In our current season in which social distancing is practiced to some degree in some churches, I’ve been reminded about how intensely social and interactive the early church’s gatherings were. Their meetings involved activities that brought people closely together, singing together, praying together, and relating so closely that their interactions even included physical touch.
Let me list some examples of the interactive nature of the early church:
•Water baptisms were frequent (Acts 2:41, 8:12, etc).
•Laying on of hands was a fundamental part of their personal prayer ministry (Acts 6:6, 8:17, etc).
•Anointing with oil was a common way to minister to others in prayer, especially when praying for the sick (James 5:14; Mark 6:13).
•It was culturally normative in those days to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20, etc).
•Singing was interactive, directed to the Lord and also to one another (Eph 5:18; Col 3:!6).
•The Lord’s Supper was celebrated frequently together (Acts 20:7; Acts 2:42).
•The early church was committed to fellowshipping with one another (Acts 2:42; 1 John 1:7).
•They frequently ate meals together (Acts 2:46; Luke 5:29).
•Prayers were often offered among small groups of people (James 5:16; Matt 18:20; Acts 13:1-2, etc).
•Prophecies were spoken personally over individuals (1 Tim 1:18; Acts 21:11, 9:17, etc).
•Believers were admonished to “exhort one another daily” (Heb 3:13, 10:25).
Many churches have experienced COVID-19-related shutdowns. One positive outcome is that many churches have strengthened their digital presence so that services can be watched online from anywhere in the world. As a result, the preaching of the gospel has exploded around the world through online platforms.
When you watch a sermon online, you can receive nearly 100% of the same impact as those who are present in the room with the speaker. Worship is different, however. When it comes to worship, being present in the room is vital to the encounter. Why? Because the Presence of Jesus is a present reality. Worship engages with the Presence of Jesus, and you have to be present to experience Presence.
When Jesus showed up to the ten disciples on Resurrection Day, but Thomas was absent, the ten must have said to Thomas, “You missed it! Jesus was here!” To experience His presence you had to be present.
I rejoice that online content has strengthened the reach of the gospel through preaching. But we’ve also been greatly hindered. Where the church has been hindered most, as a result of live-streamed meetings and remote viewing, is in the area of worship. From the first days of the early church, worship has always been highly interactive. When you remove the interactive element from worship and view worship services on a screen, you can experience only a fraction of the impact and power that is being experienced by those who are in the worship encounter with Jesus in the room.
Therefore, I believe it’s time for the church to channel the strength of its focus in two directions:
1. Strengthen your media presence. Use every means to get your preaching and teaching ministries online. Make a way for the preaching of the word to go to the most remote places of the earth.
2. In your corporate gatherings, go heavy on the things that people must be in the room to fully experience. Put your best energies into such things as Presence worship (times of worship in which we experience the Presence of Jesus), water baptisms, altar calls, laying on of hands, the Lord’s Supper, eating together, anointing with oil, prophesying over one another, and encouraging one another through times of fellowship.
As we devote ourselves intentionally to the interactive dynamics of our gatherings, may the Presence of Jesus be so palpable in our midst that people will say to their friends, “What? You stayed home and watched the service online? You missed it! Jesus was in the house!”