Gather Together: is online and in-person worship really THAT different?
“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” This is the first line of lyrics in the traditional Thanksgiving hymn titled, “We Gather Together.”
“Now that’s redundant,” someone is thinking. “How else would we gather if not together?”
The songwriter has this right, though. There’s an intentionality to gathering together, a significance to be a part of a whole.
This begs another question. In this newfangled age of online worship and in person worship, are we together? I ask this question because it doesn’t seem like we are actually together. On the contrary, there seems to be two congregations. There are those who actually gather. People literally come to church and park it in a pew on a Sunday. There are also those who, thanks to Covid-19, began to watch (and continue to watch) worship online from the comfort of the easy chair in the living room in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers.
Given these two communities, here comes two more questions. Are we gathering together? Or are we gathering apart?
After singing the hymn, We Gather Together, I brought all the questions I have raised here in this column into the November 14, 2021 sermon.
If you use the internet and other sources to connect with other worship experiences in addition to your own church experience, great. Keep on. A greater risk comes for those who only watch online, however. My concern is that a complete independence can happen when we do worship completely on our own. Yes, worship is individualized. We have a God who calls us and knows us by name (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139: 1-24). This love from God is close and intimate.
There is more to worship because the collective experience of worship—the joy of worship—is shared, not a solo act.
In this past Sunday’s sermon, I spoke from Matthew 12:30. In this verse, Jesus speaks to being a part of the whole and being completely separated. He says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
There is a connection between what Jesus is saying in this verse with those who worship online and those who worship in person. We can read Jesus’ words to mean that those who gather are the ones who make the point of getting to worship in person. Those who scatter? Well, they’re the ones who do what I call click-it church. (They click to find church online.) They are scattered because they are less involved.
But is this true? Is this even fair?
Those who worship online can be less involved, less committed. It’s true. But can’t this also be said for some who are church? Do we really want to start drawing those lines?
And, come to think of it, what does involvement mean, exactly?
This may help. Worship is not an isolated event. Worship is a community event—a gathering together.
Gathering together in worship is intentional. It’s also interactive and collaborative. Worship isn’t something we watch. Worship is something we participate in because the connection between God, self and others is not something that is separated. It’s united—and uniting.
Are those viewing church online somehow less valuable and viable? The answer is no. Face timing, for example, may not always be ideal, but not to call this tech advancement a connection is inaccurate. The same is true for the telephone, for those who aren’t quite sure what face timing is. Yes, speaking with someone face to face is best, but it’s not always possible or practical.
Online worship isn’t a disaster. It’s not something ‘less’ either, not if those who participate online actually participate. But we have to participate, not watch. We have to connect, not sit idly.
Our non-Christian world today doesn’t just need our gospel words. Our non-Christian world needs our gospel community.
Christianity isn’t individualism. Christianity is an inner community serving its wider community with real time love, grace and goodness.
Let’s be with Jesus, not against him. Let’s gather, not scatter. Whether you worship online, in person, or both, do not scatter. Instead, gather. Specifically, gather together. Connect with your Christian community (or a Christian community if you’re not yet connected) to serve the wider community with love, grace and goodness literally, not just virtually.