Tag Archive for corporate worship

Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the rabbis had known for forty years before that date that something was amiss. Yoma 39b of the Talmud records the strange occurrences from around A. D. 30 onwards:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.”

From the year 30 (give or take three years), the Yom Kippur lot came up in the wrong hand, the crimson cord that was tied around the scapegoat’s neck did not change colour, the Menorah would go out by itself, and the doors would open and close by themselves. Since Luke tells us that many of the thousands of priests in Jerusalem became believers (Acts 6:7), clearly many of them understood the significance of these events, and of the one recorded in Scripture, the tearing of the Temple veil.

But not everyone did. Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai hurried to consolidate and set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. Rabbinic Judaism eliminated the centrality of the Temple and the need for ritual atonement. Several texts in the Talmud defend the new bloodless and templeless religion:

Shabbat 119b states that “Rabbi Chisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [heaven and earth were finished]’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him ‘and thine iniquity is taken away and thine sin purged.”

Menachot 110a: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt-offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt-offering”.

Hundreds of years later, the Siddur (prayer book) continued the idea:
“Lord of the Universe, thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in office…may Thy will, therefore, be…that the speech of our lips shall be considered an offering.”

Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalised on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the centre of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement. One can imagine the argument from expediency and pragmatism: “But we can’t perform the sacrifices! Prayer and the study of Torah must suffice now.” The larger question is ignored: “Why would God remove what He commanded to be used?” The fact that the first and second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, centuries apart, should surely have been some cause for reflecting on the meaning of this providence.

But the nature of professional religionists is to keep the show going. Treat the elephant in the room as a natural feature. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Last week, I posted on why we [my local church] chose not to livestream. (Note, not “Why You Should Not Livestream” or “Why Only the Ungodly Livestream”. )

In that post, I explained – carefully, I thought – that there are great uses for livestreaming in the church, but the one thing we should not do is to smooth this event over. As a pastor, I understand why pastors want to be shock-absorbers, and reduce the level of panic and fear. But comfort should never become half-truths. We should not tell our people that we are really still gathering, only through a screen. We might be communicating, and enjoying the connection that digital media afford. But we aren’t gathering. And I don’t think I’m splitting hairs in insisting that we reserve the term gathering for an actual gathering. The assembly must assemble. My argument was simply: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.

To make that attempt would be the rabbinic response. Instead of asking, “Why has God removed our opportunity for corporate worship?”, the rabbinic response says, “Well, God hasn’t totally removed corporate worship, since we still have the Internet! ” Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.

Yes, there’s no question that the parallels between the destruction of the Temple and our current crisis are not without many differences. We have not lost our atonement, nor have we rejected Christ. But there are certainly some similarities: Israel could no longer corporately gather three times a year, and we cannot gather for the time being.

As we look upon the rabbis of the first century and marvel at their hardness of heart, is it too much to ask for modern evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to ponder the meaning of the moment and soul-search?

Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we  attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?

Might it be that God is giving us that thing which people craved for, till it comes out of their nostrils (Num. 11:20) ? Some have craved internet church, home church, online sermons, convenience and comfort, and have despised gathering, prayer meetings, membership, covenanting, and ministering to one another. Now they have enough home and internet church to make themselves sick, and none of those things they treated lightly.

Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community?

Perhaps.

Or we could assure our people that this is a technical difficulty, and that regular programming will resume shortly. Our technicians are working on it.

Why We Won’t Livestream During Lockdown (Though We Could)

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>>>  Thank you. You have eaten the bread.

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>>> Thank you. You have drunk the cup.

Sound preposterous? Why shouldn’t we do virtual Lord’s Supper? Our technology has made this scenario possible. But is it desirable? Probably most would say no. In fact, probably most who advocate for livestreaming their services would object. The question is why they would object to virtual Lord’s Supper, but not to virtual everything else.

The Lord’s Supper is that act of worship which everyone seems to understand requires physical elements, the physical presence of God’s people, and their physical eating and drinking. If we were to simulate this with graphics, icons, or little avatars, probably most would use the words artificial, inferioror fake. Perhaps some churches would make sure every believer has his own personal Lord’s Supper kit, and at the appropriate livestream moment, everyone would consume. While this would be better than pretending to eat, it still wouldn’t be much better. The Lord’s Table is a table. People gather around a table. They eat, drink, and fellowship.

When a pandemic prevents us from gathering, the appropriate response is to grieve that we cannot gather, and then do what is the closest thing to corporate worship while praying for the restoration of normal life. Creating a simulation of gathered worship, however “live” or “real-time” is just that: a simulation.

Video conferencing technology is great for many things: business meetings, certain kinds of teaching, adding an image to a phone call. In a lockdown, it’s also good for making sure every member of the flock is loved and cared for. On the other hand, video conferencing is not good for a wedding, for a feast, for a funeral, for a family reunion. Which is corporate worship more like: a lecture, or a ceremony? A business meeting, or a family gathering? A performance, or a renewal of vows?

The event of corporate worship is a very physical moment, meant for embodied beings. We are to gather. The early church would greet with a holy kiss. They would pray and sing not just to God, but “to one another” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). They would baptise, and renew their vows to God and one another in each other’s presence. They would read the Word and hear it preached and make commitments. They would then share a meal.

It is a sign of the pervasive mind-body dualism in modern Christianity that we think of Christian worship as primarily the communication of ideas. We think of only the ideas contained in the songs, the ideas preached and prayed, the ideas read and understood. And if that’s all worship is, then all we need is mechanisms to transfer the information. In that case, an Internet connection and a screen is all we need. The only extraneous digit in this scheme of information transfer is that pesky Lord’s Supper, which doesn’t seem to be convertible to pure information. If more churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper more frequently, we might be less willing to brush it aside as “the one thing we can’t do online”, and take the physicality of all worship more seriously.

Worship is not a transfer of information; it is a training of imagination. The way we image reality is primarily shaped through our embodied practices, which requires our physical gathering. Again, is corporate worship more like a lecture, or more like a ceremony?

Just a few months ago, pastors were laughing at this satire. Now they’re insisting that their virtual church is a great form of community during the lockdowns. But of course, if worship is information transfer, why stick with your bland, vanilla pastor this Sunday? Livestream the best preachers in the world, or download the best sermons ever preached.

Beyond all this, there is a hint of partiality creeping in when everyone advocates for internet church. Can everyone in every congregation have the same access to a livestream that they had to get to a church building? Is it possible that livestreaming favours a certain group in the church, and that churches shrug their shoulders about those who cannot use it?

What then? Am I advocating defeatism? No, but a nice does of realism would be good. When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.

Even though corporate worship cannot happen, we can promote and encourage the next best thing. We can provide our households with a similar order of service, so that the church, though dispersed, is still doing its best to gain likemindedness on the Lord’s Day. Families can worship together. Singles can worship privately using the same service. We can use technology to share the music or hymns we would be singing. A pastor could use technology to send a sermon transcript, or a pre-recorded sermon to all. And yes, he could also preach live to those who could access that, as long as we communicate that this moment is not an “online gathering”. Instead, it’s a painful moment of separation, where we cannot break bread together, and await our reunion. At best, it’s private worship, or family worship, aided by technology to be loosely in contact with the rest of the church.