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Saying Grace: Online church can never replace in-person experience

Saying Grace: Online church can never replace in-person experience

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Nearly every Sunday of my 43 years of life has been spent at church. When I was a baby, I sat on my mother’s lap in the formal sanctuary of our family’s small Presbyterian church. As a child, I stared at the light streaming through beautiful stained glass windows while trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden benches.

We switched to a charismatic church as I entered my teen years. Sundays were spent attending lively worship services where women danced, banners were waved and ram’s horns were blown. Since getting married, we have attended a series of contemporary churches with worship bands and solid Biblical preaching.

These very different churches, all had something important in common—people. Going to church on Sunday morning allowed me to build friendships with other Christians. We laughed together, cried together, prayed for one another and encouraged one another. Those moments spent together worshiping God have been some of the most meaningful of my life.

Enter COVID-19. I, like many people, have not attended an in-person church service since the middle of March. And while it is nice to watch church in my pajamas, coffee in hand, from the comfort of my couch, it just isn’t the same. The consumerism of online church can never replace the benefits we receive from participating in an in-person service.

That is why I was so disturbed when a friend told me that their church was switching its focus from its physical building to its online presence stating, “Going forward, the people in the building are secondary. People want to ‘do’ church online in our social media-driven society.”

This mentality is a stark contrast from that of the early church. The Apostle Luke tells us that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possession to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God, and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

Because the early church made the practices of teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (communion), and prayer a priority, we should do the same. Church is never just about the message being preached from the pulpit. Instead, it is where we come together with other like-minded individuals. These people are the ones who will be there for us in good times and in bad. They provide us with accountability, encouragement and inspiration. We can do the same for them in return.

I’ll never forget walking into my church for the first time after my husband had his heart attack. I was immediately enveloped in the soft arms of one of the church’s matriarchs. When I melted into a puddle of tears while singing at the beginning of the service, I was surrounded by a group of loving, caring people who whispered silent prayers while I sobbed.

After the service, several couples came over to tell us about their experience with heart attacks at a young age. They understood our doubts and fears. They shared all that God had taught them over the years. They let us vent our frustrations, but continued to point us back to the only One who could provide true comfort and answers. Their stories gave us hope in the midst of one of the darkest seasons of our lives. Those unforgettable, life-giving moments would have been impossible at an online focused church.

I will be the first to admit that church needs to look a bit different for the time being. With the virus on the rise again in many places, meeting in-person might not be possible or wise. In this season, online church is the safest way for many to attend, but we should never settle for the poor substitute of a digital environment. In-person attendance must always be our ultimate goal.

Heather Ablondi is a women’s ministry speaker and author who lives in Fredericksburg. You can contact her through her website, heatherablondi.com.

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