As we gathered at church on the first Sunday of November, there was an atmosphere of nervous anticipation. We all had heard the night before that England would be going into a second lockdown for at least 4 weeks. I felt a sense of sadness as it seemed that not that long ago we had been allowed to meet together in person again. After months of online services, getting to see each other’s (masked) faces, to stand together in worship (even though we couldn’t sing) and the snatched conversations between going to our seats and leaving as soon as the service had finished, had become a precious reminder despite the restrictions we find ourselves in, we are still church.
Now we face the uncertainty of when we will be able to meet together in person again. Hopefully it will be just 4 weeks, but we have already been told not to count on it.
At times like this it is more important than ever to remember why exactly it is that we meet together as church. For what purpose and for what end? There are a myriad of answers we could give but they all boil down to one simple truth – we do it all for the glory of God. We worship, we pray, the scriptures are read and faithfully preached to the glory of God. We welcome, we serve, we put out chairs, face masks, and hand sanitiser to the glory of God. In BC (before COVID) times we would plan kids work, set up crafts, prepare snacks, and unpack the toys and books all to the glory of God.
Seeking to glorify God should be the primary focus of why we as Christians do anything but this is especially important for our Sunday worship. When we seek his glory first, the natural overflow is we will do his will here on earth, as it is in heaven. If our mindset is first to the glory of God, it will ultimately shape how we build community, reach the people with the Gospel, and care for those around us.
And similarly when we take our focus off the glory of God, our actions and motives will be shaped. Because when we take our focus off God, we will be looking at something else. And if we’re honest, that something else is usually our own selves. Our natural inclination as humans is to take the things of God and make them about ourselves, it’s one of the less endearing traits humanity has been prone to ever since the third chapter of Genesis. When we focus on ourselves instead of God, we fall prey to two enemies of corporate worship: performance and consumerism.
When we become consumerist, the whole worship service boils down to nothing more than a checklist. Did they sing the songs you like? Was the music to your taste? Did the preaching ‘speak to you’ or was it boring? Is the church meeting your needs? Was the service ‘what you needed today’?
When we become performance based, the end result is just as limiting. It becomes nothing more than our own subjective measurements of what constitutes a success or a failure. Were people receptive to what you had to say, or did they just look bored? Did people respond well to the word you brought or was it barely acknowledged? Did people really seem to engage in the worship or did it all seem a little flat?
The two lenses through which we view our Sunday mornings will create an entirely different picture all together. Think about it like an eye-test, where the optician gives you different lenses to look through. One option will give you a clear focus and a far reaching vision, the other will make everything look fuzzy and render you unable to see beyond the end of your own nose.
Seeking to glorify God first gives us a clear vision and the ability to see the bigger picture of why we gather together to worship. Instead of being bound by performance ,we are free to pursue excellence in what we do but in the liberation of God’s grace. It is for him we offer up our acts of worship and service with humility and faith – not looking to the crowd for approval. We cease to ask ‘did they like it?’ And instead ask ‘does this bring glory to God?’
Likewise we are set free from consumerism. Seeking to glorify God gives us purpose and vision – we are here to see his kingdom come, to be a part of God’s will in heaven being done on earth. When we get our eyes off ourselves we cease to ask ‘does this meet my needs?’ And instead ask ‘does this bring glory to God?’.
As we enter in to our second lockdown and return to online services, this perspective becomes more important than ever. Because, let’s face it, online church services can be hard to engage with. Staring into a screen and singing along by yourself can feel awkward. I imagine preaching into a screen or leading worship alone while sat in your spare bedroom must be just bizarre. Or perhaps you’re huddled over your laptop desperately trying to listen while small children jump all over you asking, yet again, for another snack. Maybe you’re sat there watching the numbers of how many people have signed in, and then panic as those numbers start to drop before the service has even finished. We can start to feel disconnected and discouraged and maybe start thinking this is all a bit pointless.
Except that it isn’t. God’s glory is not limited by how we meet, and his glory is by no means lessened because we are meeting online. The situation we find ourselves in is no surprise to him, his plans and purposes are not thwarted, he is sovereign over it all. We all know Romans 8.28 ‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ But I would encourage you to skip back a bit and read that in the light of verse 18 ‘For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’.
So let us trust him. Love him. And glorify him. Alone in your flat sat in your PJs to the glory of God. In your living room surrounded by Lego, and crumbs, and small people, to the glory of God. Singing alone awkwardly to the glory of God. Whether online or in person we are still church, and God will be glorified.
And please don’t forget to mute your microphones (to the glory of God).