[The following is excerpted from the book, Gather: Getting to the Heart of Going to Church, Copyright © 2021 by M. Hopson Boutot. Click here to download the entire book for free.]
March 15, 2020 may be forever burned into my memory. There are several reasons for that which I won’t get into here, but one reason was this was the very first time I livestreamed a sermon. I’ve never been a technological innovator in the ministry, and that day was no different. If I remember correctly, the live video we recorded that day was upside-down for the entire sermon. No, our church wasn’t trying to innovate. We were trying to survive.
The governor of our state had just issued various stay-at-home orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Just over a week before, the first confirmed case of the virus had been reported in the state. Like most people we were afraid and uncertain. Like most pastors we submitted to government restrictions on our gatherings.
Of course, I was conflicted. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love the local church. And I sincerely believe that faithfully gathering with God’s people isn’t optional. It’s essential to the Christian life. So I studied how Christians in the past responded to plagues that threatened their gatherings. Of help to me were the words of Francis Grimke, a Presbyterian minister in Washington, D.C. who pastored amidst the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. In a sermon preached after the worst of the virus, Grimke said this:
There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us. (1)
With a historical example like this, the clear restrictions from our state government, and a host of uncertainty about the virus, I and the other PBC elders were willing to lead our church to suspend its gatherings temporarily. From March 15 until May 10, 2020, we held no public gatherings at our church, except for two drive-in worship services on Good Friday and Easter. But what to do in the meantime? How could we remain connected as a church? How could we ensure the sheep remained fed?
Francis Grimke and the thousands of other pastors in church history who have led their churches through deadly plagues didn’t have access to the technology we have today. Livestreaming wasn’t an option for them. For us it was. So we began offering a weekly worship service for our people to watch online from the safety of their homes.
A few weeks in, it occurred to me that what we were doing really couldn’t rightly be called a worship gathering. After all, we weren’t gathering. Sure, our computers, tablets, and smart TVs were all accessing the same content on the internet at the same time. But a gathering it was not. I stopped calling these videos worship gatherings and started calling them online chapel services. I began to stress to our church that although these videos may be a helpful supplement for a season when gathering wasn’t an option, they were no substitute for physically gathering with God’s people. And as soon as the government permitted us to begin meeting again, we did.
Looking back, I’m grateful for the technology that allowed us to connect with one another during those painful two months. I’m grateful I was able to prepare sermons from God’s Word that were recorded and viewed by many. Hopefully, they helped some. But the more prolonged the Covid-19 pandemic has become, the more concerned I have become about the state of the church.
1. Francis Grimke, “Some Reflections Growing Out Of The Recent Epidemic Of Influenza That Afflicted Our City” (Sermon, Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D. C., November 3, 1918), https://www.9marks.org/article/some-reflections-growing-out-of-the-recent-epidemic-of-influenza-that-afflicted-our-city/.