I first noticed it when I was checking Facebook. And yes, to my shame, I was looking at Facebook on a Sunday morning. One of our pastors had just announced that our services were cancelled. The weather forecasters had been calling for ice to blanket our area during the exact same time that we would in church. While I knew that services being cancelled was a possibility, the actual announcement hit me in a strange way. It was almost like I was having Covid Church PTSD. I immediately remembered what it was like two years ago when in-person church was cancelled indefinitely and services went to live stream. Everything about church seemed to be upended and we didn’t know when that was going to change. This time around the cancellation was sudden, but temporary. And yet, it still didn’t feel good. Instead of looking forward to more time at home on the weekend, I felt a strange unease and the realization that church means something different to me now.
So, what’s so different about church in a post (or almost post) Covid world. For me, it is the recognition that I can’t take it for granted. Sadly, that has been a reality for many of my brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world for a very long time. Believers in China and the Middle East have had no guarantee that they could gather together on any given Sunday and certainly no guarantee of personal safety. All of my life, I have lived in places where gathering for corporate worship was allowed and, in my circles, – encouraged or expected. Then Covid hit and that was not an option. Streaming services were the only alternative and not a great one. Watching church on TV is not the same thing as gathering with God’s people in person. It allowed me to become a worship spectator and not a worship participant and that was not healthy.
Before I go further, let me say a huge thank you to pastors and worship leaders who provided streaming options and who kept the light on at church when we could not be there. Even though it was not a great option, it was the only one for a while and I am grateful for their efforts.
As we began to gather again for worship with masks and social distancing in place, many folks commented on how much they appreciated being with God’s people again. I felt the same as I had been longing for personal interaction and fellowship. Maybe that is because I am an extravert, but mostly I think it is because something special happens when we worship together. If I wanted to simply hang out with people, I could go to the gym, a concert or a movie. An in-person book club meeting or meal with a small group of friends would have helped me deal with my feelings of isolation, but it would have done nothing for my need to worship God with his gathered people.
What has really changed for me is a recognition that not only can I not take church for granted, but that I deeply need to experience the power and presence or God in corporate worship. It is not about how it makes me feel, but about what God is doing in my life. Singing is no longer just singing, it is lifting up praise to an almighty God in the presence of my brothers and sisters despite how bad my voice might be. Hearing the call to a confession of sin and the assurance of pardon reminds me that this is not just a personal activity, but one that we do together as a church. Participating in the sacrament of communion each week has taken on new meaning as this was one of things I most missed when church was virtual. Listening to a sermon in person and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit opening our ears and hearts has made God’s word that much richer in my life. Maybe it is the person who occasionally says amen out loud when our pastor is preaching, but something is different in the way that I experience a sermon when I am with others in the same room.
As I lead our congregation tomorrow in the corporate confession of sin and the assurance of pardon, I am praying that God will use my feeble words to draw his people to himself in new and significant ways. While it is true that we were made to be in community, it is even more true that we were made to worship. May we yearn to worship in community together and never take it for granted.