I’m sure the details of 2020 look different for every person, but I know this is true for all of us: many things we’re involved in made the transition from in-person to online. Work meetings went to Zoom, kids went to school on a screen, and grocery store shopping went from pushing a cart to clicking a button. And what does this do? It leaves us in a perpetual state of isolation from the greater community and world.
Church is no exception—for more than a year of Sundays, we’ve all gotten used to staying at home and streaming the service in our living rooms instead of gathering with the saints in person.
So what happens to the online church experience when entry back into real-life society is slowly becoming a safer thing to do? What should we do if we have the option to safely gather in person again? We know the other church members matter, but do we really need to gather with them in the same space? Can’t they just be over there, and we just be over here, and everybody just have a screen as our gathering point instead of a space?
At the end of the day, what reasons does the Bible give for going back to church? There are many, but here are a few to consider:
- Because you are them.
Sometimes we view church as a “them” and ourselves as a separate “me.” While there are obviously things that differentiate one member from another, the Bible paints the picture of church not as “me over here” and “them over there” but as “us.” As many have said before now and will say again, the Bible isn’t a building or a program, it’s a people—a people you belong to!
To flesh this out, the Bible paints the picture of the church as a body with many members all connected to one head, Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; Eph. 5:30; Col. 1:18). To think of yourself as totally separate from the other members would be as impossible as an unattached hand out on the street acting like it would do well severed from the rest of the body, or as a sheep who thinks he can survive apart from the flock. In the Bible’s logic, the members belong to each other and with each other (Rom. 12:5), and there’s no such thing as an independent sheep who lives apart from the flock, and no such thing as an eye saying to a hand, “I don’t need you” (John 10:16; 1 Cor. 12:21). They belong together, in one unit.
Isolation may have made church more convenient in some ways, but it has forced us sheep to be away from our flock too long. For too long, isolation has forced random limbs of the body to be stretched further and further apart from each other.
So one reason to come back to church is to remember the people—the flock and the body—you belong to. After living in “me land” too long, gathering in person will help reorient you back into the “us” part of your identity.
- Because you need them.
Not only do you belong to the members of your church—you need them! Think about it: each member of a physical body has a different gift or function that it offers to the whole. The eye provides vision; the feet provide a way to move forward; the ear provides hearing, and so forth. The Bible teaches that the same is true about the body of Christ—every member has a part to play and a contribution to make for the good of others.
I don’t know what you are—maybe you’re a nose or an elbow or sculpted bicep. I do know this—you need the rest of the body to function. If you’re alone in your home streaming church from your couch, how in the world are you going to benefit from the eye or the ear or the foot? No man’s an island—you need those guys!
What do I mean? In a season where you feel lost, you need proximity to the person who is gifted in shepherding. In a long stretch of despair, you need the nearness of the one gifted in encouragement. In a season of youthful zeal, you need that sacred Sunday touchpoint with those older and wiser than you. In a moment of temptation or doubt, you need that member filled with faith. In those seasons full of curiosity and hunger for the Word (and especially when you lose curiosity and hunger for the Word!), you’ll need the one skilled at teaching the Scriptures. In a stretch of loneliness, you need the warmth and love of that weekly gathering. In times of need, you need those prayer warriors. This is life in community, and you can’t get it on a screen.
Going back to church isn’t just about checking off some spiritual box so you feel good about yourself or paying your dues. It’s about the fact that you need these people—you need every member of the body. And that’s a good thing! God built it that way. In fact, in the Book of 1 Corinthians alone, the phrase “when you come together” is used six times (1 Cor. 11:17,18,20,33,34; 14:26, ESV)! How relieving—the Bible does not convey surprise that we’d need strength in numbers but assumes this about us. It assumes that local church members are regularly gathering to be fortified—that they need each other, in person, face to face. And so we do. Friend, you were never built to make it on your own.
- Because they need you.
You indeed need the local church. But you know what else the Bible says? They also need you! It’s not ultimately about receiving; it’s about giving.
Think about this: if you’re streaming the service on your couch, who is sitting in the pew right now, in a hard stretch of life, missing out on the gifts God gave you to meet his/her needs? Because in some way or another, He’s entrusted a role, responsibility, knack, or gift to you. Remember, everybody plays a part, including you. How has God wired you? How might He be asking you to offer what you’re good at to someone else? If you’re an encourager, who needs to be encouraged? If you’re a teacher, who needs to be taught? If you’re a prayer warrior, who needs praying?
Many people make their gifts about themselves, but the Bible teaches that God gave us spiritual gifts and roles within His church as a ministry to the body for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:10). The reason you are gifted is for someone else, and if you never gather with those in your local church, how will they benefit? Put more bluntly, who in your local church is being robbed of the gifts you are hoarding at home? Sure, they may flow through you, but God has given those gifts to the body. Your fellow church members walk around with a serious limp unless everyone, including you, shows up and offers what God gave them. Remember, we’re an “us.” God built the church that way. They need you just as much as you need them!
- Because you’ll forget.
Watch any movie where a character is stuck in a prison of isolation for too long. They always come out on the other side in rough mental shape, right? Why? Because isolation tends to mess with our thinking. It makes us forgetful and it distorts our perspective, making us see things out of proportion. When we spend the majority of our time within our own four walls (or the four walls of our devices), our own concerns seem to grow, and the concerns of others seem to diminish. We think what’s going on in our little world is all that matters. We want to care about other people, but we can’t see outside of ourselves and our own problems.
So, little by little, we forget about any sort of big-picture realities in favor of our small reality. We forget about the state of the fallen world around us. We forget what God is doing, right here and right now, about that very same fallen world. We forget the grand story we are caught up in—of a fallen world that is on its way to being made right one day, in and through Christ, and the blood-bought people He’s put on this earth to bless it in the meantime.
None of this is news to Jesus. He knows we’re prone to magnify our little picture and forget the big picture. He knows we’re likely to forget the story—to forget Him, the One we are gathered to worship in the first place. And to help us remember, He instituted two methods of “remembrance” designed to be enacted in the context of an in-person, gathered community: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
That’s right—we don’t just do those two ordinances for kicks and giggles. Jesus leads us to do them for a lot of reasons, one of which is helping us remember the story. In a new believer’s baptism, we remember when we were baptized into the church. We remember that we’ve been buried with Christ and that we will one day rise again to new life in the resurrection. We remember how freeing it is to be washed clean in Christ. We remember we are part of a community—one that’s responsible for the health and maturity of this new Christian. We remember our commitment to each other. We remember.
And in the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ body broken and His bloodshed. We remember the love that compelled Him to come for us. We remember He took our place. We remember His presence is still with us. We remember the way of the cross—that sacrificing for others is the way of the Christian.
Through water and wine and bread, together, over and over again as we practice the ordinances, we reenact and remember the story. The big one. The one that happened to us and is happening to the world.
Friend, you can’t do this by yourself in the light of a neon screen. We remember so much better together—that’s why Jesus instituted these things as community activities.
There’s so much more to be said about the nature and value of the gathered body of believers, and there are certainly valid reasons to stay home from church sometimes, especially as we slowly recover from a worldwide pandemic. (In those cases, technology is truly a gift, helping us keep up with what we missed.) But hopefully, these four reasons offer you a preliminary rationale for ditching the stream in favor of the real-life saints as you make your way back into society. Because, friends, there really is nothing like the local church. Let’s show up to it, together.
Ashley Marivittori Gorman serves as an associate publisher at B&H Publishing Group, an imprint of Lifeway Christian Resources. She holds an MDiv from Southeastern Theological Seminary and has been trained under The Charles Simeon Trust. Her passions are biblical literacy, women’s discipleship, foster care, theology, books, and teaching the Bible. Ashley and her husband, Cole, live in Nashville, Tennessee, with their daughter, Charlie. You can find her writing in various Lifeway Women Bible studies, in books like World on Fire, and on digital venues like The Gospel Coalition, Lifeway Voices, the ERLC, Relevant, and Intersect Project.