For many generations of Israel’s history, God dwelled among them in an ornate and gloriously mobile tabernacle. Wherever the people of God were commanded to go (or wandered), God went with them in a very visible way. Despite the public display of His presence in fire, smoke, miracles, and an opulent tabernacle with its golden accoutrements, Israel indulged in rampant idolatry and at times reveled in violating God’s commands.
When the Israelites entered the promised land, the tabernacle remained in Gilgal for seven years before it was moved to Shiloh where it remained until the time of David. There is a lot of history that occurs in that span of time and much of it is concerned with Israel’s habit of doing what was right in each person’s view. Under King David, the days of the mobile tabernacle came to an end. David established Jerusalem as the capital and God’s holy city (called Zion) amidst His people and he had grand designs for a temple. Though Solomon would ultimately build the temple of the Lord, the arrival of the ark of the covenant (a visual representation of the Lord’s covenant faithfulness and presence) was extraordinary cause for celebration.
And so it was, that when the bearers of the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he [David] sacrificed an ox and fatling. And David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouting and the sound of a trumpet.2 Samuel 6:13-15
When the temple was finally completed, the festivities surrounding the consecration of the temple and seating of the ark were unparalleled:
4) They brought up the ark of the LORD and the tent of meeting and all the holy utensils, which were in the tent, and the priests and the Levites brought them up. 5) And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who were assembled to him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen they could not be counted or numbered…62) Now the king and all Israel with him offered sacrifice before the LORD. 63) Solomon offered for the sacrifice of peace offerings, which he offered to the LORD, 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all of the sons of Israel dedicated the house of the LORD…66) On the eighth day he sent the people away and they blessed the king. Then they went to their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the LORD had shown to David His servant and to Israel His people.1 Kings 8:4-5, 62-63, 66
During the best days in Israel, there was much rejoicing over the presence of the Lord. When the tabernacle gave way to the more permanent temple (until AD 70 anyway), there was cause for rejoicing and feasting for two weeks (1 Kings 8:65). Similar conduct is seen in the early church when the Holy Spirit indwells the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). In the end of days, God dwells among His people in the New Heavens and Earth and a great marriage supper occurs (Revelation 19, 21).
Whenever God and His people are gathered together, there is much rejoicing and much to rejoice over. Yet, in our day, this reality seems lost on no small number of professing Christians. This reality is truly the culmination of a multitude of reasons both personal and corporate, but I want to focus upon what quarantine has highlighted specifically.
At the outset of what I am about to write, I want to make it clear that I do not fault anyone’s decision to shelter in place or move to online services from January through May. We all believed this period would be shorter than it proved to be; 15 days turned into a factor of many multiples.
In the midst of this quarantine, many faithful ministers and elders have sought to lead their congregations in obedience with the best information available to them from week to week; the others who respond out of fear are not the focus here. At the beginning of quarantine, the predictions were so dire that it seemed prudent for congregations to find other ways to meet; the technology of our age seemed poised for such an event. Yet, as quarantine wore on, a few lessons were learned and undeniable realities became evident.
As It Stands Now
Online services are no substitute for the in-person, gathered, public worship of God’s people.
The novelty of online worship quickly wore off and evidenced that live streaming services is not a viable option for the true church. Since everyone was trapped in their homes and apartments, church came via the same route as the entertainment many binged to pass the time. There was very little difference between Tiger King and church in terms of medium. (Surely your church is vastly different than Tiger King in all other regards)
Nevertheless, Facebook Live, Zoom, and whatever other platforms utilized, are not 1:1 corresponding substitutes for gathered, corporate worship. Most notably, you are either participating by yourself or with your family; there is no one to greet, fellowship with, or be accountable to (chat boxes within all of those platforms are more of a nuisance than a help). Further, many churches do not have the technical ability to stream services in a glitch free manner (thereby diminishing the hoped for experience) and some members were surely cut off for lack of their own reliable access.
It is almost unnecessary to state that physical attendance is not the same as watching it through a screen. We see this in many facets: concerts are far more enjoyable in person, the popular Zoom activity of ‘riding a rollercoaster together’ is in no way comparable to actually riding the thing, and while video chats are supremely helpful (especially for missionaries and their families), they are a meager substitute for sharing a meal and being in proximity together. The digital, as enjoyable and magnificent as it can be, is only a shadow of the full experience it depicts.
Other churches sought to use their abilities and seized the opportunity to conduct themselves in the same manner as streaming services by transforming their regular practice of gathered worship into an on-demand experience. According to Barna, 29% of “practicing Christians” (those who attend church at least once a month) took advantage of that feature. The Lord’s Day was fit elsewhere in the week; feeding the consumeristic stripe of American evangelicalism. Church shifted from God calling His people together to His people seeking to call Him for worship when they pleased.
The shift to online also necessitates a shift in pastoral care. (This does not include the fact that many pastors were barred from visiting sick parishioners and could no longer make home visits or counsel around the city) Even though it is well documented that the almost entirely digitized life under quarantine has some significant drawbacks and problems, only 30% of practicing Christians indicate that they have had contact with pastors during the previous month.
Congregants easily skip or tune out the live service.
Since work, school, and entertainment are coming through the same channel, church is no different; in fact, by the end of a week of digital overload and Zoom fatigue, church seems laborious. As such, congregants rationalize skipping altogether or distract themselves with other pursuits while the service plays in the background.
Barna has been researching this shift in church since March and although they are still gathering data, some startling data has already been published:
- As of June 3, 48% of those who had previously attended church in the last 6 months had not streamed a church service in 4 weeks.
- 15% of practicing Christians multitasked during the stream.
- Only 42% of practicing Christian households watch the service at the same time together.
- As of July 8, 1/3 of practicing Christians had stopped attending online services altogether. (What was found was that those who continued to stream their pre-quarantine church were more likely to continue streaming)
- 50% of the practicing Millennials have stopped attending.
At least in the United States, the application of quarantine restrictions became unduly heavy handed and obviously partial.
Liquor stores, casinos, and abortion mills could remain open, but church was deemed too risky; hundreds could crowd and stand in line at Walmart, but a congregation of 50 was deemed pathologically deadly to a community. Thousands could break social distancing to crowd the streets, riot, destroy public and private property, pummel bystanders, and hold city blocks hostage; congregations of hundreds were labeled non-essential and hazardous to the public. Contact tracers and law enforcement hovered with baited breath around churches that continued to meet but laid not a finger upon the thousands filling the streets; media tripped over themselves to narrate that home parties and churches, not protests, were the true cause of COVID case spikes.
Churches are eager to welcome congregants, but they continue to face many obstacles that businesses and even superfluous award shows do not. Churches continue to face scrutiny that is withheld from larger gatherings or socially acceptable demonstrations.
The Heart of the Matter
What does any of this have to do with the temple and tabernacle of the introduction?
I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! Jerusalem – built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.Psalm 122:1-4
The Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134, were composed by David and Solomon to be sung by the people of God as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which sat on a hill, for the three annual festivals. Some traditions also state the priests would sing these as they ascended the steps of the temple. Here, in Psalm 122, we note a special reason to rejoice.
The pilgrim’s feet are in the city of God, Zion, and they are going to the house of the Lord. Where the presence of God used to dwell in a tent and travel with the people, now, the presence of the Lord dwelled in an opulent temple that towered the city and, as some historians believe due to the amount of gold, could be seen from miles around. Not only did God have a permanent temple, He had a city where He could always be called upon. A wandering people now had permanence.
The psalmist reacts with gladness to this reality and the invitation of the people, ready with obedience of faith, to join them in going to the house of the LORD. The people were not merely agreeing that gathering was good or asking someone to go in their stead; they were encouraging each other to attend the worship of God.
While there is a growing, vocal number of Christians eager to return to gathered worship, or even proclaiming enough is enough and returning to the house of the LORD regardless of the magistrate, there are others less enthusiastic and even downright hostile to the idea. Where Israelites rejoiced, celebrated, and even partied regarding the House of the Lord, many today are content to abstain themselves or call out any who attend services under COVID. A journey to Jerusalem to be in the Lord’s House was met with music and gladness, but today it is met with rebuke, caution, and charges of persecution complex.
There are a great many in our day for whom the Lord’s Day is not a joyful affair. Attending the public worship of God on the Lord’s Day is tedious and taxing; it is not a day of joy and gladness, the best day among the rest. The reason for this could lie in any number of places: attending a false church, indwelling and cherished sin, unresolved disputes with believers, a heart that loves the world, the flesh kicking against the desires of the spirit, or unregeneracy.
The accountability of gathered worship was enough to keep some in attendance; the appearance of godliness was necessary. COVID has provided the long-awaited excuse, for those who desired to quit the church, which couches their disobedience in piety. If the discussion can be couched in pro-mask verse anti-mask, pro-Romans 13 verse anti-6th commandment, than no one will seek out the heart enthroned reason to abstain. Public worship is optional when ‘loving your neighbor’ is king.
For some COVID was merely the final event in a long established pattern. The lack of accountability was all that was needed for those who already prioritized so much over corporate worship. Many evangelicals have considered worldly pursuits, either for themselves or their children, as more pressing than faithfully gathering. As such, they established a routine of placing work advancement, sports achievements, dance competitions, theatre, homework, housework, and even family time above the needs of their own soul. They would surely not state it as such, but when the professed Christian willfully neglects the means of grace God has established in His church, the end result is a deprived and anemic faith.
Faith and worship have never been on man’s terms; God draws people to Himself in salvation and calls His people for worship. It is no surprise then, when man seeks to determine how he will worship, if he will worship at all, the results are counterproductive. When hobbies and advancement are cherished over gathered worship, the heart is fed a meal which only withers and depletes spiritual strength.
The waning of church attendance or desire to even permit public worship among evangelicals under quarantine betrays what was widely suspected of them for a long time: the large numbers in attendance (or in baptisms per year in SBC circles) are not genuine. A great many goats have been penned up with the sheep. The problem, however, isn’t the great host of goats now seen among the flock, it’s that the goats are being treated and regarded as the true shepherds and experts on sheep-ness.
‘Loving your neighbor’ and Romans 13 have become bludgeons for the upper echelons of the evangelical elite and many professed Christians follow suit by castigating any who dare gather for worship at this time. In their interpretation, the magistrates have not crossed any lines worth squandering social capital or revolting against. Further, some prominent Christian institutions (long on the downgrade ride) have bound the conscience of their students through signed statements promising to abstain from church attendance (unnecessary oaths anyone?). Even the ubiquitous face mask has been embraced as a symbol of one’s piety; naturally churches and institutions had to brand.
The saints of God long to gather for the corporate worship of God. They must be among His people, they must be about the praise of God who has brought them safely through another week, they must be about feasting upon the Word that their faith may be strengthened for another week. This is true even for those who are laid up with infirmities or are obstructed from attendance for reasons they cannot control. God’s people not only need the regular worship of God (they have been commanded to do so), but they also need the community of believers; they need and must have the fellowship, exhortations, rebukes, support, instruction, hospitality, and charity of Christ’s people.
For a time, they were willing to shift to online when it truly seemed that the best course of action to do so. Yet, as time has passed and the realities mentioned above came to bear, they sought to gather. Doing whatever they must, they gathered for worship. Their desire and commitment to obey God’s commands and their desire for the church God has instituted for their faith will not long be suppressed by the magistrates.
Those that have pleasure in communion with God may easily despise the censures of men, even of princes.Matthew Henry on Psalm 119:23
This is unacceptable for wayward magistrates who seek to close up churches, ban their singing (even though studies show singing is no more risky than talking), threaten to shut off utilities, arrest their leaders, or fine them into subservience. All the while, the same magistrates permit three months of continual rioting and protesting in large numbers with mixed application of masking orders. The disproportionate application of weights and measures communicates that the magistrate is more consumed with control than true public health or safety.
Nevertheless, the faithful will bear under these unequal measures and preferential enforcements; they will bear under the scrutiny and slander; they will bear under whatever reproach they must because they must have and worship Christ. They realize that in our society, Christians have no social capital to squander; there is only faithful obedience to Christ. They also know that tyrants will use Romans 13 as a manipulative tool and that at some point Christ must be obeyed despite the threats or beatings (Acts 5:29). The faithful, as we have seen in history and throughout the present world, will always risk more than the world can afford to charge because in the end, what they lose is of small value compared to whom they possess.
These faithful, like the Psalmist and pilgrims before, joyfully sing of journeying to the house of the Lord. After a period of quarantine, their joyful hearts are full to be standing in His house once again. Along the way, each week, they call out to all of Christ’s sheep who will hear, “We are going to the house of the Lord!”
These faithful, unstoppable pilgrims beckon you join them in worship.
Get thee to church.
From the Desk,
P.S. Enjoy this stately rendition of Psalm 122 performed by Harry Christophers and the Sixteen.