When my state started to see an increase in COVID infections this spring, our congregation (like many others) switched to an online format for a while. While I appreciate our governor giving faith-based organizations the option to still meet in person, a church of our size (and range of demographics) just wasn’t able to keep hundreds of people safe in a typical service. Instead, they offered three different online programs, addressing different audiences at various times of the week.
This worked out well for my family. With my wife and children at home, we could all gather around a screen (of which we have many in our household), and participate in the services. Since the initial shutdown occurred near Passover, after my wife purchased some matzoh crackers for communion at a nearby grocery store (which happens to be owned by a Jewish family), we found that they were actually made in Israel, so that was pretty neat.
However, several weeks ago, our congregation’s leaders established plans and procedures to safely meet in person again (for those who were able), and so my family and I returned to the in-person service. We all look funny with masks, and offerings (when not given online) are deposited in collection boxes instead of passing trays (see 2 Chronicles 24:8-11), but it’s still a worship service.
After watching a church service from home for a number of weeks, it was easy enough to start feeling like that was enough. Being able to just stroll over and sit on a couch for the service, without having to drive to a church building (or wear shoes!) was certainly convenient. However, actually being at church in person, getting to talk and worship with others, was tangibly different. I’m not sure if I can articulate the exact distinction in writing, but the real thing was better than the temporary substitute.
After centuries of animal sacrifices and holy practices that foreshadowed the arrival of the Messiah, God’s people finally experienced the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ, and – for those who both recognized and followed Him – the real thing was better for them, too, compared to the temporary substitute.
For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.
Romans 5:17 NLT
Now, I’m not going to tell the members of the Sunday School class that I teach (many of whom are over 80 years old and/or have respiratory ailments) that they should all return to a small classroom and take on undue risks. Outside of what God has said in the Bible, I’m comfortable leaving the remaining details of someone else’s worship decisions to them and God.
Still, even when it is not possible, practical, or prudent to meet together in a formal worship service within a church building (which is kind of a “first-world problem”, being a choice for those who can actually meet together to worship publicly), there is still a way that we can choose between the “real thing” and a paltry substitute: We can build our lives around the teachings, nature, and sacrifice of Jesus, living new lives that align with our purpose, our gifts, and our circumstances. Or, we can follow our own opinions and those of other fallen human beings, just “getting by” until we reach the end of our mortal lives.
Jesus offers adoption into His family, as well as the wisdom to live as we were intended, while the world offers condemnation, constantly-changing standards, and more questions than answers. Like the difference between brand-name goods and generic alternatives, the low-cost option might seem good enough for a while, but once you have experienced the best, you find just how much the substitute falls short.
For many, the incremental difference between on-line and in-person church services may not be huge, so health risks or other personal concerns can justify an alternative method of meeting. However, when it comes to following Jesus and doing anything else, there’s no comparison: living all-out for Jesus is life-changing, and it makes time spent without Him virtually unrecognizable by comparison.
There’s a real thing, and there’s everything else. Which path will you take, today?
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.