"Presence" and In-Person Worship
Coming Back to In-Person Worship
One of the things many of us really miss during this pandemic is simply physically being with other people. I think this is a huge motivator for why people want to come back to in-person worship. As good as the online video experience has been, it will never be a substitute for being three feet away from another person, seeing them in 3D, hearing their voice (the actual soundwaves coming out of their mouths, not just a digital representation through headphones), and being able to shake their hands or give them a hug.
When we took a poll via our email newsletter a short while ago, over 80% of people responding said they would come back to in-person worship if we opened back up. It was clear that most people are ready to worship back in the sanctuary. Consequently, our Church Council formed a task force to come up with a plan for how to do that safely.
But when the task force began the conversation about what “coming back” would look like, we realized that there were still a lot of moving pieces to account for that could really change what in-person worship would look like. As of right now, the powers that be are still recommending that we do not sing during worship. As of right now, unless the state and county say differently in the next couple of weeks, we will still be masked up, distanced, and avoiding contact.
So what would be the draw of coming in person? Why is it that people would still take the trouble to get out of their pajamas and make the drive to the church campus to worship? I think it mainly comes back to this idea of PRESENCE.
There are a couple of ways to think about presence. For one, as I said in the beginning, people miss being physically present with each other. But there is also the reality of the presence of God, the experience of being present in a sacred space for a sacred purpose with other people of like mind.
Now, on the one hand, God is present everywhere. The Psalmist writes,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7, ESV)
The answer is, “nowhere.” There is nowhere we can go to remove ourselves from the presence of God. So God is present in our homes. God is present on Facebook Live or YouTube Live or Zoom. God is present when we’re driving down the street. God is always with us. The problem is, we’re not always present with God.
I’m sure you’ve seen a group of friends eating together at a table in a restaurant (back when this was a more common occurrence), but they’re all on their phones. You wonder, “Why are they even together?” They are technically present with each other, but they’re not truly present. They’re somewhere else, on Instagram or in a chat app, engaging with someone else besides the people they are physically present with. And so while yes, the presence of God is everywhere (praise God for that!), we’re not always aware of his presence. It takes intentionality of will to get off our phones and be present with God.
And this demonstrates a deeper reality of God’s presence. Jesus said,
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”” (Matthew 18:20, ESV).
While God is everywhere, there is a sense in which he is especially present when we gather intentionally in the name of Jesus. Christ is present when we are present with one another in his name. Now yes, this can and does happen online. But the fullest expression of this will always be when we are bodily present AND spiritually present. Contrary to what people might think, the Christian faith is not abstract and intangible. It’s flesh and blood. It’s holistic and integrated. It invites the engagement of the whole person, all of us with all of God. I think that is what we are missing, and what we are looking forward to when we think about resuming in-person worship. It’s about being present, physically and spiritually, as whole persons, with one another and with God.
Worship in the New Normal
What exactly that will look like is secondary. Maybe we’ll be able to sing. Maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll be six feet apart. Maybe we’ll be shoulder to shoulder. Who knows what the world will look like next month? The point is, and the important thing is, that we are present with God and with one another, that we can experience and feel the tangible glory of God settling on us during praise, or feel the rising communal conviction as we hear from the Word of God. It reminds us that God is real, that people are real, that we are real.
The task force continues its work of preparing safety protocols for in-person worship. But because things are fluid and changing, it is difficult to pin down an exact re-launch date at this time. We realized that there’s no rush, because as much as in-person worship is coming back, online worship is not going away. In fact, the online space will continue to be a growth area and a mission field. We realize that many people will permanently worship online, or primarily worship online, coming in-person occasionally. And we have to be ready for all of those scenarios. We want to make worship, whether in-person or online, a great experience, and we want to figure out how to integrate the two more.
These are confusing and exciting times. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that things are going to change. And we have a rare opportunity to figure out what that change is going to look like as we reimagine worship and the church with God. The good news is, no matter what, God will be with us, always and everywhere.