Updated: Apr 1
My family loves travelling, we found that every journey has its own unique set of challenges, from a million rest stops, to emergency potty breaks, to unexpected road works and getting lost. Every time we go on vacation we try to plan for all the things we know could go wrong, at least I try to, however, things don't always go the way we planned. We sometimes make the same mistakes or are confronted with new challenges.
This is testimony to the fact that there are many things we can't control. Such is the case with COVID19. Many churches have moved online, and for some, like us, this is a maiden voyage into the belly of the unknown. Many churches and pastors are probably feeling the same anxiety as we did at the beginning of our voyage and like us, have made mistakes and have learnt from these mistakes. We are new to the world of online streaming and video ministry. However, in our brief exposure we learnt much and I hope our lessons learnt may help small churches like ours navigate the vast expanse of practical ministry during social distancing.
This article is intend to provide some pastoral insights to members of our local church on how to plan for worship during these times. Much of what I am writing is aimed at and based on our church in South Africa, therefore some readers may not find the practical suggestions helpful.
Zooming to Zoom
A few weeks ago our journey began when we were required to apply social distancing at church, where we planned on reducing services and having greater distances between chairs or families at services. Then the unthinkable happened, the twenty one day COVID19 Lockdown arrived (our "Lockdown" is different than those in other countries). This meant we had to change our plans and move towards something we were novices at, live online preaching and teaching.
Many suggested that we merely stream our services or record the sermon, to be uploaded later. However, we as leaders felt that we wanted to maintain a measure of consistency in meeting times and some personal contact with believers. For this reason we opted for online meetings which involve an application called Zoom.
While pretty costly (for a small church like ours) it gave us the opportunity to shepherd our people through this period. We meet online every week in a video chat room. There are many challenges with this format, but this enables us to keep visual contact with the saints. From a preaching standpoint, personally speaking, this is much better than preaching to a video recorder. While there is nothing wrong with that format, for us, being able to see the church was important.
We are still adapting to this format but to date it has been a blessing and the task of shepherding via video call is still a learning curve. Praise God for a church like ours, who have been patient and tremendously supportive throughout this venture. As we continue to adapt through these weeks and months ahead, there will be many lessons and many mistakes that we will make as we traverse the new horizon of uncharted territory... for us.
Obey Who Now?
Why should we stay home? Our response to the "lockdown" should not only demonstrate our obedience to the government, but at the same time, it is a testimony of our submission to God. Yes, we should not forsake the gathering together of the saints, (I will return to this in a moment), but this does not mean, that we should disobey God and the law of the land. In this case, obeying the law is obeying God.
Social Distancing is important for the church, in that we do not contribute to the spread of COVID19. Moreover, as believers and ambassadors of Christ, we are subject to the authority of God's word first, and therefore must obey the call of God. In Romans 13:1, Paul commands that every person, ought to be in subjection to the Governing authorities. This command is heightened by the background of the historical context in which Paul wrote. Rome was in power and while the time and epoch was primed for gospel expansion, it was a harsh time for some believers. Paul, (previously Saul) partook of this persecution against the early church, throughout Acts we see that this only grew in intensity as time continued. Despite this, Paul does not look for loopholes, but commands the Christians in Rome to obey those whom God has put in authority. Many think that Christians should disobey the command to "stay at home", and others suggest its a catch 22. Should we or shouldn't we obey? I say it's pretty simple. Obey the word of the Lord, by obeying the Governing Authorities.
What about, let us not forsake?
It is true that the author Hebrews instructs his readers to avoid abandoning the meeting together of the saints. However, the rise of COVID19 is not the same as the presence of persecution. In some countries some churches are banned from meeting purely because they believe the bible is God's Word. They meet secretly and are persecuted for their faith. If the church was targeted and singled out and if the governments of this world said that we should not meet because the gospel is offensive, intolerant, it is hate-speech or for any other reason, that would be a different case, and we would obey God and disobey the government, in that case, but we are not in that scenario.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of those who have fallen into the habit of forsaking the fellowship of the saints. They who frequently missed church services before the "lockdown" and now during the "lockdown", it is not problem for them to skip services all together. The exhortation is to respond appropriately to the sacrifice of Christ, is seen in the response to make it a priority to meet with the saints.
The request for social distancing is not targeting Christians, but it is for everyone, and this is quickly becoming a global response to curb the spread of the virus. While church fellowship and personal engagement will be dramatically affected, it does not mean that we are to isolate ourselves from the saints. Many churches have moved to an online format. Some live stream while others have group chat sessions. Counseling is now done via Skype or Zoom and in certain cases bible studies are hosted through social media.
Whatever the means, on a global scale churches are working to continue to find ways to fellowship until the crisis is over. Our church (LHBC) have chosen to use Zoom as a platform for both preaching and Bible Study. This enables us to meet on our regular times and to fellowship through this medium.
As we continue to venture through the wilderness of this crises, let me remind you of 2 realities as it relates to social distancing and worship.
1. The Way is Open
The author of Hebrews indicates that the we "have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus" (Hebrews 10:19). In other words, that the pathway to a God has been paved by the blood of Christ.
We can enter, what a privilege! we can have boldness to enter the holy place. If that is not overwhelming enough, he states that this way is a "new and living way, which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh" (Heb 10:20). This is a tremendous and overwhelming privilege granted to all saints. Jesus gave up His life to grant us the freedom to access the throne of grace. He died so we could freely stand before God in the Holy Place. This was not possible in the Old Testament. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy Place, once a year, but this access has now been made available through the blood of Christ. We can enter the Holy of Hollies and remain in the presence of God because of our Great High priest. We have full access into the fullness of His presence by a new and living way.
John MacArthur says,
The old covenant fades. And, incidentally, the old covenant could only bring a man partially into the presence of God anyway. It just barely got him into relationship, but never into the fullness of dwelling in the presence of God. And we know it’s a new way not only because it gets you to God and the old way did not, but we know it’s a new way because it is by the blood of Jesus and not the blood of animals, and that is new. And so the Spirit calls it a new and living way. (Responding-to-the-New-Covenant)
Understanding that access to the Father was granted by means of the precious blood of the Son, the author appeals to us saying, "Let us draw near, let us hold fast and let us consider how to stimulate." In other words, there is a direct impact of the work of Christ upon the life of the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus does not only bring us into the realm of God but ushers us into a privileged position of serving as priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through our Savior (1 Peter 2:9). This means that our lives are practically impacted by the cross of Christ. This implies that church is more than what I can get out. It suggests that God expects a level of personal involvement from all who have been changed by the death of His Son.
How does this relate to our current time and circumstance?
If Jesus gave His life so that we have the privilege of having access to God and the blessing of fellowship with God's people, how can we give up such a treasure?
While we cannot meet face to face, we are still blessed to be able to have fellowship through the many resources God has afforded us. Online Church or the church online is being transformed as many churches are seeking ways to serve the saints through online presence. This will certainly be challenging time for both Pastors and saints alike, but one thing must remain central as we wander this new and unprecedented period in church history, the church of Christ must move on. This implies, that despite the high walls of impossible complications, we must find ways to shepherd and serve. We must adapt the way we minister and express our love to God's people. One way we can do this, is by prioritizing worship.
2. Prioritize Worship
Worship is a priority, whether we meet face to face or through and online medium. God made us so we could make much of Him. Our sole purpose to glorify God and to exalt Him forever. We are not the priority, nor is missions the priority but Worship is. This does not mean that missions is not important or that we should neglect gospel ministry. Not at all, missions finds its fulfillment in worship. People get saved, not for themselves, but for the glory of God. Evangelism exists so that the individuals may know the One who gives abundant life. John Piper rightly asserts,
Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. (Let the Nations be Glad)
Worship will remain throughout the endless ages. We have the joyous blessing of being able to engage in worship now. While there remains a tangible challenge with meeting face to face, we must commit to fellowship with God's people to worship.
Our affections must be regulated and expanded by the pursuit of the glory of God. There is no greater satisfaction to the soul of man than to be fully satisfied with its Savior. Joy comes not from knowing you are saved, but from knowing the One who saved you. Worship is not a neglect of evangelism, but true evangelism flows and grows out of true worship. This means when we have a passion for the glory of God, we will have a passion for evangelism.
God has subjected all things to the Son, so that He alone might be worshiped and adored. The author of Hebrews says,
And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, “AND LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM.” (Hebrews 1:6)
In a future day all who dwell on the earth will bow down and worship Him.
All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. (Revelation 13:8)
Worship is an essential part of being a believer. God exalted the Son far above all things so that He may receive the glory, the worship, praise and adulation which is due to Him. Since worship is so important to God, it should be important to us. Why then would we want to neglect the fellowship of the saints?
Here are practical Ways to plan for Online Sunday Worship
Worship time has morphed into a more convenient format, this means we need to work harder to be in the frame of mind to worship online with the saints. Various churches have practical advice like, getting dressed, standing when they pray or sing and greeting each other via social media. We too want to provide some practical advice to prepare for worship.
Plan your Saturday Evenings
For many Christians it has become common place to miss Sunday's because of what took place on Saturday's. We should avoid being and looking tired on Sunday. Worship is the giving of our time, ourselves, our resources and our minds and voices to the Lord. Give what He rightly deserves, so plan for it.
Prepare your heart before Service
Sunday Mornings can be challenge, especially with kids. We complicate matters if we wake up late and we wake the kids late. This leads to anxious moments because we can't fit everything in, from the hair to the last cup of coffee before the service starts.
In order to prepare your hearts before service it demands a heart that is ready to receive the word and a mind that is focused on Christ. We forfeit Christ honoring worship when we fail to plan for it.
Be on time.
The problem that online church services face is in the area of dressing for church. When I was young, I came home from school and immediately rid myself from the bondage of school uniform. On Friday's I kept it on a little longer since I did not need to take it off for fear of getting it dirty. I found myself spending some Friday afternoons, doing school work meant for Monday. Why? I was still in school mode, because I still had school uniform on. this might sound silly, but what we wear affects the way we think about things. If we log onto our online church with pajamas on, there might be a good chance that you probably did not wake up in time or that you are so use to spending early mornings in your sleepwear. This means your state of mind might not be that of a worshiper. I know it sounds silly. But if we are to plan and prepare for worship then what we wear, (which does not have to be your Sunday best,) needs to be appropriate for worship.
On a more practical level. Avoid using appliances that will cause unnecessary noises, washing machines, microwaves, vacuums. Be conscious that we worship together.
If you have no control over the sound level, kindly mute your sound.
Pray with the saints. When other's pray, pray with them. Avoid checking mail or messages.
Speak to Your family
Advise your family to make sermon notes.
Encourage and model how to be on time.
Inform your family the hour, belongs to the Lord.
Worship together as a family.
Give. This may be more difficult for those who do not use online banking. However, we request that you set aside your offering to the Lord, in an envelope and wait until we meet again. If you want, you can also make an ATM deposit.
Discuss the Sermon in preparation for Wednesday Bible Study.
While we are in lock-down you don't have to be loners during this time. Make the Lord's day a priority, it will be hard with all the other streaming services that are being offered. Commit to your local church if they have an online ministry. If not, find a biblical church and worship with them. Do your research before you logon. Social Distancing does not mean social isolation. Be part of a local church, even online.
Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James. Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1938.
MacArthur, John, and Richard Mayhue, eds. Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.
Mounce, Robert H. Romans. Vol. 27. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.
Westcott, Brooke Foss, ed. The Epistle to the Hebrews the Greek Text with Notes and Essays. 3d ed. Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament. London: Macmillan, 1903.
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