for the church gathering. The word “church” – translated from the Greek “ekklesia” – occurs 114 times in the New Testament. It was a familiar Greek word, the root meaning “called out” or “called out ones,” but was commonly understood to mean “any assembly.” It had no distinct sacred or religious connections by itself. To the people of Jesus’ day, it meant a town meeting or general assembly, and the word implies no more than that. However, the New Testament writers connected it with specific groups of believers. So we have the “assembly [church] at Ephesus” (Acts 19:39) and many other references like this.
When we looked at the purposes of the church in the early part of Acts, we discovered four primary responsibilities – Outreach, Discipleship, Fellowship, and Worship. Though these purposes are lived out in the church in a far broader perspective than the times that they assembled together, we know that “gathering together” was an important part of their essence (Acts 2:42, 46). In fact, they gathered together daily, we assume in both large groups (Acts 2:32 “three thousand souls”) and small ones (Acts 2:46 “from house to house”).
Join us as Pastor Gary Walton teaches on Church Gatherings.
Marks. The key text for us seems to be Hebrews 10:24-25.
24”And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
The church is not the “gathering” alone, but the church must gather. The church is not only the church when it assembles, but God’s people must assemble. Verses 22-24 describe three things that mark the importance of the church gathering together. When we assemble 1) we encourage each other to draw near to God in authentic faith (v. 22), 2) we reassure each other to stay strong in our faith during difficult seasons (v. 23), 3) we inspire each other to love others and care for them in practical ways (v. 24). And this is the reason that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together – we should not give up meeting together, even if some are in the habit of doing so. In fact, we need to encourage each other by meeting even more during these difficult seasons (v. 25).
So the command to gather and the expectation that God’s people would regularly assemble is clear. The question is “Can we ‘assemble’ virtually?” and “Is online church enough?”
Dangers. For sure, “the building is not the church; it’s the people.” And we must not confuse the idea that Sunday morning worship or another meeting of the church is the total package. The church remains the church when we are meeting together and when we are scattered. Yet we are continually reminded in Scripture that we are to gather together – “when you come together” (1 Cor. 11:33); “when you come together in church” (1 Cor. 14:26). To substitute anything else for the actual gathering of God’s people together can produce dangerous thinking in several important areas.
- We substitute engaging in corporate worship for watching people worship. Of course, Christians can worship God alone, but there is powerful synergy when we worship alongside other worshipers. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). And it is a little taste of heaven when we will join “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands: Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the lamb…” (Rev. 5:11-12).
- We miss the encouragement and accountability to draw near, stay faithful, and love others (Heb. 10:22-23). There are certainly times when we are providentially hindered from gathering together. I would put our current crisis in this category. But we must never forget what we are missing and what we have given up when we do not meet.
- We lose the opportunity to lift up the broken-hearted, comfort the mourning, care for those who are broken. And we miss the chance to celebrate with those who have experienced victory, both spiritual and physical (Rom. 12:15). In the past two weeks, our church family has experienced a new baby born, we have grieved with four families as they have lost loved ones, young and old, and we have poured out our hearts to God seeking healing for a teen in ICU. During these seasons of joy and pain, there is no substitute for the healing power of being together, both in the painful sorrows and the joy of shared celebration.
- We can mistake the substitute assembling for the real thing. When we livestream church, we can inadvertently communicate that virtual church is real church. I am thankful for the technology that is allowing us to “gather” as a church at certain times during the week, but we must not settle for watching a sermon as a replacement for all the other personal and really important things God has designed the assembly to accomplish in our lives. Listening to God’s Word and engaging with God’s people in the assembly of believers can never be reproduced in digital form.
So what do we do in a season when assembling together is not possible? In submission to our government authorities and care for the more vulnerable in our community, we have chosen not to continue group and congregational meetings. We do this regretfully as the Scriptures tell us that in times like these we need to come together and not isolate ourselves—which is a real problem when coming together is part of the problem.
Potential Benefits. So many of us are feeling the loss of the fellowship during these days. However, this sense of loss cannot overwhelm our belief that God remains in sovereign control over this world. He has not lost track of what is happening. Instead of becoming anxious, we must rest in the truth that God is continuing to work in all these things for His glory and our good. We must remind ourselves to “Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!” (Ps. 27:14)
We may not ever know all of the things that God is doing through this time, but here are a few encouragements:
Unique evangelism. God is opening up many doors for the Gospel which we have not experienced before. The Apostle Paul wrote from a prison cell, “But I would ye should understand brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel;” (Phil. 1:12). There may be more people tuned in to the true story of Easter this coming Sunday than any time in history! People are anxious. Many are searching for hope and answers. Let’s continue to “live the Gospel. love people. share Jesus.”
Longing for fellowship. Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we don’t have it. My prayer is that this season apart leaves us thirsty for the accountability and the fellowship of our church family. Not just that we miss the routine of meetings and worship, but that our hearts would deeply long and hunger for the life-giving, spiritual fuel that can only be found in the assembly.
Counterfeit identity. If you do not have this longing, perhaps you have fallen prey to the danger of thinking that something else can substitute for the real thing. Perhaps you have misunderstood the incredible importance of faithful participation in the community of believers.
So what should we do? Attend the Livestream service! Prepare your heart for it. Give your full attention to it. Make sure that those in your household tune in together. And when the service is over, do everything that you can to practice Hebrews 10:24-25 by exhorting one another and provoking each other to love and good works. Stay in touch throughout the week. Ask spiritually encouraging questions and share what God is teaching you. And then stoke the fire that longs to be together with your church family. Don’t let that flame grow cold. Fuel it so that day by day your heart is yearning for the fellowship of your brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we gather together again – what a family reunion that will be!
Pastor Gary Walton
 Longman, T., & Garland, D. The Expositor's Bible Commentary (p. 166). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
 MacArthur, J. (1996). New Testament Commentary (p. 105). Chicago: Moody.
 Wiersbe, W., 1989. The Bible Exposition Commentary (p. 601). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.