Some of our brothers and sisters have argued that shuttering in-person services elevates the love of health over the love of God. We do not share this view. Of course, as Christians we believe there are worse fates than the loss of physical health or even this earthly life. We too admire the example of Christians throughout history who have risked their lives out of devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, we are being asked temporarily to convene remotely, not to deny our faith or to cease worshiping God. It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person; it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance. By offering their remote services and proclaiming the hope of the gospel in troubled times, many churches are reaching audiences they have never reached before.
For those who feel called by their faith to demonstrate the love of God in the midst of the pandemic in ways that are self-sacrificial, we encourage you to do so in ways that do not endanger others. Offer to watch a neighbor’s children so she can continue to work. Distribute food to the poor and the vulnerable. Arrange remote “visits” with the elderly and the isolated. Give sacrificially to your church and to other ministries engaged in the fight. We need not fall short in either our love of God or in our love of neighbor; the church can be the church outside the walls of the sanctuary.
Even if our observance of worship is less than ideal, even if there are honest mistakes or misjudgments made in the cancellation of services, God sees the heart of faith. During the time of King Hezekiah, the people of God sought to celebrate Passover after years of neglect. But because they could not get their act together, they observed the Passover in the wrong month (2 Chron. 30:15). They compounded bad timing with bad practices: “they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.” (v. 18). Yet, even though the people were “not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary” (v. 19), the Lord accepted their worship because it was done in good faith, albeit not in good practice.
Will the Lord show any less grace to us than he showed to his people in Hezekiah’s day? In our moment of crisis, we suspect the Lord will see the deep faith and sincere intentions of his people, and will be pleased with worship that may not follow liturgical protocols but nonetheless seeks to honor him. We will not be passing the peace with hugs, but rather with texts and phone calls. Are these modes inferior? Yes. Will they be acceptable to the Lord? We also believe, yes.
As the nation closes down non-essential businesses, the church must rise up to its essential work of prayer. Nobody is exempted from this work: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18). Physical distancing in household worship or online services still reflects our profound spiritual solidarity.
We can pray for Spirit-filled creativity to worship God, serve our communities, and love our neighbors. As our faithful brothers and sisters have done throughout history, we should be prepared to accept some personal risk as we look for innovative ways to serve that minimize danger to the broader community.
Let us join together in this prayer of Clement of Rome: We ask you, Master, be our helper and defender. Rescue those of our number in distress; raise up the fallen; assist the needy; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who stray; feed the hungry; release our captives; revive the weak; encourage those who lose heart. Let all the nations realize that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your Son, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture. Amen.