Why Christians Should Worship Together Online… For Now.
Imagine that it’s 597 B.C. and you are a devout Jew whose world has just been turned upside down by the invading Babylonian armies under King Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem has been sacked. The temple lies in ruins, and its treasures have been taken for plunder by the invaders. Now, they are marching you and a hoard of your fellow Israelites off to a foreign land in the shackles of slavery! Where is God in this? How could he let this happen?
You can hear their sorrow and fear in the words of Psalm 137, written during the captivity when the Jews were being taunted by their captors. 1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1–4 (NIV)
Fortunately for us, we have a written record in God’s word showing us that God was in their suffering. The captivity was part of his plan to bring them back to faithfulness, no longer chasing after foreign idols or taking God’s grace and protection for granted. By the words of Jeremiah, they were comforted that their time would be limited, and at its finish, they would return because God had a plan for them, a plan for good and not to harm his covenant people (Jer. 29:10-14). A plan that would result in bringing forth the Messiah from their midst, an heir of David whose Kingdom would include every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Despite the sense of trust that God’s word brought them, 70 years is a very long time! With that in mind, what were they to do to keep faith and to trust what God had said? What if he didn’t come through? What if this was their new ‘forever’? How could they even worship when they no longer had a temple for sacrifice?
What developed during the captivity was a way that the people of God could overcome their sense of abandonment and loss of identity. What we know as the synagogue pattern of worship was birthed, becoming the model for New Testament worship of the first Christians. The people began meeting every Sabbath day to worship doing three very key practices.
First, they read the scrolls – they heard God’s own words for them – his covenant promises reminding them regularly that they were a people of his treasured possession!
Secondly, their teachers explained the texts so that they understood clearly both what God promised, but also what their role in the covenant was – to live as a people of faith and trust in him.
Finally, they prayed. They lifted their prayers as one to God week after week for seventy years until at last God brought Cyrus from Persia to overthrow the Babylonians, and he issued their declaration of freedom to return to Jerusalem.
You see, it was during their time of exile that the people of God would remember their exodus. God had miraculously been there for them once, and he would be there again! This is how worship forms hope: we look back and remember God’s actions on our behalf because here in the present it points us to a future full of God’s goodness and restoration when Christ returns!
But in our humanness, we forget. We get spiritual amnesia.
So, when we gather, whether online in uncertain times like these or when we can finally all come back together, we practice the word Paul used in 1 Corinthians 11 in regard to remembering. Anamnesis: an activity that recalls the past in the present but points us to the future.
That’s why we will continue to gather online as a church. Though we’ve been forced into exile by a virus beyond human control, God still has a plan for his people. We are to remain a city on a hill that will shine the love of Christ in our world. But we need to stay connected to our Vine, Jesus Christ (John 15:5). Until we can return from our COVID-enforced exile, let’s pursue digital togetherness, practicing Jesus’ words:
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:8–9, NIV).