Only God could have ordained that I would be writing an article on the benefits of corporate worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. My church in Louisville hasn’t met since March 15, and we’re still trying to decide what the process of meeting together again will look like. Livestreaming Sunday mornings is beginning to feel almost normal.
Almost. Although I’m thankful for the virtual contact technology has made possible during this season, God has unique purposes for the weekly gathering that no livestream or Zoom meeting can replace. Perhaps we feel similar to the apostle John when he wrote, “Though I have much to write to you [or many virtual meetings to participate in], . . . I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). Not being able to meet in person makes us appreciate more deeply the privilege, joy, and benefit of gathering with the saints.
What We’ve Been Missing
On a recent Sunday, I led “Crown Him with Many Crowns” in front of a camera and seven other people. On any other Sunday, our church would normally explode in a spontaneous overflow of jubilant shouting and God-exalting clapping. That day? All you could hear was my voice lamenting that the congregation wasn’t there to respond.
While writing this article, I reached out through social media to find out what else people missed most about not meeting together. The overwhelming number of comments mentioned sensory elements. Hearing. Touching. Seeing.
- Heartfelt hugs and handshakes of dear friends and new acquaintances
- The sound of God’s people passionately raising their voices in praise together
- Watching those going through painful trials lift their souls to their faithful Father in prayer and song
- The robust “Amen!” of people responding to the preached word
- Saints, feeling victorious and defeated, experiencing grace and mercy in the Lord’s Supper
- Opportunities to encourage, pray for, counsel, and get to know both members and visitors
- The sweet foretaste of gathering around the throne in the new heavens and new earth
- And for some, the donuts and coffee
One person’s response to the question “What do you miss most about not gathering?” was simply “Everything.”
What Difference Does Gathering Make?
I’d like to unpack that “everything,” focusing on the time we spend singing together. What difference should singing God’s praise in the same physical space weekly make in our lives? I can think of at least five God-glorifying effects.
When we sing God’s praise together, he is exalted more highly than if we do it alone. His inherent glory doesn’t change, but the manifestation of it does. It’s the difference between playing a basketball championship in an empty arena (not such a strange thought these days), and playing the same game in front of twenty thousand screaming fans. The final score is no different. But it’s safe to say that the glory of the winning team in the second scenario will far surpass that of the first.
I might be no less sincere and passionate singing to the Lord alone as when I’m singing in the midst of a congregation. But hearing the voices of those around me makes me realize that God is much bigger than whatever he happens to be doing in my life. And others are experiencing the same change of perspective. That’s one reason why King David’s impulse was to say things like, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3) and, “I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you” (Psalm 35:18).
Worshiping God in song together affirms that his worthiness stretches far beyond what I can offer by myself.
My personal times of Bible reading, prayer, meditation, and worship in song are often rich and rewarding. I experience the Spirit’s sweet conviction, assurance that my sins are forgiven, and fresh comfort and security in God’s promises. But those times don’t replace what I do every Sunday with the church. That’s because we’re living stones, not random bricks, being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (1 Peter 2:4; Ephesians 2:22).
On Sunday mornings, my weary spirit is buoyed by the joyful early-morning service of the setup team. The loud praises of those around me remind me that I’m not alone in my struggles and that God is supremely worthy of my trust. I’m strengthened by the counsel and prayers of friends. I benefit from spiritual gifts like administration, mercy, leadership, and teaching. At the same time, God uses the unique gifts he’s given me to build up those around me. I can’t do this on my own. You can’t either. If we are “eager for manifestations of the Spirit,” as Paul says, then we should “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).
Why not forgo the Sunday service and use that time to invade our neighborhoods, fix what’s broken, feed the poor, and share the gospel? Because corporate worship is meant to fuel and direct the way we serve others for the glory of God. God intends our times together to be a means of stirring up “one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:25).
It’s worth noting that Paul immediately follows his exhortation to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” with the command to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:16–17). The “word of Christ” dwelling in us richly through song naturally leads us to want to do “everything” in the name of the Lord Jesus. That’s because each time we gather, we have the opportunity to realign our priorities, refocus on what is ultimately true, and remember Whose love has changed our lives.
Although God is omnipresent, he chooses to localize his presence on various occasions. He makes us more aware of his activity in us or among us. We can’t always predict when that will be, but one of those occasions seems to be when we sing together. The Psalms connect God’s name being near with recounting his deeds (Psalm 73:28; 75:1). In Psalm 105, in the midst of singing God’s praises, we’re exhorted to “seek his presence continually” (Psalm 105:2–4). Psalm 95 encourages us to sing songs of praise with an expectation that we will hear God’s voice (Psalm 95:2, 7).
It’s no coincidence that in Ephesians 5, Paul connects singing with being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18–19). Nor is it surprising that in 1 Corinthians 14:26–33, singing finds a home among more spontaneous gifts of the Spirit like tongues and prophecy, which make us aware of God’s presence. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been overcome by an awareness of God’s nearness in the midst of singing on Sundays. That’s because God delights to reveal himself when his people are next to each other, lifting their hearts and voices in praise to him.
Even in times of social distancing, we can share the good news of the gospel with friends and neighbors. But what we can’t do is bring them to a meeting where they see dozens or hundreds of others reflecting the same humility, joy, and passion for Christ they see in us. Corporate worship gives non-Christians a broader and better picture of what Jesus looks like. It brings Jesus’s life-transforming work into focus in a way a single person’s testimony doesn’t.
In the early church, God delighted to work through individuals like Peter, Stephen, Paul, Barnabas, and others. But the gathered church also played a significant role in the advance of the gospel (Acts 2:46–47; 11:26; 1 Corinthians 14:24–25). Even when churches are forced to meet in secret, their very existence testifies to the power, beauty, and glory of the Savior “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4).
What’s Yet to Come
Throughout the centuries, churches have in various seasons been unable to meet due to persecution, geography, pandemics, or other limitations. God wasn’t worried then, and he’s not worried now. His plans will not be thwarted or undone. Because God made the church to gather.
And though it may be unclear exactly what that looks like as churches start to reopen, every week brings us one Sunday closer to the day when God will gather his people from every tribe, language, people, and nation to worship the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:10–12). Without question, that will be congregational worship like we’ve never experienced before.
Until then, let’s gladly take full advantage of every opportunity God gives us to get ready.