Ad Clerum on Virtual Worship

Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.(Hebrews 10:25)

Virtual worship –blessing or curse? During COVID it became a gift for those unable to gather for worship and enabled people to stay connected during this terrible season of isolation. I even heard of churches that had virtual coffee hours! At the appointed hour everyone made their own coffee and then chatted together over Zoom...but it’s not quite the same as the real thing! Or is it?

Fifty years ago my wife, Angela, stayed home one Sunday morning with our son Jon – he was two years old at the time with a childhood ailment serious enough to keep him home. Determined to have some semblance of Sunday morning worship, Angela turned on the television and they watched Oral Roberts together. When the call to commitment was issued, Angela asked Jon if he would like to invite Jesus into his life and – instead of his usual negative reply to almost every question – he said “Yes.” And his two-year-old prayer was sincere and heartfelt. Jon has renewed his Christian commitment many times since then, but he looks back to that moment as his new birth in Christ. He now serves as rector of Church of the Holy Cross in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Virtual worship – blessing or curse? It can be a great blessing, but it can never replace the power and potential of the community coming together to worship in spirit and in truth – even if it is inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. Underneath the city of Rome, Italy, there is a vast network of tunnels and caves called the catacombs that were often used as burial places for early Christians. They are well worth a visit. During the persecutions of the third century, Christians gathered in those same catacombs to celebrate the Eucharist – they risked their lives in doing this but recognized the power of the community gathered together for corporate worship.

During our time at Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, we often witnessed that power in action. Truro had a rich worship tradition that included traditional hymnody and anthems led by a choir, organ and occasionally a small orchestra. But they also had more contemporary songs led by a band. We pulled out all of the stops for the annual festivals, especially Christmas and Easter. One particular Christmas we began with a glorious procession led by costumed representatives of the Holy Family –including a real baby–followed by an enthusiastic robed choir. The church was packed with more than 800 people, most singing wholeheartedly.

Some of the congregation were international students from George Mason University – including Samuel and Emily, post-doctoral students from China, who considered themselves communist atheists. They had never witnessed Christian worship and were utterly astounded. They had no categories with which to describe what they were witnessing. Emily began to weep and quietly whispered to Samuel, “I want to be part of this Holy Family!” Afterwards, they spoke to me, and I invited them to join one of our Alpha groups to have some of their questions answered. Samuel protested, “But I don’t believe in God!” “No problem!” I assured him, and they came. Over the next several months they moved from unbelief to a full embrace of the Gospel and presented themselves for baptism. It all started on that Holy Night when the community gathered together for worship – there is nothing like it!

Eugene Peterson in his book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians wrote the following:

Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. Worship is the time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God – not because he’s confined to time and place but because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and other places.

Living on the Gulf of Mexico, I find walking on the beach – preferably in the early morning – an opportunity to acknowledge the power, majesty, and creativity of our God. It is truly a worshipful time for me but it is still not the same as gathering together with the people of God, being challenged by the proclamation of the Word of God, uplifted by the praise of God, and fed by the sacraments of God’s grace. It takes effort, it is often inconvenient, and it is sometimes messy, but nothing can ever replace it.

One of our most memorable times of corporate worship took place in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, the capital city the Dominican Republic. I was there as the interim rector of the English-speaking congregation of the Cathedral. We lived in the rectory, where we met Maria – a delightful woman who took care of the house. She spoke no English, but we quickly discovered that she was a lively Pentecostal Christian, so we asked if we might go with her to her home church that met on Sunday afternoons. She seemed a little taken aback by our request, but agreed. Her neighborhood had no paved streets and the church building was built of simple concrete block and had doors but no windows – only openings for light and ventilation. The floor was hard-packed dirt, the pews simple benches, and up front was a stained concrete slab with a simple table. Our family were all given a warm welcome, and their joy was infectious.

At one point they sang a song with such enthusiasm that everyone began to dance. We joined in, and worship soon turned into a ragged conga line around all the benches. When they prayed, they knelt on the dirt, and even though we couldn’t understand the actual words, we witnessed such passion that it brought us to tears. One small detail that I have never forgotten was the way that they did the offering. On the wall, just inside the door, was a slate chalk board. As each person came in, they wrote the amount of their weekly tithe on it with visible delight. They were so thrilled that they were able to give. It brought to mind the words of Jesus when he saw the widow offering her two mites: “Out of her poverty she gave everything that she had!” (Mark 12:41-44) And that really described their worship – they gave everything that they had.

That is a good definition of worship – we worship that which has the ultimate importance in our lives – we pour out our hearts and give of our very best. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” (Hebrews 12:28)

To God be the Glory!