Fuddled Worship: Why Virtual Worship is no Substitute for In-Person Worship

This is a companion article to “Why Haven’t we Canceled Worship Services?” which can be found by clicking here.

American Christians of recent vintage are eager to live as if the fourth commandment no longer applies—adopting a Lord’s Day theology revolving around the question of how much activity Christians can get away with on any given Sunday. This has become the enabling doctrine for the notion that virtual worship is a sufficient substitute for in-person worship.

Virtual worship is when churches use online video and/or audio streams to allow the church to go through the rudiments of worship over the internet. Sometimes the church’s worship band and pastor live stream themselves on the church stage singing songs and preaching a sermon. Sometimes they record the songs, prayers, and sermon ahead of time and provide a link for members to access. Beginning in the year 2020, many churches decided to substitute virtual worship services for in-person worship to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

It is our conviction that these two things—the virtual and the in-person worship service—are not the same thing, and the church must no longer pretend that two things, so different, can be substituted for each other. The chief difference is that of real presence. In-person worship has a live preacher, preaching to a live congregation. There is the real presence of the body of Christ singing together—singing to one another. There are the real elements of bread and wine which are real participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16).

When a church member attends an in-person service, the elders are in charge of the service, including the songs that are sung and how many, the prayers that are prayed and how many, the sermon that is preached and how long. When church members stay home for virtual worship, they seize control over the service. They now control exactly what is viewed. They can skip things if they get bored. They can more easily check their phone for the news flash. They can turn down the volume or openly consult the wife about afternoon plans. They can put their dog on their lap and wonder what he is thinking.

The church member is now in control. Why? Because they have removed themselves from the work of attending church. They didn’t have to get dressed or arrive on time. They didn’t have to smile at their friends when they greeted each other. They didn’t have to sit up straight in the chair or wait until the service is complete to get lunch. In sum, they have removed themselves from the formality of attending worship on the Lord’s Day. They’ve cut the cost and the inconvenience and the hassle of attending church.

At its best, virtual worship is an approximation of the real thing. It is fuddled worship, which tricks people into thinking they are worshiping with the people of God, when in fact they are watching other people worship. In evangelicalism, many worship services are little more than songs, a prayer, and a sermon. Songs can be played on Spotify. Prayers can be heard via recording, as can a sermon. And so, the sheep can be forgiven for confusing a “virtual service” for the real thing. Some of the confusion amounts to thinking that worship is more about the transfer of information than the transformation of the person. It is decidedly the latter (Rom. 12:2), which requires the work of the Holy Spirit among the real presence of God’s people and God’s minister. The praise and prayer of the Lord’s Day are to occur “before those who fear him” (Ps. 22:25). Lord’s Day worship is a transformative experience rather than a middleman of knowledge.

The Puritan Richard Sibbes said, “Particular visible churches under visible pastors . . . now are God’s tabernacle.” Because church is a physical assembly of people, it’s not something that can be replicated at home. We were told to use the Lord’s Day to stir one another up to love and good deeds. We were told to assemble to encourage one another (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t fulfilled when talking brains log on and commence data transfer. Elijah gets strength when he learns there are still 7,000 people in Israel who worship the Lord (1 Kings 19:3 – 18). David finds shelter only “in the midst of the congregation” (Ps. 22:22). He later proclaims “the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation” (Ps. 40:9). The physical gathering is where faithfulness to God is passed down “to another generation” (Ps. 71:18). God’s people are specifically warned against concealing their worship and praise from the congregation (Ps. 40:10).

Virtual worship cannot be substituted for in-person worship unless the core remains unchanged. And since the core of worship—the assumption of corporate worship—is the real presence of God’s people, virtual worship is an unsuitable substitute for in-person worship, even in the times of the coronavirus. Think of how many Bible passages don’t make sense if we can substitute virtual for physical worship. The pages of Scripture primarily emphasize the corporate aspect of worship. Psalm 27 doesn’t make sense unless it is physical. As David looks around him, he sees several reasons to wait confidently for God’s deliverance. One reason is that he is surrounded by the people of God with whom he offers shouts of joy. How many “virtual worshipers” are filled with inexpressible joy as they cue up the next Spotify song?

In the Old Covenant, the sacrificial offerings were the central part of Israel’s temple worship, something that occurred physically, in the presence of the people (Leviticus 9). In the New Covenant, we approach God’s throne through Christ’s sacrifice. We take the physical elements of the bread and wine and physically eat and drink them (Luke 22:14-23). By faith we have union with Christ and present our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), kneeling before God among the people of God (Ps. 95:6).

During corporate worship, the church is supposed to address and admonish “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). There are two duties required when singing with the congregation. One is to make a “melody” to the Lord. The other is to address “one another.” This means that not only is there a duty to God, but a duty to the church. Obligations abound vertically and horizontally. Worship extends to the entire Godhead—Father, Son, and Spirit. Encouragement extends to the entire body—hands, feet, and unpresentable parts. The first praises God. The second gives courage to the saints. Neither can be replicated on Zoom. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith’s instructions about worship also assumes that Lord’s Day worship is a physical gathering,  “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear,(r) the sound preaching(s) and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence;(t) singing of psalms with grace in the heart;(u) as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God” (WCF, 21:5).

Since eternal rest with God is our future, the Lord’s Day, which points to our eternal future, is not optional. Sunday worship is not only the result of salvation, it is the ongoing means of grace that forms the soul in preparation for eternity. Just like a husband and wife aren’t supposed to be apart for long, but “come together again so that Satan may not tempt you” (1 Cor. 7:5), so too Christ and his bride are supposed to gather the first day of the week to renew the covenant and halt Satan’s devices.

When Christians mutually agree to not physically gather for Lord’s Day worship, when they mutually agree to disobey God’s instructions to physically gather for worship, they are saying to one another that they don’t prioritize worship enough to gather in the face of a physical threat. It says that the elders and deacons don’t prioritize worship enough to assemble the flock. They are satisfied to allow the substitute of “virtual worship services” to carry on. What are the people in the church to conclude? They are told to conclude that staying home is “loving your neighbor.” Instead, questions arise. How is keeping people from the physical assembly loving? Do all groups, institutions, and religions have a lukewarm commitment to their own things? Why are the race rioters so committed to their ideas that they refuse to stay home, but the church isn’t? Why do rioters take their ideas more seriously than Christians? Do I want to stake my identity with a group that isn’t committed to their own ideas? Why don’t they care enough about their central activity to keep doing it?

The church is being watched by not just those inside, but also those outside the church. When the church stops physically gathering for Sunday worship, the watchers see that Christians are compliant with restrictions that forbid gathering. Many in the world see the restrictions as proper and the Christians who comply as humane. But even then, what do they see? They see that Christians would rather be humane—in whatever way the world defines it—than assembled for worship. In this they learn something false about Christianity: that complying with the world’s definitions is more important than gathering for public worship.

The primary task of the church is to worship God. The church, not just individuals, is to do this, which necessarily means the church must be physically and corporately gathered. Mark Jones writes, “The most important thing a Christian can do is worship God together with the body of Christ. We come together each Lord’s Day as a unified army, fighting the Lord’s battles in different ways, knowing that God is fighting with us and for us.”[1] Gathering physically testifies that the church is worth preserving. The Greek word for church—ekklesia—means congregation or assembly, which denotes if the church fails to assemble, the church won’t be the church. We worship as much as we believe, and in so far as we don’t gather to worship Jesus, we can’t much hope for persevering belief.

[1] Faith, Hope, and Love, pg 189 (Crossway, Wheaton, ILL.; 2017).

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.