Vanishing Worship: Is COVID-19 the Next Step?

Over the years, it seems like corporate worship in many churches has been vanishing. The calling of the local church, first and foremost, is to gather for worship, but we do it much less frequently now than we did in the past. Sinclair Ferguson has a test he likes to apply to those who tell him that the worship at their church is excellent. He responds by saying, “The litmus test of the quality of morning worship is the quality of evening worship.”

Before we unpack his statement, let us take a minute to see how far we have come. Most of us who grew up in the church can remember going to church at least three times a week. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday nights were times set apart to worship our Savior. In the town where I grew up, the teachers in the public school used to give less homework on Wednesday nights because they knew this was the pattern for many of their students. Coaches would also release the athletes on time so they could go to church, and rarely was there ever another competing event scheduled on that night.

Those days are long gone. It eventually came to the point where churches began abandoning Wednesday nights. For some, they did not walk away from Wednesday entirely; they simply recalibrated them into nights set apart for other programs: small groups, youth groups, children’s ministries . These programs are, without a doubt, good things, but we must be clear, even with other programs in place, the church took a step back in deciding it was not going to meet for corporate worship mid-week.

As we all know, for many churches, the same thing eventually happened to Sunday evening gatherings. Now, many churches in America only gather as a corporate body once a week for worship. The course of 20-30 years has made a huge impact on what the life of a local church looks like. So, what did Ferguson mean when he said, “The litmus test of the quality of morning worship is the quality of evening worship.” For many churches that do have Sunday night services, usually only one third of the people attend in the evening, and this is a reflection on the morning worship. To put it in more general terms for churches that do not have evening services, what he meant was, if the worship is so great, why is the body satisfied with such a limited amount of it? The truth is, many churchgoers do not want more of it. Our lack of desire for prayer and the preaching of the word seems to be a symptom of our spiritual drowsiness.

How did we get here? If there is a spiritual malaise going on in a church, the blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the leadership. Most of the pastors, elders, and deacons I know did everything they could to keep the weekly services alive, but the people were not interested. The problem is not that we do not have Sunday evening and Wednesday night services per se’; the problem is that we are no longer hungry for worship.

I get it; there is no biblical mandate that says 6 p.m. Sunday is to be set apart for worship. I also understand that Sunday evening church services were a relatively new development in church history. Please do not misunderstand me. This post is not an indictment against churches that do not have these additional services. Christian liberty is a real thing. The church where I attend does not meet on Sunday evenings, and I think it is a pretty great church. Small groups and other gatherings have filled-in some of the gaps, however, I cannot help but lament how far we have come as a culture, and with this spiritual malaise in place in many congregations, we now face a new threat—another attempt of the enemy to quench the fire of worship in our hearts.

The lockdowns of COVID-19 have exacerbated the lethargy of many. Way too many churchgoers are more than satisfied with watching church from their couches, and this spiritual dullness will continue to hold sway even after the restrictions are removed. If the church does not get serious about corporate worship, the leadership and congregants alike, this cultural moment could turn into one more giant leap down the path of vanishing worship.

There is hope, however, because the Lord is using these lockdowns to stir a fire in many churches. It is a desire for corporate worship that will not be quenched by merely getting back to normal; it is a hunger for more. My prayer is the Lord will continue to ignite this fire in the hearts of countless brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. Instead of continuing to abandon our worship, may we begin to reclaim it for the glory of our great God.

-D. Eaton

Online Worship is Good, But it is Not Church

I am thankful for the option of online worship in times like these, but we need to be clear, it is not church. During this time, when we are sheltering at home to slow the spread to coronavirus, having the option for watching our local churches conduct some kind of worship program is a good thing. I recently wrote a post that argued that deciding on temporary online gatherings is a matter of Christian liberty during this unprecedented time. Each church must make its decisions based on its context and convictions. However, church is much more than watching worship leaders and pastors over the internet. Yes, we can listen to the music, and some might even sing along. We can also listen to the word preached, but there is way too much we are missing out on online to call it church. Here are some of them.

1. Fellowship and Accountability

The Bible is clear that iron sharpens iron, and so one man sharpens another. If you have never been intimately involved in a local church, you may not know what I am getting at. It is difficult to put into words, but if you have experienced it, you will immediately understand. If you have attended church virtually for only one or two weeks, I know you are already missing it.

The music and preaching of the word are necessary means of grace in the life of a believer, but there is another thing the Holy Spirit uses just as much as those two things to keep us walking in his ways; I do not want to let my fellow church members down. We have covenanted together to place our lives under the lordship of Christ Jesus, and when we gather, I know we will interact with the scriptures and pray together. When temptations surround me during the week, my mind often imagines what it would be like to look at my brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes and act like I have been living holy during the week. It is unbearable. I also know that when I do fall, they will be there to point me to the nail-scarred hands to find forgiveness. Online worship misses out on this aspect entirely.

2. Undivided Attention

We need to be honest here; we are easily distracted people. Even in church, the enemy tries to pull our thoughts away from our good and gracious King, but, remotely, on a device with so many notifications ready to alert us to other shiny things, it is almost impossible. We also must admit that we rarely take “corporate” prayer seriously when watching online. You may be better at this than I am, but for me, there is no comparison to my level of engagement when I am at church and when I am sitting in front of a live stream.

3. Encouraging Your Pastor and Other Leaders in the Church

Pastors and church leaders need the corporate nature of worship just as much or more than we do. They face the same temptations we face and need us to be there for them just as much as we need them to be there for us. There are also temptations to despair that pastors face that we laypeople may never know because the enemy is after them. Teaching online is a way to keep ministering during a time like this covid-19 pandemic, but it can quickly steal their strength.

I currently teach a class at the church where I am a member, and since the students were not able to meet this week, I sent out a quick video covering the material in the curriculum. I was glad I was able to do it, and several people responded with appreciation, but I assume, if they are like me, they probably did not spend much time with the video. A few may have watched it all the way through, but most of them probably just clicked on it for a few minutes to see what it was all about and then went on to something else. Please, do not get me wrong; I am not blaming them for anything. I know this is how most people responded to the video because that is what I do with many similar videos. We cannot encourage our pastors and leaders virtually like we can when we gather, and the enemy will tempt them to discouragement. Perhaps we should all email our pastors today to tell them we are thankful for them.

4. Bearing the Burdens of Others

When we gather, we are not only nourished by our fellow believers, but we nourish them as well. They have time to let us know about their praises and their pains, and we can speak the word of God to them. They may already know what the scripture says, and they might have read the verses themselves earlier that week, but when they know that someone else understands and can comfort them because they have been through it too, it is priceless. Though this may happen to a small degree in virtual communities, it does not occur as frequently or as profoundly as when it is face to face.

5. Ordinances

I am sure in all the worship services you have watched online; you have never been served communion by your church leaders. Biblically, two of the most important means of grace are word and sacrament, and the latter is always missing online worship. This point alone to should be enough to convince us that an online service is not church.

6. Putting Our Gifts Into Practice

As believers, God has given all of us spiritual gifts, and most of the gifts, like service, encouragement, helps, and showing mercy, among others, do not happen when the people of the church watch the leaders online.

7. A Taste of Heaven

Finally, corporate worship gives us a small glimpse of heaven. In this fallen world, we may only get that glimpse as through a dark glass, but it is a glimpse none-the-less. Hearing the other voices singing with you when you sing praises to your God, reminds you that you are not alone. To borrow an example from the life of Elijah, God has kept thousands of others who have not bowed the knee to Baal. Someday, all believers will gather in Christ’s presence in heaven. Corporate worship should remind us of this, and that is missed when we are unable to come together to praise his name..

I, for one, am thankful for the technology we can use in these trying days, but the time cannot come soon enough for me when we will all come together and enter his courts with praise.

-D. Eaton

Church and Social Distancing: Not An Issue of Faith Over Fear

To say the decision to cancel church or not because of coronavirus is an issue of faith over fear is uncharitable, or at least unthoughtful. Dealing with covid-19 has us in an unprecedented time, and local congregations must decide how to continue to worship, protect its people, and be good citizens as well. Too often, people speak of this issue as a matter of whether the local church has enough faith, or if they will fail to trust God and let fear control them. Though fear may have played a role in some congregations’ decision to cancel its worship service this weekend, to speak of this issue in this way in general, exposes a failure to think deeply about what we are facing.

It would be just as wrong to say that all churches should opt for virtual services as it would be to say that all churches should gather as usual. Each church has a different context. Some are large, and some are small. Some are in rural settings that are naturally socially distanced, and others are in urban areas. Each church must evaluate what to do based on their context. To assume if a church opts not to gather, they are letting fear rule them, not only disparages our brothers and sisters in Christ; it is patently untrue for most congregations.

For those who say altering a church service due to covid-19 is a lack of faith, it is easy to point out their inconsistency by asking them some questions. Did you cancel your greeting time? Did you provide hand sanitizer for those in attendance? Did you ask the sick to stay home? Did you make any changes to protect your people? If they answer “yes” to any of these questions, simply apply their argument to them and ask why they failed to trust God? Of course, we need to do it in love. We must do it in a way that lets them know we care for them. We do not want to be uncharitable ourselves.

It is not a matter of faith over fear; it is a matter of where each congregation needs to draw the line to protect its people and society as a whole. Christ calls us to love our neighbors, and if it is in the best interest of those around us to keep our distance, it would be unloving to meet in person. Each church needs to make the decision that best fits their situation. If anything is an example of Christian liberty, this should be it. Hopefully, with a little more thought, we will stop speaking of this as a matter of faith over fear out of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are only doing what they need to do to be wise stewards of what God has entrusted to them.

-D. Eaton

How To Prepare a Sermon: A Layman’s Guide

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What an honor! You have been asked to preach. After the initial excitement wears off, you start to think, “What have I gotten myself into.” How do I prepare a sermon? There are about as many ways to do this as there are preachers, so what I am about to present should not be taken as dogma. It is simply an example from which you may benefit. I also realize that many full-time pastors already have their routine, so I am presenting this as a layman, for laymen.

Sermon preparation is as important to preaching as the act of preaching itself, if not more so. As the preacher, we not only need to prepare our message, but we need to prepare our hearts as well. Accomplishing both should be our goal of our preparation.

The plan below assumes that you already know the passage of scripture from which you will be preaching. Please note, if you are currently writing a sermon and you do not know what your main text is (or texts), what you are preparing is a talk, not a sermon: even if you give your talk with passion and emotion. The word of God is what we are called to proclaim, not our own ideas. If you have not been assigned a text, find a passage of scripture and that ministers to you and stick with it; preferably something with which you are already familiar.

Step 1: Pray Without Ceasing (All 7 Days)

If you are being asked to preach, you are most likely a man of prayer already, but this week you will need to be more so. There is no specific time you should be praying as you prepare. You should be praying continually all week. Pray first for your own spiritual condition. Ask for forgiveness for all your sins. You are not entering the pulpit as the perfect spiritual specimen. Repent and guard your heart. You are weak and vulnerable to all kinds of temptations, especially pride.

The only fit condition for you to enter the pulpit is in recognizing your utter weakness to accomplish anything for the Lord if he does not move. If the Spirit of God is not at work in your heart, and the heart of your hearers, this will simply be another act of a man speaking and people hearing without spiritual benefit. This can happen even if you moved them to tears, and they loved every minute of it. If the Spirit of God is not involved, you might as well read the dictionary to the congregation. Ask the Lord to move in you and your hearers.

Step 2. Read. Study. Listen. (3-6 hours)

This is where you feed yourself full. Your goal is to understand the text. Read the larger context of the passage (preferably the entire book of scripture), study commentaries, and listen to other sermons on the passage you will be covering. For myself, I tend to do this Monday through Wednesday. I work full-time, so my prep time is limited. I typically put in a total of three to six hours over the course of the three days. This includes listening to sermons as I drive to work or walk the dog.

As you are going through this process, the goal, once you understand the passage, is to ask yourself, how these truths speak to our spiritual lives. Why is this passage of scripture important? If you are in the right frame spiritually, the Lord will begin to minister to you through His word. Once you have been warned, comforted, and encouraged by His truth, you are ready to preach it to others and not until then.

Remember, if you are not excited about the passage you are preaching, neither will your hearers, and I am not talking about artificial hype. Too many churches try to cover their lack of interest in the word of God with entertainment. Pastors often do this in their sermons as well. Do not do that. Whether or not the church where you will be preaching has all of these trappings is not the point. You need to ask, do I believe the passage of scripture I am about to preach is important enough that I am comfortable walking into a situation that will be boring if God does not show up? Has God ministered to you through the process of studying so much that the message is beginning to burn within you, and will you not be satisfied until you are able to share it with others? That is when you know you are ready to preach.

Step 3: Write (2 hours)

At this point, you are ready to sit down and write, and by write, I mean either manuscript, manuscript notes, or outline. Whatever it is that you want to bring into the pulpit, that is what you want to prepare. I tend to write manuscript notes. This means I write in an outline form, but the outline is so complete, that if you read it out loud, it would almost sound like you are reading a manuscript.

Whatever format you choose, it is important that you realize that you are not to fit everything you studied into your sermon. As that Lord was ministering to you in your studies, you most likely landed on one to three points from the text you are longing to make. Only use the material from your studies that help you make those points.

You are not called to exhaust the text or your hearers. Remember, this is the Word of God. Thousands of sermons could be preached from this passage, and you are only called to preach one for now. Don’t try to preach them all. Knowing what to leave out is crucial to sermon preparation, and this is where many preachers err.

For myself, I usually sit down for two hours on Thursday night and write the sermon. Avoid the temptation to make it perfect. Your goal at this point is to get something down on paper which resembles a sermon. You still have two days to refine it.

Step 4: Review, Edit, Rehearse (2-3 hours)

Yes, I said rehearse. There is something, probably pride, that wells up within us and says, “If I have to rehearse, it is not from the heart or led by the Holy Spirit.” That is a lie. Rehearsal does not cancel out the work of the Holy Spirit. It is often the means he uses to hone the message.

As you begin to talk your way through your sermon, you will notice phrases in your notes that do not quite work. You may even realize you need to rearrange your points. By practicing your sermon, you get to hear it in its allotted time span. By doing this, you will get a better feel for the flow and the connectivity of the points and illustrations. This is something you were unable to experience during the slower writing process.

As you run through it, make edits in the margin, and then go update your notes. You will be amazed by the things the Lord brings to your mind to enhance the sermon as you do this. You will find yourself recalling other relevant verses, biblical illustrations, and examples from life that you did not think of as you studied and wrote. In the end, I usually try to preach the sermon twice before I enter the pulpit. Once on Friday, and once on Saturday.

When I walk to the pulpit. My notes are typically 95% typed and 5% handwritten notes in the margin. I am usually making notes up to the point I enter the pulpit.

Step 5: Preach

You have now done your due diligence. You have been praying for yourself, the congregation, and the message. Now it is time to put it all in God’s hands and deliver it. In the delivery, remember, you are not preaching at the congregation. You are preaching to yourself as much as anyone. Preach as if your life is dependent upon the Gospel you preach because it is.

As you preach, you may stumble over your words, nerves may cloud your thinking, or you may feel absolute freedom. None of that proves the success or the failure of the sermon. You will never know who the Lord will minister to secretly. Your job is to simply present the truth. If you have done that, you have done your job whether the people like it or not. It is now up to the Lord to produce the results.

Now that you are done, listen to the godly men and women in the congregation who give you feedback. They are often God’s voice to you to help you improve if you are asked to preach again. Accept criticism with humility, and remember any praise you receive belongs to the Lord because you went into the pulpit weak and helpless entirely dependent upon Him.

May our Lord, Jesus Christ, be glorified by your efforts.

-D. Eaton