Re-Forming Church Biblically

Each tradition needs to think critically before simply adopting practices from other traditions—and perhaps seek out and retrieve better alternatives from its own past. Moreover, churches should be extremely cautious about introducing technology into our worship; it never merely replicates the old—it restructures into something new. If we choose to stick with a technology temporarily during a crisis, we must openly name and steadfastly resist its negative effects, and (preferably) go back to a biblical structure of worship as soon as possible.

Note: This is the concluding piece in a series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID: Epistemology, Eschatology, and Presence, part of a larger project suggesting a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

Over the last five weeks, I have been posting piece-by-piece an essay that I wrote substantially in September–October 2020, about worship, COVID, lockdowns, and the church. I’ve chosen to wrap up this particular series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID,” on July 7, which is a special day for my family: the birthday of my late father-in-law, the Rev. Joe Hesh, who taught me so much about worship.

I can’t claim that Joe would have agreed with everything I write in this series, though I like to think that his Anglican roots, his charismatic college years, and his pastoral ministry in Baptist churches would have swirled together into some sort of interesting mix on the issues of technology, worship, and presence.

While this is the last post in this series, I will continue to share important pieces and my own writings on this subject, so please subscribe to receive further content!


Re-Forming After COVID

Mere simultaneity effected by technology can actually accelerate the destruction of true community. One solution, then, is to re-instill the value of unity and presence, for which mere simultaneity has been a cheap substitute—even before COVID. The pandemic offers an opportunity to reform our worship according to Scripture—we must resist the tendency to merely cope, while hoping to revert to a pre-COVID situation.

The local church should be re-formed around at least three essentials, which may be enacted in accordance with various Christian convictions and traditions. First, we are commanded to meet as the church, in local bodies, regularly (Heb 10:25). However, scripture does not guarantee that we will be able to meet just as we always have. The imperative to meet for worship does not require us to meet indoors for the sake of comfort or electronic equipment, or in large groups, or without masks and appropriate physical distance. But we “must not abandon the habit of meeting together,” as scripture says.

Second, local congregations might consider more frequent celebration of communion when meeting in person. We are corporeal beings; this embodied act is part of our fellowship with God and one another, and makes worship clearly distinct from electronically-mediated forms of supplemental fellowship (e.g., online prayer groups). If it is necessary to meet in smaller groups than we are accustomed to, it is better to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in small home gatherings as unique, discrete celebrations—not virtually as part of a large online group, eating and drinking simultaneously, and not with elements reserved for those not present, carrying over from larger gatherings.[1]

Third, the “fellowship of the saints” as a means of God’s grace in our lives entails allowing myself to be truly known by others, and allowing those fellow believers (and ordained officers) to have authority in my life, holding me accountable to God’s Word. This requires time, work, vulnerability, and time spent together—none of which is adequately facilitated by online presence or connection.

As I wrote at the conclusion of my earlier article, each of these elements of re-formed church looks different according to the theological tradition in which the church is situated. Each tradition has some strengths and some weaknesses that will surface during this time. However, I think we will find that some ecclesiologies are better-poised than others to weather this current storm. For example, Catholics and Reformed can appreciate the simplicity, flexibility, and locality of the Anabaptist tradition, which has long been receptive to house churches and small gatherings. Conversely, Anabaptists might learn from the stronger sacramental theology of the Reformed or Lutheran traditions, in which spiritual and physical presence are more intimately intertwined. Some traditions are inherently more amenable to borrowing the practices of other traditions—but a church may find that measures taken by local bodies in other traditions simply cannot be adopted without compromising key convictions.[2] Structural adaptations in our worship may necessitate the breakup of larger congregations into smaller bodies—and there will be gains (more intimate fellowship) and losses (less specialization in terms of ministries that can be offered).

Rather than mere simultaneity or the simple transfer of discursive information from God, biblical values that underpin our worship practice are: fidelity to God and his Word; hospitality; and discipleship. In exercising hospitality we become disciples of the God who invites us to his table and serves us—think of the seventy elders of Israel who ate and drank with God (Exod 24:9–11), or of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and commanding them to do likewise (Jn 13:3–20). The church is to be hospitable, a haven for the weary, a Spirit-filled outpost of Christ’s coming kingdom. All of these notions require physical presence. Yet hospitality also requires that we balance service with prudence, with proper precautions given all that we know about sanitation and the spread of disease.

Each tradition needs to think critically before simply adopting practices from other traditions—and perhaps seek out and retrieve better alternatives from its own past. Moreover, churches should be extremely cautious about introducing technology into our worship; it never merely replicates the old—it restructures into something new. If we choose to stick with a technology temporarily during a crisis, we must openly name and steadfastly resist its negative effects, and (preferably) go back to a biblical structure of worship as soon as possible.

Conclusion: Online Communion?

In conclusion, let me return to the personal story I started with: my dilemma over online communion back in April. My Reformed view of communion as a sacrament made me uncomfortable about celebrating just with my family, in my home, apart from the body of Christ assembled for worship—even though I am an ordained minister. In the end, it was my view of the church and my commitment to our local (Anabaptist!) community that led me to celebrate online, simultaneously with others in our church thus “assembled,” in good conscience.

Thankfully for me, others in the church sensed that this practice was just not the same as celebrating communion in person, and so we did not continue with it—only live-streaming sermon, songs, and Scripture readings for those few weeks. Thankfully for us in Lithuania, we were able to resume meeting in person only five weeks later, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together—in a larger room, with masks, using alcoholic wine and disposable cups. Despite the subdued atmosphere, and the absence of some at-risk folks who chose to stay home, it was a joyful reunion.

Most of those at-risk folks have since joined us for corporate worship. But even before this, some of my most joyful experiences in ministry consisted of in-home visits to these brothers and sisters, to celebrate communion with them and the other pastor, sometimes in two languages. Even though home gatherings were forbidden by civil authorities, visits to perform “essential services” were allowed–and we held that partaking in the body and blood of Christ is an essential service.

God has not left us without his Spirit, and he promises to be with us when we gather together. Our worship may not take the same form as it had previously, but it can still be biblical. Many of us live in cultures—modern secular Europe or North America—which do not accept in principle any limits to the scientific worldview to explain the world or engineer our way out of problems. We see the crisis of public confidence in these social and political institutions (which preceded the pandemic—for example, the rise of populism). How can and should the evangelical church—in wisdom—offer an alternative to modernity? We must be marked out as “people of praise” (cf. Rom 2:29, true Ioudaioi), those whose lives are structured around corporate worship of the Triune God.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] We have not even addressed the practices of foot-washing, which is regarded in some traditions (especially Pentecostal and Anabaptist churches) as an ordinance, and “greeting with a holy kiss,” commanded four times in Paul’s letters (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thes 5:26). These practices might be evaluated for their “essentialness” or safety during a pandemic using the calculus outlined that includes both material and spiritual costs and benefits. But regardless of specific assessment, the very fact of these physical, non-discursive practices in the New Testament points to the essentialness of gathering physically together for worship as Christian family, united across lines of gender, class, race, and ethnicity.

[2] Examples for consideration might be the role of the priesthood in the Eucharist within the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions; and the exercise of sign gifts—tongues, prophecy—in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.


About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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1 Response to Re-Forming Church Biblically

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Why Go Back to Church? | think hard, think well

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