It may be tempting to think that we are living in unprecedented times until we remember that Christians have faced persecution and plagues throughout history. This is not the first time Christians have been forced to gather in small groups, nor will it be the last.
However, what we are facing as a result of the coronovirus is certainly difficult and unprecedented for contemporary western Christians, and churches are faced with figuring out how to approximate life “together” when they are prevented from meeting physically together.
At the end of the day, I think we need to avoid trying to “reproduce” normality through digital means. It is not normal, nor should it be, for churches to “gather” virtually. Some churches are choosing to live-stream services. Personally, I’m not sure the real value in that unless you feel like you need to reproduce the “professional production” of a Sunday service, which may indicate a problem with how we conceive of corporate worship.
Rather, we should feel uncomfortable with being apart; this is not how it’s supposed to be. The benefit of corporate worship is that it is corporate — the body of Christ is together in communion with God and with each other through Christ when we gather for worship; we should not feel satisfied when that communion is impeded. A live-stream does not really enable true communion.
During this temporary time of separation, churches should simply find ways to unify around the Word together while they are unable to gather physically. The best way I think this can happen without attempting artificial community is to give your church families a common service — Scripture readings and hymns — that the whole church can use as they gather in small home groups on the Lord’s Day.
This could be as simple as emailing your congregation a service order that you encourage them to use as their family gathers, but there are some ways technology can help with this. The dean of my school is providing such resources, and I have provided some additional resources below.
Hopefully everyone in your congregation has a hymnal or two (we give a hymnal to each new family who joins our church). But if they don’t, or if they don’t have enough hymnals for the entire family, email links to downloadable hymn PDFs, like those we offer from Hymns to the Living God. Every hymn in our hymnal is available for free download at classichymns.org.
Accompaniment mp3s or YouTube Videos
Singing a capella is wonderful; we do it everyday in our home. However, some families that are less musically-inclined might find value in some accompaniment to help encourage them to sing. For this purpose, we have begun recording some simple piano accompaniments to hymns in Hymns to the Living God and providing them as mp3 downloads as well as YouTube videos with the lyrics. So far we have produced the hymns listed below, and we will continue to do more in the weeks ahead, which will be available at www.religiousaffections.org/hymns/audio.
- And Can it Be – mp3 | video
- Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies (DIX) – mp3 | video
- For the Beauty of the Earth – mp3
- I Lay My Sins on Jesus (AURELIA) – mp3 | video
- Jesus Shall Reign – mp3
- O Father, Thou Whose Love Profound (DUKE STREET) – mp3 | video
- O God, Our Help in Ages Past – mp3 | video
- Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow – mp3 | video
- Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – mp3 | video
- The Church’s One Foundation – mp3
This is what we have chosen to do at our church. Our lead pastor is pre-recording a sermon, which we will post on our sermonaudio.com page, I have created a service for us all to use in homes, and I’ve provided hymn PDFs and audio/video accompaniment for each hymn. You can see the first week here.
Nothing will reproduce true communion, but our prayer is that this will enable our congregation to worship “together” even though we won’t be together physically.
The Lord’s Supper
One final related point: don’t give into the temptation to celebrate the Lord’s supper as families or small groups apart from the larger body. I understand the temptation: it will be uncomfortable not celebrating the Table for such an extended time.
But that is exactly as it should be. The Table pictures the communion that we Christians enjoy with God because of Christ’s shed blood and broken body for us. But it also signifies the communion that we share with one another as his body. Since we are not together as a body during this time, we shouldn’t employ the symbol that signifies communion.
And this will make our celebration of Communion all the more sweet when we gather together again as a body, sooner rather than later, Lord willing.
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.