Imagine: this Sunday is the day. Church—live and on location—is back on. How do you feel about it? Excited? Relieved? Anxious?

Maybe you’re thinking “to be honest, I kind of like doing church online.”
For some of us, getting back to church will be easy, for others it will be hard.
But online services are not an equally good replacement for church. I get that online streams provide access to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise (e.g. the disabled/very sick, or people in remote locations). And during COVID restrictions, watching services online has been the least-worst option available to us.
But they’re a sub-par approximation; they have some of the features of church but lack other features that are really important. (And I say that very highly appreciative of those who’ve loved us by putting blood sweat and tears into making online services happen!)
A friend of mine wrote the following about what we lose with online services:

Churches have become borderless. Which gives me as the church ‘consumer’ more power than ever. I can now do my church shopping online.
One of my local brothers has been ‘attending’ a US church instead of ours, because its offering is better suited to his taste.
All of this has the potential to increase consumerism and decrease commitment. Because what does it mean to be committed to my local body when I can’t see them, and they can’t see me?
Leading to what? A decline in accountability? No way to submit to leaders or express patience with differences?
Surely out of the thousands of churches in the world, there’s one out there exactly in my colour. But it’s not many bodies, one for each gift. It’s many gifts, for one body.
The uncomfortability of being thrown together with those geographically close to me, because we had to be, was a good thing.

Below I’ve copied a portion of an article by Rory Shiner and Peter Orr about church, and why it’s important we meet together physically. Rory is senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth. Pete was one of my New Testament lecturers at Moore College (he has a great Northern Irish accent, so feel free to read the whole quote with the accent in mind for fun).
I hope this reminder of what church is gets us both:
1) keen to come back (even if that’s hard and we would rather do something else) and
2) keen to make the most of gospel opportunities as we return.

Why church (gather)?

So why do Christians church? Historically, one might argue, they had no choice. It was the only way they could achieve many important functions. Very few owned a Bible. Many couldn’t read. The only way to hear God’s Word was to get together and listen to it being read. Not many were educated, so they gathered to hear teaching. Not many owned musical instruments, so singing and making music to God was by necessity a group effort. There were no telephones, so sharing prayer-points and knowing each other’s needs required real-time conversation.
Which is all to say they gathered to perform an often folksy and half-baked version of the things your smart phone could do in an instant.

So then, why do Christians still “church”?

We gather simply to be one people. We meet in the flesh, since God gave us bodies. We meet with specific humans because love requires encountering particular people in particular places. We deliberately sacrifice some of our freedom in order to achieve community.
We believe in church. And we believe that what happens in church, when we gather, is almost impossibly brilliant and beautiful:

  • We believe that Christ will be present; that his Spirit will be with us.
  • We believe that that God will speak to us in his Word. We believe that our voices join with angels and archangels in heavenly praise.
  • We believe that we will be participating in the never-ending worship of God that is—right now—being offered in heaven.
  • We believe that our words and songs will please God as they are offered by the Son and through the Spirit.
  • We believe that we strike terror into the hearts of the evil forces—that Satan and his minions will be revealed as cowardly and pathetic before the force of our praises and our declaration of the gospel.

That’s what we believe happens when we gather as a church!

Glorious Misfits

But what will you see if you show up? A bunch of broken, slightly mis-matched people together bashing out a church service that is all too obviously the product of their collective talents and limitations.

  • The music may or may not be to your taste.
  • The preaching may or may not connect with you.
  • There will be a restless toddler challenging your powers of concentration, and his parent’s sanity.
  • You’ll meet a needy, lonely guy who is most likely there because church is his best shot at a friendly interaction in an otherwise socially sparse existence.

As a group of people, we don’t always Instagram well. During the service, you won’t always get “All The Feels”.

I (Rory) am a pastor. Running a church is kind of my job. And by the grace of God (and if I may say so myself) our church is okay. Most weeks the singing, the preaching (in my humble opinion) and the fellowship are adequate, even decent. And yet, most Sundays, I have to decide to go to church. If my criteria for church attendance was “is this the thing I most want to do right now” I think I’d be clocking in a 2/52 annual attendance record.
It’s the same with running. I never want to go running. I hate running. I prefer burgers. If I ran based on the “this is the thing I most want to do right now” metric, the results would be grim. But I do run. It’s only rarely because at that moment I want to run. I run because I want to have run. I want to be the person who has gone for a run. I want the result of running. And, truth be told, I do actually enjoy it, nine times of out ten, when I’ve overcome my initial resistance.
It’s the same with church. Mostly, I don’t want to go to church. But I want to have gone to church. I want to be the person that church is forming me to be; to be and become the person that that motley crew of people are shaping me into as we both give and receive God’s grace. Once I allow my will to override my feelings, I’m almost always glad I went.
Almost certainly, within travel distance of your home there are a group of Christians who gather each week to perform an imperfect rendition of the common life they believe God has called them to: singing God’s praises; hearing God’s Word; confessing their sins; seeking forgiveness; greet each other—not because they are like each other, but because they follow the same Lord. Local churches are like an amateur local theatre troupe, playing out the script God wrote for them with heart and verve.
If you show up there you’ll be meeting a group of people who have already prayed for you. They will already have asked God to bless you, to reveal himself to you, and to show you the way to salvation. Most likely, these prayers will have been general, rather than specifically naming you. But the chances that you’ve been prayed for by name by a Christian you know are very high. And if you go to a local church, I am certain someone will have said a quiet prayer for you in particular after having met you or seen you there.
If you commit your life to Jesus, it will begin with prayer. And when you first pray it won’t—if I can put it this way—be the first God’s heard of you. Christians will have got in ahead of you, asking God to hear and answer your prayers. I hope you find that strangely encouraging.

Conclusion

Christianity is a team sport. It is a life we live together. On the one hand Church lifts us up out of the particulars of time, place, ethnicity, and language. It connected us with heaven, with God, and with God’s people across time and space. That is what we mean by “Catholic”.
But, paradoxically, church is also the thing that embeds us in place, that ties us to a particular group of people, in a particular time and space. Churches are formed by shared interest, communion, in the one Lord. It is here that God chiefly provides what we need to keep living for him. And, in doing so, he provides something that modern western life seems so conspicuously unable to deliver—imperfect but real community.