Many articles talk about the benefits of having “virtual worship.” Some sites offer helpful and simple ways to do it. All of them assume its need and its inevitability. One site allows you to download “worship”: “Download if you need some worship for your service!” — you can have this singer with his guitar do “worship” for your church or perhaps in your own home. As often is the case in our modern setting, worship has been reduced to contemporary music. A few of them argue that virtual worship (VW) can actually help the church to reach out. The following example perfectly illustrates the point:
As the website ChurchLeaders explains, some churches fear that live streaming will decrease the in-person attendance of services. However, the opposite is actually true. Around 30 percent of people who watch a live stream event will attend in person the following year. That means that live streaming is one of the best ways to expand your audience. There are also cases wherein churchgoers who watch the services online end up returning to the church. They realized they want to be in the church and start attending again.
All of us recognize that those who are sick, cut off for some reason, etc. can connect through their computers, phones, or tablets. Some in different countries could also connect with local churches in the US if they so desire (or vice versa). We do not deny some of the benefits of VW. But I want to answer some very specific questions in this paper. Can VW replace in-person worship? Are there no differences between the two? All things being equal, could I simply choose VW over physically gathering with the people of God on Sundays? If I do, is there anything wrong with that?
Just as an aside, we recognize that men and women worshiped God privately (on their own or by themselves). We have argued for its necessity and benefits over the years. This study, however, has in view public or corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. Can we replace corporate worship with VW?
The Biblical Pattern
Of course, nobody in the Bible participated in VW. But if they could, would they have? I want to argue that in general they would not have. Let us look at some of the Biblical passages to get a clear understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this matter.
When God called Israel out of Egypt, He wanted them to come to Him, to physically assemble and worship Him. God told Pharaoh to let the people go out of the land (Ex. 6:11; 7:2), to serve or worship [עָבַד] Him in the wilderness (Ex. 7:16; 8:2, 20). Pharaoh permitted them to sacrifice within the land (Ex. 8:25) and then permitted them to sacrifice in the wilderness but only if they did not go far away (Ex. 8:28). However, he changed his mind and would not let them go. Pharoah relented once again but this time without their little ones (Ex. 10:7-11)! He of course changed his mind and said that he would let them go with their little ones but without their flocks and herds (10:24). After the last plague, he let them go, with their little ones, flocks, etc.
When Israel was preparing to leave Egypt, God told them that on the first day of the Passover they were to “hold a holy assembly” (Ex 12:16). When they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai they gathered together as a people and Moses “brought the people out of the camp to meet God” (Ex. 19:17.) As the covenant was inaugurated, the people gathered together at the foot of the mountain. This is how they served or worshipped God, in-person assembly! He redeemed them so they could worship Him in person as a gathered assembly. Later on, we see Moses instructing the people by gathering them together: “Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do.…” (Exodus 35:1). Moses told the priests to “Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law…” (Deuteronomy 31:12). They were to gather together during the Feast of Booths to “appear before the Lord” (31:11). They had to physically assemble before the Lord.
After being established as a nation, Israel assembled before the Lord and were required to routinely gather together before the Lord to sacrifice, worship, etc. The temple was not built by Solomon so the people could virtually connect with it but the temple was the appointed place to worship God in person. At the dedication of the temple, the people assembled and Solomon blessed them (1Kings 8:14). When Ezra rebuilt the temple, after they dedicated it, they worshiped God as a people (Ezra 6:21). Ezra called all the people together at Jerusalem to repent of their sins (intermarriage, 10:7) and they did all assemble (10:9). The point is, assembling together as a people to worship, to be instructed, to act as a covenanted people, etc. was the norm in the OT. That is the way Israel worshiped God, as a gathered people!
The New Covenant did not alter that pattern. Even Jesus met together with the Jews on the Sabbath (Lk. 4:16). Peter and John went to the temple at the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1) and we learn that many people were there (vv. 9, 11, 12, etc.). In Corinth, we read that the Corinthians came together as a church. So we read in 1Cor. 11:18, 20, 34, “When you come together as a church…” The phrase is used three times in that chapter. Paul doesn’t say, “Corinthians, you can all pray and worship at home because God hears you and is omnipresent. You don’t have to come together.” The early church was a gathering church. Earlier before in the epistle, Paul writes to the Corinthians about assembling in the name of the Lord: “When you are assembled (συναχθέντων) in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (1Cor. 5:4). Notice, this assembling together is assumed in the letter. As an apostle, he wanted to regulate what happened when they gathered together. But he assumed this was a regular and necessary occurrence. Assembling together is what the church does; as a body of believers, we assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus. God’s people have always come together AS A CHURCH! Paul rebuked them for what they did when they came together (misused the Lord’s Supper) but not for their coming together. The writer of Hebrews admonished the people for “not neglecting to meet together (τὴν ἐπισυναγωγὴν), as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25). Apparently, these people broke the biblical pattern of meeting together. They probably forsook the assembly because of their fear of persecution (though not justified) but I fear our generation forsakes it because of their indifference and laziness.
In Acts, we learn that Paul was brought to Antioch and he “met with the church” for a whole year (Acts 11:26) — the phrase literally means “to gather together in/as the church” (συναχθῆναι ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). We read about Paul meeting with Christians on Sunday in Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together (συνηγμένων from συνάγω) to break bread…” The early church gathered together regularly and near the end of the apostolic era, the writer of Hebrews admonished people to not forsake their meeting together.
The people of God were an assembling church, a gathering-together people — they were into in-person worship! That is the biblical pattern, from the OT to the NT. Jesus saved a people and they gather together to worship their Savior and Creator. In fact, during worship we come “to myriads of angels, to the general assembly (πανηγύρει) and church of the firstborn” (Heb. 12:22, 23). In some mysterious sense, we gather with those in heaven. So on Sundays, we continue that biblical pattern, to worship together, to gather together in the name of the Lord Jesus in person and not virtually.
John Murray accurately shows that the OT word for “assembly” (קָהָל) was translated as the “church” (ἐκκλησία) in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX). He shows that the NT use of the church is steeped in and connected to the OT language of assembly. Murray states that the “assembly is the covenant people of God gathered before him (cf. Exod. 19:5-25; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chron. 13:2, 4; 28:8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chron. 6:3, 12, 13; 7:8).” Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to see a connection between the OT assembly and the NT church. In short, God’s covenant people in both testatments gathered together to worship God. A consistent pattern existed between the two.
Furthermore, one of the elements in corporate worship is the Lord’s Supper and that cannot be done privately but it must always be practiced in the context of a corporate gathering of the church. We don’t eat the bread virtually or by ourselves by mimicking what is being done on a TV or cell phone screen but we partake by being physically together with the people of God. The 1 Corinthian verses cited above (ch. 11) focus particularly on gathering together for the Lord’s Supper. VW cuts the people away from one of the most valuable means of grace. We simply cannot participate in the body and blood of Christ virtually!
Therefore, to VW is not following the biblical pattern and God’s call. Perhaps at times it might be the only way (e.g., we are all snowed in!) but it is not the norm nor a viable option. VW is not truly worship but watching in-person worship (spectating other people worshipping). God wanted His people to come together into His presence and we should all do that if we are able.
If we choose VW and “neglect to meet together” (Heb. 10:25) when we can and are able, then we sin against what God has called us to do and what has been prescribed as a biblical pattern. VW therefore is not an option for believers but a convenience for those who cannot gather together to worship (sick, infirmed, can’t get there, providentially hindered, etc.). We understand if some cannot physically come to their church to worship and that this alternative is the only thing they have. But those saints have admitted this is not their preference; many of them yearn to be with God’s people but they can’t. They do not have a choice but you do!
Our Lazy Sinful Hearts
I understand the attraction and the preference one has for VW. It is less threatening. You don’t have to meet people, have personal interactions, deal with the foibles and plain oddness of people in church! Other people can easily exhaust us. Therefore, avoiding them on Sundays by virtually worshipping will enable us to maintain sanity and emotional stability! But our Lord calls us to love one another, care for one another, etc. We need each other and God has thrust us unto one another by redeeming us. Those one-anothering passages require that we mingle with them, talk with them, love them and to worship with them as the body of Christ. Gathering together with them to worship must not viewed as a tolerable inconvenience, something less than perfect, etc. but we must see it as the highest expression of God’s redeeming grace in our lives! We were redeemed to worship God together (like Israel was redeemed from Egypt).
You feel much more comfortable both physically and personally. The surroundings in your bedroom or living room with all the nice amenities (comfortable couch, cushy pillows, in socks without shoes, etc.) easily outstrip the supposed austere conditions in the church (those pews don’t even have back cushions!!!). You feel personally more comfortable because you remain in your element and you control the environment. But it does not matter since the Lord has called you to gather together as a people to worship Him! Those amenities can actually become obstacles to spiritual growth and godliness! It costs you nothing!
That takes us to the following point. VW is less demanding and fussy. I don’t have to shower, get in church clothes, get my car warmed up to brave the cold weather, survive the downpour, endure the scorching summer heat, dress my children and round them up, etc. I don’t “waste” valuable time on the road getting to church and I don’t have to pick a bowtie (or a dress, suite, etc.) for Sunday! Preparing for the Super Bowl, World Cup, or World Series requires more effort than relaxing on the porch to VW!!!! But brothers and sisters, surely you see the fallacy here? It costs you nothing to worship your glorious Lord who gave His life for you. You prepare for work five to six days a week much more than you prepare for VW!!!! Surely your God is worth more than that!!!!
Our sinful lazy hearts can easily rule the day in VW. Catering to the flesh is never safe and in this case, it is dangerous. In heaven, in-person worship will capture our hearts forever and we will be enabled to delight in it (as glorified saints). In-person worship therefore is the “ideal” and that should be our preference and practice in the present while we wait for our Lord’s return.
The Illusion of Safety and Health
We understand COVID-19 was unique and that the government required many churches to shut down (except in a few states, like Pennsylvania). For the sake of our health, many had argued that “charity” required that we not meet. Our health and safety are more important than gathering together before our gracious Lord. We can VW, they say, and we should continue to do that until we can all be safe and healthy. How easily the churches folded like a house of cards under this logic.
How long can we do this? One year? Two? Five? What if COVID-19 can’t be contained? What if another plague is unleashed? Did we quit work? Did we give up our entertainment? Did we stop living our lives? Many gave up gathering together to worship and did so quickly with little resistance or angst. They didn’t give up other things but they did abandon gathering together to worship God way too easily.
We must remember, we will NEVER be perfectly safe and healthy in this world. It is an illusion with which we have all lived. When COVID is lifted, we can still contract all kinds of diseases, unbeknownst to us. In our drive to the church, we can get into a car crash and die. In walking down the stairs at home, trip and break our necks. In eating breakfast, we could easily choke to death. In shaking someone’s hand, we could instantaneously get infected with something which neither they nor we knew about. These examples can abound. Brothers and sisters, we are in the Lord’s hands and we gather together because He calls us to and we must entrust our souls to Him.
In the OT, Israelites (the men) had to leave their houses and land to gather in-person in the place appointed by God (about three times a year, Deut. 16:16-17). They had to trust God to protect their families and properties to do that. They did not have jets to fly to Jerusalem and return the same day. It was an arduous and demanding task but it was what God required of them. To gather with God’s people to worship Him requires faith! It is a privilege some nations do not have.
Questions and Statements to Discuss
•But my church isn’t safe. They aren’t as careful as I would like them to be. I want to play it safe and stay home.
•We must obey what the State tells us to do and they are better equipped to tell us when it would be safe for us to worship together.
•Out of charity for our brothers, we should play it safe and resort to VW until COVID disappears.
•The church requires a mask and I think that is wrong, so I’m staying home. The church doesn’t require a mask and I think that is foolish and dangerous, so I’m staying home. [I’ve heard both of these arguments!]
•I have benefitted from VW and it seems to work for me!
•I can watch and participate in the service on one screen and watch football on the other! Everyone wins!
•Technical glitches — all is not well and perfect in VW.
•Not all people are tech savvy!
•Even a phone call between friends is a better medium than VW (one is active and the other passive).
•To virtually love our spouses means no love at all. Can VW avoid that?
•Watching a livestream sermon is not sinful but it cannot replace in-person worship. There can be no replacement for in-person worship.
•I’m convinced that a person’s preference for VW over in-person worship means that some spiritual defection has already begun.
•In VW, the spectator controls the time, ambience/environment, the response (can talk over the preacher loudly), the volume (can turn down a portion that makes her uncomfortable), etc. His posture (though controlled in public) speaks volume (lying down with a blanket), etc. VW engenders too much informality and it can easily lead to irreverence.
 To “serve” God in the wilderness meant to worship Him there. The LXX translates it as that “so that he would serve/worship me” (ἵνα μοι λατρεύσῃ). The Greek word often means religious service or worship. Israel did in fact go into the wilderness to worship God!
 This was about church discipline! That is also the point of Mt. 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered (συνηγμένοι) in my name, there am I among them.” That verse concludes Jesus’ teaching on church discipline (Mt. 18:15-20). Both 1Cor. 5:4 and Mt. 18:20 use the same word συνάγω.
 Cf. Acts 13:44 in which the whole city “gathered together” to hear Paul in the synagogue.
 John Murray, “The Nature and Unity of the Church,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 2:321ff.