Reasons Not to Go Back to On-site Worship Services

After a year of online worship, surely church members must be feeling their connection with God, and the faith community weakening, and are eager to return to on-site worship. 

Yet attendance of on-site worship services is not exactly indicative that God’s people are thirsting for God, the living God. Anecdotal indications are that only 80-90% of possible seating are usually filled, some way or greatly below actual pre-covid-19 attendances. The reasons for members not rushing back to church is not rocket science, and easily spring to mind.

CONVENIENT AND COMFORTABLE

Look at the list of hassles members are free of when they stay home and worship online. They do not have to fight the alarm, rush to make breakfast, shout the kids to hurry, and hope there are seats in the train, or pray for a car park lot. Do not forget to add all the family members, especially kids, into the picture to get an idea of the exponentially reduced logistical headache. Instead, they save time and money, and free themselves from common pre-worship service tensions. They sit comfortably in plush sofas and armchairs hugging cushions or mobiles. They are dressed in their pyjamas and even multi-tasking too. At last, the pastor will not make any snide remarks about being late for worship service, or for irreverent usage of mobiles during it! Very convenient. Very comfortable.

CHOICE

Another reason God’s people are reluctant to rush back to on-site worship services is choice: they get to choose when they want to attend to the worship service, and what they want from it. 

With on-site services, the time is fixed. Members have to show up on time and sit through the whole service from the alpha to the omega. With online worship, they can sleep in every Sunday, and even go out for a lazy breakfast and do marketing, and choose to tune to the online services as it fits their schedule that particular Sunday. They could even access it on Monday evening like microwaved leftover food.

Many members have certain parts of the service that they like more than others. Some members love congregational singing but not the sermon; others it’s the other way around. Still others do not like the “preliminaries” – the call to worship, the songs, the liturgy, the announcements, the offering. They prioritize the teaching of the word. They regard that as the core of worship. For others, it is the Holy Communion. In on-site worship services, they do not get to choose the bits they love, unless they deliberately arrive late every Sunday, or leave early every Sunday, which would be socially unacceptable. With online worship services, the members get to choose what want to consume. Hold the cursor and move it forward to skip whatever they do not like. They fulfil their duty in half the time.

“I’M OKAY LEH!”

It is indeed by the grace of God that despite less than ideal conditions we are spiritually okay in Christ – and faith, hope and love is sustained by online services and other means of grace. However, members who make their convenience, comfort and preferences the core values that determine their decisions and lifestyle often do not notice that they may be regressing ever so imperceptibly into a lukewarm state. This imperceptible regression happened in the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-22), and it can happen today. There is something about embodied on-site worship and community that is sacramental and imparts God’s presence and life.

From a human standpoint all the above reasons sound good and reasonable and desirable. However, from a divine standpoint they can also be at odds with true discipleship and the values of the kingdom.

FLASHING WATCHWORDS

These are the watchwords of modern consumerism: 

Convenience,

Comfort, and

Choice. 

They have crept into Christendom. Members must watch for these words in their life of discipleship whenever they surface. Watch and pray to discern in what situations they are a help, and in what situations they are a curse; when they draw us closer to God, and when they lure us farther from him; when they increase faith, hope and love; and when they diminish faith, hope and love. If we are not alert to the danger, we will spiral into spiritual complacency.

WATCHWORD FOR TODAY’S CHURCH: OBEDIENCE

Certainly, the words of Jesus about what it means to be a disciple cuts across time and space, even cyberspace. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”(Matt 16:24,25). 

Obedience to God is the watchword of disciple’s life, of a life of gratitude for God’s undeserved favour upon us (Eph 2:8-10). Obedience is not a nice abstract idea or thought but an embodied, down to earth, submission to the church leaders God has appointed to serve and watch over the faith community’s spiritual well-being. Since almost all churches in Singapore have called for a return to on-site worship services we should heed this call as God’s people. Members, or rather disciples whose churches have started online worship services must obey their leadership’s call to return to on-site worship services with urgency, energy and sacrifice. It will be inconvenient. It will be uncomfortable. It will be inflexible. But giving up our personal rights in obedience to God is essentially what Jesus called us to.

This is my considered opinion, but do feel free to give your comments so we can have a fuller conversation.

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Comments

  • HI Pastor,

    I think you didn’t address the impact of social distancing rules that have weaken and limited the levels of interaction that is a distinctive culture of WRPF. We used to speak of many chance encounters in the past, and forged bonds with people less close through impromptu lunches.

    Now all these are gone, and we all we have is a physical service that is tangibly no difference in form or outcome from the live video feed. If we go for service, we cannot sing, we cannot go across the room, and we must leave the hall and make all arrangements in the carpark below, which realistically is not a venue to have a decent conversation.

    I have no issue with your call on obedience, but i think it would a rounded call if you can consider the multitude of social intangibles and lack of worship that are no longer available in our service today and is a big demoralising factor to many. Ultimately, you are right to say that obedience is important to the body of Christ, but please recognise that reasons for disobedience isn’t limited to convenience, comfort and choice. There is motivation of the heart too.

    • Thank you Joel Bo for taking the time to write a well thought through comment. I appreciate the thought and attention that went into it. You are right that social distancing rules have weakened one of the distinctive culture of WRPF – that of loving community. With this weakening in the past year it has become more urgent and imperative that we strengthen what was weakened. We cannot wait for ideal conditions to do this – it may be too little too late. By gathering together physically in cell groups and celebration that church value can be renewed and reinforced.

      There is a difference in what is received in an on-site worship service than in an online worship service. Theology bears this out too: the way we are created and the incarnation points to the worship experience as interactive, communal and holistic. This is more achievable in on-site worship than in on-line worship. My personal experience and others’ experiences bear this out. Although social distancing takes away some of the ingredients of communal experience like congregational singing, worship is more than singing. You can read more about this in my earlier blogpost HERE. My call for the obedience to discipleship is deliberately stinging but not a blanket accusation that all who do not return to on-site worship are guilty of Christian consumerism. It is meant to provoke reflection and action for those to whom this blogposts resonates. I pray and trust that all is well with you and Mel and Tabitha. Thanks again for your comments. I empathise with the frustrations of all believers who find the worship restrictions limiting their usual experience of congregational worship and community. This is however the new normal for the time being and is keeping all of us safe and assured. So by the grace of God we accept the limitations and make the best of it we can.

  • Kenny, like what you said. Recently i actually preached on what you shared in this blog. Always enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up bro!

    • Thank you pastor Lawrence Koo for your encouraging words. Trust that your amazing New Horizons Church is doing well. I well remember how your church gives great hope to small churches. I wrote a blogpost about it HERE.

  • Hi Pastor,

    Here’s my 2 cents thought in the wee hours. I was just hungry and looking for food.. 😄

    Convenience, comfort and choice definitely plays a part in the equation. Though I feel that it’s something deeper that it might be worth exploring for it might just be the skeleton in the closet.

    For the past year in this pandemic, I observed the many reactions of Christians. One thing for sure, the one aspect that was revealed by God is the lack of discipleship. Sound pretty simple but obedience stems from that. One who is a just a believer would tend to sway to a mindset of “I’ll try” which equates to “it’s negotiable”. On the other hand, one who is a disciple would have the mindset of “I must” which equates to non-negotiable. Being in both types of communities before, the difference is apparent. Those who “believes”, gather to seemingly talk about Christ yet start swaying towards the world. On the other hand, those who were “discipled”
    rebukes, calls each other to repent with accountabilies and genuine love. Once, I’ve heard from a leader lamenting that his cell has gone through the bible together for 1 year yet all they talked about is getting the latest Mercedes after cell. In this case, transformation has definitely not taken place even though it looks pretty good that the cell has gone through the word.

    Hence, it would come as no surprise that numbers dwindle when it comes to negotiables. I do know of churches who saw the problem looming during circuit breaker last year when the number of people tuning in to their YouTube podcast dwindled. Initiatives such as watching online through zoom together and staying online for fellowship after service started sprouting along with many other online discipleship Initiatives. My observation is that not all members did the transition from believers to disciples yet some actually did.

    In my opinion, I think it doesn’t matter where the community is, the physical site or online. Many can be at the physical site yet still do not move from believers to disciples. Though it does look pretty good to have a full capacity church.

    I remebered once when I attended a leader’s meeting when one of the leaders started sharing that her ministry has grown doubled in the past year, more than she has seen in years. The transformation of these disciples were also incredible and it’s all thanks to technology. The very reason people came to God in her ministry was due to the convenience, comfort and choice.

    Yet using convenience, comfort and choice can also be used in the opposite spectrum. One might used it as an excuse to cover up our inner skeletons. For sure, it would definitely sound better than “I don’t think God/ church/ community is important”. This I would agree with Joel Bo that it’s due to the motivation of the heart.

    Well.. Just my 2 cents worth and I shall go back to bed. Hahaha!

    • Hi Joanne, it is so pleasant to hear from you and thank you for entering this conversation. If you were looking for food in the middle of the night and still had a desire to read and comment that was admirable.

      I agree with you that covid-19 can reveal to us where we are in our discipleship journey and how we should respond to it. The new normal of family members working from home in space constrained apartments 24/7 has heightened tensions and erupted fleshly tendencies.The deep frustration from impossibility of travel and socialising in bigger groups has revealed our deepest desires and priorities of life. It is a great opportunity for self-reflection, repentance and decluttering our hearts of all disordered loves.

      From the moment a person is born again he begins this grace-filled journey of discipleship, of being a learner, of following the resurrected Christ day by day. All of us who have been on this journey for decades, know that it is based on our responses to Jesus’ finished work, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. “For it is God who is at work in us both to will/desire and to do/practise what is pleasing to Him.”(Phil 2:13) Inevitably, due to the different kinds of responses, we have disciples who have journeyed farther ahead than others. And surely we have all been amazed at God’s infinite patience and also surprising severity in dealing with us so that we make progress in this journey and not get detoured by the many temptations the world offers. I know that I learned a lot in seminary that took decades to process and apply in my life. It will be the same for all of us laypeople who generally know more than many pastors in rural Third World countries but are not following Jesus as fully as we wish to. Thank God for his patience. He is more patient wth me than my many Mandarin school teachers, who sort of gave up on me. ha ha.

      Furthermore, a disciple could be so advanced in some areas but lagging behind in other areas. We have had many high profile cases of servants of God in recent years of this.This too is tragic. Advanced in faith or building a great megachurch, or in evangelising the unsaved around the world but undisciplined in a key facet of discipleship, whether it be the love of money, ethics or sexuality. I am in danger of rambling, but you get the main idea, discipleship is a long journey that has many facets and require that we be as patient with ourselves and with one another as God is patient with his children.And advancement in the journey require that we respond to His invitations with child-like trust and generosity and enter his rest.”Take my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”(matt 11:29)

      I differ with you though about online and on-site being a non-issue.You said, “In my opinion, I think it doesn’t matter where the community is, the physical site or online. Many can be at the physical site yet still do not move from believers to disciples.” I would agree with you that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart response to God’s activity in our lives. To me the on-site physical worship makes for a better space for God to speak and act, and for the gathered faith community, the family and the individual to respond appropriately. It is not that online is a bad and wrong option and on-site is the good and right option. It is that online is an okay option given special circumstances, but on-site is still the better way given the change in covid-19 environment and phase we are in.

      Having rambled so long, I am not sure I have interacted with all of your comments but it is always good to leave some things uncommented so that others can enter the conversation.

      I trust you and Joel are doing well and the Lord will continually teach you his ways.

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