So there’s a popular Forrest Gump meme that says: “And just like that … all of the preachers were televangelists.”
That meme successfully wraps up the chaos most pastors have been facing since the advent of the coronavirus crisis. Over the period of a week, a dizzying variety of social distancing rules were dispensed, limiting social gatherings from 250 to 50 to 10 people … Then no gatherings at all. In our church office in Evansville, IN, we exited two staff meetings in a row to find that the quarantine standards changed while we were meeting.
Due to the coronavirus crisis, the rapid and unexpected changes to the social landscape have forced lots of churches to think on the fly: How do we do church without gathering? I mean, the church is in the gathering business, for crying out loud. For the most part, larger churches (like ours) were somewhat prepared for church without gatherings, since most of them dabble in the field of online worship. To their credit, most smaller churches didn’t throw in the towel, and dipped their toes into the waters of online worship two Sundays ago. Our state Southern Baptist association (SCBI) did a great job of helping to train churches in the medium of online worship. Boxcast, which is the company our church using for streaming worship, announced that they’ve had a 10-fold increase in church demand for their services. I’m proud of how our churches adapted and changed in worship.
Amidst the new reality of toilet paper hoarding and Germ-X shortages, our congregations have been fantastic in their level of understanding. In Christian love, I have heard the vast majority of our membership support decisions to run church virtually, knowing that social gatherings could easily spread the coronavirus.
Even so, everyone in church life understands that something is missing. A strange phenomenon seems to be happening that is making local pastors smile from ear to ear: Our people actually miss other people. And trust me: Your pastors, who hear you routinely complain about not liking people, are very amused. People miss being hugged by their pastor … Warm embraces from people they’ve missed … Sitting next to a dear friend in a coffee shop … Joining voices with other Christians in worship … Even talking in person instead of Brady Bunch-esque Zoom app. For the stir-crazy quarantined mom, the thought of the church nursery brings tears to their tired eyes.
This longing to gather with other believers found in the heart of the Christian is actually an echo of our longing for Heaven itself. Pastors love to say that our local church gatherings are simply a pale reflection of the worship of Heaven. I’ve heard pastors preach this point many times … And I believe this concept is Biblical and true. However, I don’t think that most local church members are buying what we’re selling. You see, many seasoned church-goers readily equate the word “church” with back-biting and interpersonal nastiness. If we tell the average congregation that Heaven is just like church, they’d say: “Is there a third option available for my final destination? … One without all the church folks? … Maybe a private island in the Caribbean minus a Fyre Festival?”
Nonetheless, the echo of Heaven exists. The worshipping church on Earth mirrors the activity of Heaven. As we see glimpses into Heaven in Revelation, we continually see the church gathered in worship:
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
– Revelation 4:11-13
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
– Revelation 7:9-12
Thank God: Worship in Heaven is not virtual. When we get to worship in Heaven, we won’t be having a remote experience from a television or tablet. No, there will be a “great multitude” of people that “no one could number.” Myriads of myriads. Thousands of thousands. And that’s certainly larger than a gathering of 10 people.
When people in traditional Baptist circles talk Heaven, they often describe it as a tearful family reunion complete with barbecue and cole slaw. Golden streets and little houses on the hillside abound, but Christ is only mentioned in passing. John Piper ruminates: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?” Unfortunately, Heaven is often portrayed as a Fantasy Island for which the plane never arrives. The average passing fantasy of Heaven erases the centrality of Christ and inserts our own personal wants, desires and dreams. Listen: He holds all things together and is the center of all things – including Heaven (Colossians 1:15-17). A Christless Heaven is no Heaven whatsoever.
However, we should not be quick to commit the opposite error: A people-less Heaven is also no Heaven at all. In Heaven, man will certainly not be the center of attention … Not even remotely close. The honor of the Heavenly throne singularly belongs to the Lamb that was slain. But make no mistake: The bridegroom will have his bride … Our great Ransom will have the people He purchased by His blood. Hear the voice of God loudly proclaim in Revelation 21:3: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Christ longs to dwell with man, and Christ will receive His foreknown and predestined prized possession (Ephesians 1).
In Christ, we consistently find a great gatherer of people. From the covenant of Abraham to the last pages of Revelation, we see God building up a people as His cherished possession. We would be blind if we miss all the gathering metaphors in Scripture: We are His holy Temple … We are His body … We are His treasured possession (1 Corinthians 12; 1 Peter 2:9). Scripture consistently speaks of Christ uniting and longing to bring people under His wings of protection. He is reconciling the world through His blood (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Christ is already – and has always been – in the Great Gatherer.
Amidst our troubled little churches filled with petty fights and pastoral indiscretions, we’ll find the foundational activity of Heaven hidden in plain sight: Voices raised together in worship of a risen King … A gathering of people from every tribe, nation and tongue … Praise and glory shifting from our sad little lives to our glorious Savior. Right now in our moment of crisis, we miss the shadow of Heaven. We long to join hands to bless Christ. We miss weeping and rejoicing together. And we hate the division of our personal bubbles and self-quarantines.
Even the most introverted person would admit now: We miss people.
Dang it, we really do miss people.
Even if we never gather again in our local churches on Earth (which I really doubt is true), we will always have the great gathering of Heaven to cling to. Find hope that there’s a Heavenly gathering assured. In Heaven, I doubt there’s barbecue but I’m sure there’ll be Jesus and other Christians bought by His blood, and that’s a whole lot better. And an even more hopeful note in this time: There’ll be no Heavenly quarantines … No self-isolations … No 6 feet of distance … We’ll never find tape marks on the floor to make us stand properly distanced apart. And we’ll certainly have a gathering of more than 10 people in Heaven … And it won’t be simulcasted. Praise God for that.
We long for the time we can gather in our local churches again. But when we finally get back to shaking hands, raising voices and breathing on each other without face masks again, I hope that we remember that our eternal gathering in Heaven will be so much sweeter and boisterous than Earth. Eternity is written in our hearts … That’s what we really long for.
So come, Lord Jesus.
Photo by Frank Mckenna Courtesy of Unsplash