Pastoral Perspectives

A Pastoral Letter on Returning to Church for Corporate Worship

The purpose of this letter is, as the title suggests, a call for all of us to return to church on Sundays to worship God alongside our brothers- and sisters-in-Christ.

During last year’s circuit breaker, worship was conducted totally online. We had to stay at home – a mandate given by the government. As good neighbours to the rest of the population, it was good that the churches in Singapore all played their part.

We had to embark on a steep learning curve as we used technology to ensure that we could still worship God in our own homes. We stressed the importance of having everyone tune in at the same time to retain the ‘corporate-ness’ of our worship.

Still, it was never meant to permanently replace the physical gathering of God’s people to celebrate the Lord’s Day!

As the authorities eased the restrictions, we adapted accordingly to progressively allow more people to return for worship. In the early days, we started with 50 people for the 8.30 am service held in the Multi-Purpose Hall.

Today, the 8.30 am service spans two sanctuaries, which can accommodate 235 people. We have also just resumed the 11 am service in our own sanctuary, with a seating capacity of 100 people.

However, not everyone has returned for Sunday worship. This concerns me.

I am concerned because online worship is never a good substitute for the real thing. Throughout the Bible, we see God’s people physically gathering together for worship.

The Psalmist says: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” (Psalm 122:1) This is part of the whole collection of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent, which pilgrims would sing as they made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the city was built on a hilltop.

Although the Temple remained central in Jewish worship, synagogues had already emerged as places for Torah reading, communal prayer and worship during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, if not even earlier. The physical gathering of God’s people again cannot be missed.

In the NT, the Greek word for ‘church’ is ekklēsía, which can also be translated as ‘assembly’. It is no coincidence that whenever Christians assemble for worship, there you’d find a church.

In Acts 2, the early church “42devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favour with all the people.”

Notice that the believers met in homes, but they also worshipped at the temple together.

It is no wonder that the author of Hebrews exhorted the Christians not to neglect meeting together as some were already in the habit of doing (Hebrews 10:25).

Why do we have to gather physically together? Can’t the gathering be virtual?

David Gundersen, a pastor, says: “We are embodied creatures. We are not ethereal beings made to float in virtual space. We are created to see and hear and taste and touch the physical world that God has made. In recent months, we have seen the power of our online world but we have also felt its limitations. No loving couple gladly accepts a ‘long-distance relationship’ as ideal. Neither should a loving church family.”

There is a place for personal devotion where we commune with the Lord individually in prayer and in reading his Word. But there is also a place for corporate devotion where we “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” (Ephesians 5:19)

We can be thankful to God that we are now allowed to sing behind masks so that both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of worship can be carried out.

There is also a difference between tuning in to a sermon from home and listening to the proclamation of God’s Word alongside one another. In the latter, we are reminded that we are accountable to each other and we ought to correct, rebuke and encourage one another with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2).

Then, there is the physical meal around the Lord’s Table. We see the elements of bread and cup; we hear the words concerning their significance; we touch them, we smell them and finally we internalise them. Christ has instituted this meal to give us a multi-sensory experience to increase our faith as we are being brought into his very presence.

Another name for this meal is ‘Holy Communion’. We are not only communing with our Saviour over a meal, we are also communing with the gathered people of God, the Body of Christ.

Last but not least, our corporate worship can serve as a witness to the world. Whether rain or shine, Covid or no Covid, we show our neighbours that our commitment to love God and to love one another remains steadfast and unmovable.

So my brothers and sisters, please come back for corporate worship. Let me suggest some concrete steps you can take.

For those who had attended the 8.30 am service pre-Covid, you can now come back every Sunday for worship because the seating capacity is 235. This is roughly the number of attendees we had before the pandemic, so there is enough space to accommodate everyone.

For those who had attended the 11 am service pre-Covid, we are not able to accommodate everyone on a single Sunday as our current seating capacity is limited to 100. However, I hope you will still have the attitude and posture of wanting to come every Sunday.

Consider switching to the 8.30 am service. Otherwise, choose one Sunday where you will reserve your ticket early, and for the rest of the month, go to the church website to check the availability of tickets on Saturday. Only if there are no more tickets left do you then worship online.

As for parents, please aim to come on at least another Sunday besides the 1st Sunday where your children will be attending U12. This other Sunday will be for the whole family to worship together. Don’t be too concerned about the noise your children might generate. Continue to have conversations with Ps Suet Fong as to how you can engage them during the service.

They don’t need to understand everything cognitively, although we will continue to try and make the sermon child-friendly. The whole experience of coming to church for worship should be part of their growing up years. It will help to shape their faith and this spiritual impact is something you cannot underestimate.

Although the Covid-19 cases have risen in recent days and the authorities are tightening up the safety measures in various sectors of the country, MCCY has not revised the guidelines for religious activities.

I hope, therefore, that we will not be paranoid. Let’s exercise some measure of faith when we come to church. We do our part in observing social distancing; we do not linger in church after service; we stay home if we are unwell. Otherwise, let’s come confidently into the house of the Lord and trust in his protection.

We have just completed preaching through the Book of Ezra. Although King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple, the majority of them remained in Babylon. Why?

God’s people had comfortably settled down in Babylon. They had gotten used to the new normal. It was too troublesome for them to make the move, especially those with young children or the elderly and frail. It would take four months to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. Moreover, they would have to set up their homes all over again. It would take too much effort; it was too much of a sacrifice. It was more convenient to stay put.

God wants us to return for corporate worship. It is what we are meant to do as his people, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Have we gotten so used to the new normal that we would rather remain status quo? Perhaps it is just too inconvenient, too troublesome, too time-wasting.

Shouldn’t this be a good opportunity for us to begin to offer to God a sacrifice that costs us something, an expression of our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice that he has offered to redeem us?

The church exists to worship God. Our weekly gatherings are rehearsals for the eventual gathering around the throne of God in heaven, which definitely will not be virtual but physical.

Rev Lee Kien Seng

May 2, 2021