Is 'doing church' differently here to stay?

Now that lockdown restrictions are being lifted, everyone’s straining at the leash, longing to return to their pubs, football grounds, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and nail salons; and by the same token those providing such services are looking forward eagerly to seeing every seat taken and every table full. Others, with more modest ambitions, are simply longing to see Lewis again, provided CalMac can find a ferry.

Saturday, 24th April 2021, 12:00 am
The Free Church of Scotland in Stornoway was among those who broadcast services across the internet during lockdown

Churches will never return to the way things used to be?

But what of our churches? They don’t seem to share either the eagerness or the confidence of pub-owners and football clubs. Instead, pessimistic voices murmur, ‘We’ll never return to the way things used to be.’

It’s not simply a matter of people having lost the habit of going to church. That’s serious enough, but it’s not the only issue. More serious is the fact that many have found alternative ways of ‘doing church.’ They can stay at home, have a leisurely morning, avoid the dreaded search for parking, and worship on-line.

Much of what’s available there, and particularly on livestream, is excellent, and such provision will be a Godsend for the housebound long after the virus has lost its momentum. But as regular spiritual fare, it cannot be more than a temporary measure, forced on us by an epidemic of apocalyptic proportions. Football fans don’t regard watching the game on television as any substitute for the real thing, and neither should Christians be content with on-line worship. A church, in every language, is a gathering of real people assembled to worship God together, to hear the ancient message of apostles and prophets proclaimed through a living voice and personality, and to share in the Lord’s Supper with fellow believers, most of them familiar friends. We can’t take Communion on-screen.

Such a gathering is not simply a matter of receiving instruction. In terms of pure learning, you might well get more out of a book, which is what many of the old Highland Separatists did when they didn’t like the parish minister. They stayed at home and read an old book: the older, the better.

Few today, however, would be tempted to stay at home by such a substitute for church. They are far more likely to be tempted by the thought of their favourite tele-evangelist: a man or woman of much more splendid talents, they think, than their own rather average minister. Not that such ministers should feel too put-out. When a class of American Seminary students were asked some years ago who their favourite preacher was, not one replied, ‘My own minister.’

Some of these celebrity preachers are indeed splendid, yet their congregations would never be content with just seeing men like Tim Keller or Alistair Begg on-screen. They want to be present in-person, sharing the experience with others, and it is from their presence, and from their loyalty, that such preachers draw much of their inspiration. Without their congregations they could no more preach with such compelling power than Martin Luther King could have delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech to an empty room.

But when we, 3000 miles away, watch these vast congregations on-screen, what we are doing is not worshiping. We are merely watching other people worshipping; and though there are Christians the world over who never attend a local church, but proudly point to a celebrity preacher and say, ‘That’s my pastor!’ this can never be the case. That image, that barrage of electrons, I see on-screen, doesn’t know me, doesn’t care for me, doesn’t pray for me, doesn’t visit me, or even phone-up to see if I’m OK.

And besides, I known nothing about him (he’s still usually a ‘him’). For all I know he may firmly believe that the pandemic is fake news, that the world is under threat from a paedophile conspiracy from which only Donald Trump can save us, and that the Covid vaccines are a plot by Microsoft’s Bill Gates to get samples of our bloods, change our DNA, and rule the human race; and once you refuse to believe anything you read in the papers, but believe everything you see on YouTube, you need only a few random clicks to stumble on brilliantly-slick presentations that ‘prove’ all the conspiracy-theories to be true. Then you prove you’re an alpha male by refusing the jag.

Churches must never return to the way things used to be?

But alongside the voices telling us that things ‘will’ never be the way they used to be, there are others declaring that things ‘must’ never be the way they used to be. If we want our people back, we can’t return to the way things were.

And true it is, indeed, that churches must be open to change. After all, as Professor Van-Tam, our eminent Covid-guru, recently reminded us, If you’re steering a great liner across the Atlantic, you have to be prepared to make adjustments to your course; and this is no less true of churches. We have to change when circumstances change, or when we’ve clearly got it wrong, or when we discover a better way of doing what we used to do.

But adjusting our course doesn’t mean that we throw away the charts and the compass, ignore the lighthouses and the GPS satellites, and ballot the officers, passengers and crew to find out what course they would really like to take. The High Seas have their protocols and so, too, does divine worship. We approach God on his terms, few, but clear.

Of all the things that define Presbyterianism, this is the most important. Sadly, the simplicity he loves doesn’t always suit our human taste; and we deem ourselves to be, of course, the best judges of what he ought to like. But one thing we cannot do is to stand before the High King of Heaven and tell him that unless he lets us worship him as we like, we won’t worship him at all.