Dear Friends in Christ,
“On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” (Acts 16:13, NRSV)
This rather mundane verse from the Book of Acts has taken on new meaning for me in recent days. In it, Luke describes going to worship one sabbath day, along with Paul and Silas. They were new to Philippi, a town that did not have a Christian church, so they figured their best bet would be to go down to the river where people tended to gather for worship. Their search led them just outside the town gate and to a group of women who had congregated to worship God. No big deal.
This same scenario has taken place countless times over the millennia. We have all been in similar circumstances, whether passing through on vacation or moving to a new town. The methods for finding a church may have changed—by word of mouth, the Yellow Pages (remember those?), Google search, or the GPS in your car—but going to church has been fundamentally the same since that day so long ago when Luke and his companions ventured to the riverbank. Perhaps, that is, until now.
I spoke with a pastor friend the other day who predicts he may be losing a number of members for good. No, he was not referring to people leaving his congregation, but to church members staying home to worship. Since their fellowship went to virtual worship back in March, their members have been able to “do church” anytime they want, dressed in their jammies, and in the comfort of their own homes. They have grown so comfortable, he said, that they may never come back…even when the pandemic is over. If he is right, looking for a church and going to worship may be forever reduced to a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes.
Part of me praises this as the work of the Holy Spirit connecting people from afar with the Good News of Jesus Christ. This has been the case for us, for example, as people from different parts of the country have been able to worship with us each week. Technology has bridged gaps caused by distance, mobility, and circumstance to make it possible for us to worship; when gathering in person carries many risks. I cannot imagine where we would be without our YouTube worship right now. Praise God for the means to connect virtually!
At the same time, I am reminded that, as essential as virtual worship is during a pandemic, there will always be a place for being together, person-to-person. I pray the convenience of online worship will not make it the new norm in the future. Technology has brought us together in so many wonderful ways, but it cannever replace being together. This was reinforced to me last week when members of the prayer shawl ministry joined me to record a blessing of the latest shawls. I incorporated the blessing into the prayers of the people, but since I had been saying the prayers on my own since mid-March, it touched me deeply when I heard their voices join with me in the Lord’s Prayer. Hearing them reminded me of what I have missed, even as our virtual connections are connecting us and sustaining us through the isolation of the;pandemic. Praise God for person-to-person connections!
What the future holds is in God’s hands. My guess is that people will always gather in person for worship, whether in sanctuaries or on riverbanks, though if Paul had the opportunity I am sure he would have livestreamed their worship in Philippi back to his friends in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, etc. In the meantime, we will continue to use whatever means we have to keep sharing the Good News