Reflections on a Pandemic—and Worship

Serving as pastor in the congregation in which I work here in Newberg, Oregon, is a joy. I am particularly thankful for the way in which the saints (which is what the Bible calls believers) reflect the grace and comfort of God. In the broader world I see fear and panic on one side, and on the other, some dismissing safety concerns as irrelevant, or at least as not applying to them. The members of the church have been reaching out to one another (by phone or email) as well as looking for ways to be of help in the community at large. They are taking seriously the danger of spreading the COVID 19 inadvertently and are abiding by the necessary restrictions. At the same time, they refuse to live in fear. They know One who has conquered the grave. I am thankful for their encouraging, servant hearts.

This is a congregation that loves to gather for worship. Yet this past Lord’s Day (and apparently for some time to come) they could not, both because that would have put others in danger, and because of restrictions on gatherings. Since we could not gather in our building where we usually worship, we moved to live streaming. We cannot not worship. We will not stop worshiping. But we have changed how we gather for worship. It has been a learning curve for me, who has never put together a YouTube video, much less live streamed. Although the morning was a bumpy start, by the time of the evening service it seemed to be coming together, thanks to helpful advice from others.

As I worked last week to arrange the live streaming of services to be held in an empty building, except for my wife, who is the pianist, I was struck again by the importance of the physicality of the church. We are believers who actually meet together. We greet one another. We raise our voices together in praise. We do something very counter cultural–we sit in the same room and listen to the reading and preaching of the Word. We eat physical bread and drink the fruit of the vine as the Lord feeds us from his heavenly meal, anticipating the banquet in the new heavens and earth. This service was going to be so different. The flock would be gathering in their own homes. Yes, they would sing, but we would not hear one another.

Despite the things that we could not do, despite the things that were not there, Sunday worship was not a disappointment for me. I soon realized that I was not preaching to an empty church building. Rather, I was preaching to and leading in worship, the body of Christ, scattered to their homes because of a pandemic, but still united before the throne of grace. I remembered again the truth of Hebrews 12, that whenever the church gathers in worship, it is not simply the many or few believers at a particular time and place, but rather a glorious assembly that includes the saints and angels in heaven–and our Lord himself present with us.

We will continue the live streaming for a time, the limits of which are yet to be determined. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. As thankful as I am for the technology that drew us together last Sunday, I am looking forward eagerly to the time when we assemble once again.

The Rev. Glen Cary, pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the Austin area sent the following to the elders of the church he serves, and has given me permission to reproduce it:

Dear Brothers,

I want to express some thoughts to you here because I think we need to be encouraged not to stress about unavoidable irregularities in public worship.

1. If we are prevented for a season by God’s providence from gathering for public worship, that would not be the first time that has happened in the history of the church. We will not be the first ones to sing the LORD’s songs in a strange land.

2. When prevented from assembling, we should still worship on the Lord’s Day (in family or private worship) because it is God’s holy Sabbath. John was in prison on the island of Patmos, but he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.

3. If by God’s providence, we are constrained to worship on Sunday in an irregular fashion, our worship is entirely pleasing and acceptable to God through the intercession of our ascended Lord. Our irregular worship is no less pleasing to God than would be our regular worship if we were able to assemble.

4. In our hearts are the highways to Zion, and that’s where we long to be, even when those highways have been providentially barred to us. Like Daniel, we turn our face toward Jerusalem and pray just as if we were standing with God’s people in his temple.

5. We never worship alone. We worship with an innumerable company of angels and the saints in Glory on God’s heavenly mountain.

6. God has ordained this providential hindrance to assembling for his own glory and for our benefit. It is certainly a trial, but it’s one that God has ordained for the good of his children. We should not lose sight of God’s goodness in this trial.

Just wanted to encourage you brothers with these Biblical truths, so that we do not lose heart.