The big question all churches have asked following the 2020 Covid crisis - when to go back and when to stay virtual for Sunday Service. In this post, we will look at this question from a purely biblical standpoint as best as possible. We recognize that there are elements outside of what the Bible mandates, such as the age of your congregation, your geographical infection rate, and the mandates placed by certain governing authorities. Without further ado, let’s dive into scripture.
As Christians, whenever society is faced with an issue, our first step should be to look at what God’s Word has to say about it. We can debate over how to interpret scripture of course, and this sort of debate can be edifying because we agree that whoever is right - it’s ultimately God standing on the side of Truth. But we should start from the belief that scripture holds higher authority than our opinion. If we can’t begin there, we won’t be able to have a fruitful debate.
Remember what Paul said in Colossians 3:13, we are to “bear with one another.” This verse is directed to fellow believers who do have differences in opinions. So whether it be scriptural interpretation or geopolitical debates let’s bear with each other in love, believing that even a contrary opinion to our own may be coming from a good place.
What Does the Bible Say?
There are two scriptures that come up most often in this debate, let’s take a look at both and see what we can discover about both sides, and maybe even challenge our own opinions.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
This verse in Hebrews (is that you Paul?) is one that is often quoted in our debate as support for keeping services in person. Let’s start by unpacking the context of the book of Hebrews so we know what the writer is trying to tell us. Hebrews’ main purpose is to show that Jesus is God’s ultimate plan for salvation and a fulfillment of Old Covenant law. When that great purpose is taken to heart, believers must remain diligent in keeping the course and not neglecting their faith. One of the ways that God commands us to hold to our faith is in fellowship with other believers. More context to consider, fellowship is not just about meeting each other’s needs but spurring each other on in our faith. This encouragement is a necessary part of holding to the Christian faith over a lifetime.
When we consider those contextual applications, that gathering together is for the building up of our faith which drives us towards the ultimate goal of an eternity with Jesus - the argument to stay virtual feels like it falls flat. But does it?
Let’s rewind back to early 2020 (we promise you won’t have to do puzzles again or rewatch Tiger King). The reason we need to do this is that just like scriptural context matters, circumstantial context matters as well. In early 2020 when the virus hit hard, we had very little knowledge on how it spread or how to treat it. The healthcare community was scrambling to keep people alive and struggling to stay healthy themselves. There was actual death and destruction occurring. We need to remember as Christians what the progress we have today cost us.
There is no Biblical context similar to what 2020 brought us. Not because it was terrible, which it was, but because the landscape of technology, medicine, and intercontinental travel is so different from what anyone in Biblical times experienced. Our knowledge of how viruses spread (person to person typically), and our ability to communicate via live video made 2020 vastly different from any plague, virus, or catastrophe in the past. Does that mean we can throw out anything the Bible says about meeting together? Not really, but we can contextualize it for the present circumstances. At the height of the outbreak, live stream services, virtual connect groups, and online giving platforms allowed churches to continue the important work of fellowship within their communities. Should we be so quick to now curse what we were blessing just a year ago?
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ Matthew 22:37 (NIV)
Here is the second verse that is quoted in the debate - this time as to why churches should stay virtual. Just like the verse in Hebrews, we will look at the context first. In this chapter of Matthew, Jesus is having a conversation with religious leaders, answering questions and teaching via parables mostly. Quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus tells the questioning crowd what the greatest commandment is, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart…” He then follows that up with the second most important commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. Keep in mind, no one asked Jesus what the second commandment was, but he included it nonetheless. In this commandment, Jesus challenges our human nature toward selfishness and love for self.
Many consider virtual church a way to, “Love thy neighbor” as it protects their health and safety. It would be a misuse of resources to not offer a way for those with health complications or who aren’t ready to be in public to attend church. But does having an in-person service violate the second commandment Jesus gives us in Matthew? Not necessarily.
The way people need us to love them may vary. Many people who were otherwise healthy found themselves gripped with depression and even suicidal thoughts in hard quarantine. They also felt cut off from that all-important fellowship. Their faith was suffering, and that has to be what we care most about if we profess the Christian faith. Is it loving to allow those people to suffer mentally and even fall away from the faith? I don’t think anyone would give a hard yes.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Now that we have considered and challenged both sides of this debate, where do we go from here? Remember Colossians 3:13? When we bear with one another in love, we can keep conversations going. Those conversations, when done in love and understanding, lead to fruitful solutions. Imagine if Christians from the tech world, the medical community, and more came together to discuss how to do both? Technology has contributed so many solutions to this issue. There are ways to live stream your in-person service so that all people are reached as best as possible. Churches could consider having a group of church members who are part of the medical community advise staff and volunteers on best health practices. That way everyone can stay safe while still continuing to fellowship.
Wherever you fall in this debate, continue to look to scripture and to other believers in your journey forward. And let’s never forget to be thankful to God for how far we’ve come in this crisis, while still remembering and praying for those who lost loved ones, and for many throughout the world that are still fighting the pandemic.
How has your church approached the virtual vs. in-person conversation? We’d love to hear from you. Please share your story here for a chance to be featured in the Tithe.ly blog!