Tag Archives: Worship

Why It’s Not the Same

W. Jackson Watts

It’s just not the same.” Most people have heard this phrase and uttered it countless times since March. It’s how Christians have expressed the sentiment of trying to worship together while not actually being together. After the suspension of worship services in March, the vast majority of congregations transitioned to various online expressions of Christian community and worship. These ranged from pre-recorded sermons being posted online to livestreaming full-length service elements from mostly vacant buildings—and quite a few other variations.

During this time pastors, teachers, and church members repeatedly said, “We know it’s not the same.” I’ve heard those words rolling off of my lips a time or two. Most people recognize that in doing something online, regardless of what they call it, they were engaged in something highly unnatural and undesirable.

Let’s zero in on the phrase itself: “Online ‘worship,’ ‘service,’ or ‘church’ isn’t the same.” I have two main concerns about this. First, it’s not clear to me that all Christians recognize that there is an inherent problem or limitation. Now if you asked them, “Would you prefer to gather in person or watch a video or something like a service online?” most would opt for the former. However, this leads to a second concern. Can we honestly articulate why an online experience isn’t the same as an in-person experience? Only in answering this question, based on biblical principle and practice, can we rightly address the first concern, which is to understand that there is indeed a problem or limitation that we need to face up to.

With that being said, I have composed a list of reasons why an online experience is inferior to an in-person experience. I offer this list with conviction, but also with compassion. I fully understand that we’re still in a transitional stage where many of our brothers and sisters are not yet able to gather  owing to health concerns of various kinds. Yet the importance of addressing this issue is three-fold: (1) Crises are an occasion for us to grow in virtue and understanding. If we must be apart now, and if we want to make sense of the months we were apart, thinking this through will benefit us. (2) Because many who are new to the faith, or who aren’t believers, will likely not fully understand God’s design for the church, this is an occasion for discipleship. We don’t want to squander such an opportunity. (3) Pastorally speaking, there are many who think it’s safe enough to go on vacation, go to Walmart, protest while surrounded by thousands, and/or attend large family gatherings, but gathering at a socially-distanced worship service is somehow not sufficiently safe. Walking through such a list may cause them to reevaluate what is truly essential to our Christian experience.

With those being said, here are my 22 reasons, largely in no particular order:

  1. Church means “assembly.” It’s a gathering. You can’t gather apart.
  2. “Online church” or “Online worship” are oxymorons (see #1).
  3. God made us as embodied creatures to experience life.
  4. It’s impossible to look someone in the eye on a screen and the camera simultaneously.
  5. You can’t hug someone you’re not with.
  6. You can’t shake the hand of a person you’re not with.
  7. You can’t take the Lord’s Supper with the body when you’re not with the body.
  8. You can’t wash feet[1]
  9. You can’t practice congregational church discipline online.
  10. You can’t easily hold a church business meeting online, if at all.
  11. It’s easier to get distracted when you’re apart, behind a screen, and no one else can see what you’re doing.
  12. Online ministry uniquely furthers the problem we already have among some Christians—which is to see the church as a religious content provider (i.e. Here’s a file to download at your leisure!).
  13. Virtual “altars of prayer” don’t provide us a place to weep together as we might need
  14. I can’t hear God’s Word being sung all around me online, no matter how good the audio and amplification are.
  15. The preacher can’t look his listeners in the eye in an empty
  16. The congregants can’t fully experience the depth of multi-directional communication that live preaching achieves.
  17. You can’t have the fullest range of volunteers assisting in leading the worship service.
  18. Online “visitors” don’t experience your church as it truly is, but as an online product.
  19. Younger children don’t get the opportunity to learn to be still and attentive in a service surrounded by other people.
  20. Younger children don’t get to learn about the act of giving by placing money in the offering plate that their mother, father, grandma, or grandpa handed them.
  21. Empty or sparsely filled parking lots diminish yet another opportunity churches have to give a visible witness to what they value in life to the surrounding community.
  22. Participating in Sunday school, small groups, and other similar ministries online loses a significant personal

I want to acknowledge that there may be a counterpoint to most of these. People are finding new ways to perform normal parts of life online. Yet I’ve tried to combine both principles (like #s 1 and 3) with both practical situations (like #s 20 and 22) to help us understand what’s really at stake. You can’t work your way around a biblical principle; it is what it is. It’s God’s good design for us. When it comes to the practical situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of specific experiences we miss when we’re apart. I do see these as practical ways we apply biblical principles, even though they aren’t all commanded of God (i.e. I don’t think Scripture requires Christians to hug as the only culturally-appropriate alternative to a “holy kiss.”). But some of these are ways we express our love and unity in the faith together that can’t be supplanted easily—if at all—in virtual reality.

Let me offer a final thought to those still at home who reasonably must remain there, and those able to gather but may have grown to devalue our embodied, physical gatherings:

To those at homebound or in nursing homes, you are not somehow less than God’s child because you are unable to be with other Christians. This simply means we who are able have a greater obligation to minister to you where you are, as best as we reasonably can. Pray for us as we pray for you. Do what you can from where you can. We miss you, and we love you.

To those able to gather but refuse to, or who deep down doubt the importance of in-person worship, what would you like to say to those stuck at home? After considering this list, do you still feel the same way? How might we honor, respect, and love God and His people well? Seeing why our online experiences fall dramatically short should help us to recommit ourselves to the importance of our gathered life of worship and service, and help us to be more intentional in serving those who weren’t able to gather, even before we ever heard of COVID-19.

[1] I am not advocating that we practice the Lord’s Supper or Feet Washing during a time in which social distancing is still necessary for health reasons. I’m speaking about what is possible (or not) during non-pandemic conditions.

On the Need for Theologically Rich Worship Songs

Matthew Pinson

Why talk about songs on a theology blog, one might ask. But a theology blog is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. That’s because the reason the New Testament gives us for singing in church is primarily about theology.

The New Testament Reason for Singing in Church

As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree has ably exegeted it in his journal article in Integrity), the reason we sing to each other in church is primarily to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, copiously in the people of God.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16, nkjv).

The reason for worship songs in the new covenant church is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (nouthetountes: to counsel, warn, encourage, or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we sing with grace, or thanks, in our hearts, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). I’ve been emphasizing that recently with my class on Christian Worship at Welch College: The content of our worship music should very carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing songs in church.

Form Matters

Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures that the people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” of Eph. 5:19). It ensures that the teaching and admonishing function of a song is front and center. It ensures that the edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. It ensures that the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. It ensures that God gets all the glory, not musical performers. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the end, purpose, or telos of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.

If our heart’s desire is to have an apostolically shaped worship service, one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired apostles and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace that the Spirit has appointed in His all-sufficient Word shine brightly and guide and structure our worship, then we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims and trends of a handful of people in the music industry who make multiple millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads every year.

Theologically Rich Texts

Key to developing the kind of worship services I’m talking about is choosing worship songs with theologically rich texts. And it’s wonderful that we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. There is now an abundance of material that either presents freshly written songs that have newly written, theologically rich lyrics, or traditional hymns with which we’re now unfamiliar, set to new music.

I was reminded of this recently when my son Matthew reintroduced me to a new song by my friend Nathan Clark George. The song is entitled “Calm Content.” When Matthew played me this song, I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led us in this song in Welch College chapel a few years ago.”

If you are a pastor or music minister who’s interested in new music that features theologically rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts that have been reset to freshly written music that he has composed. Often he will write a new chorus or an additional verse to go with an older hymn text. Sometimes he writes the text himself. (And sometimes he just sings great songs that aren’t really meant for worship, just for fun—for example, his recent “ode to the Carter Family,” Happy with You.)

In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful old text from the eighteenth-century hymnwriter William Cowper (most famous for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time: Its subject matter is not only doctrinal, but also very practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.

Resources for New, Theologically Rich Worship Music

I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George and his friend Gregory Wilbur. They are a part of a growing band of “new hymnodists” who are bringing theologically rich, gospel-drenched song back into the worship life of the evangelical church.

Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, Indelible Grace Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend Music, Sojourn Music, and many other similar ministries. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the top half-dozen labels that top the CCLI charts. In fact, many of them provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!

I thank God for this explosion of theologically rich song for the twenty-first-century church, and I pray that it will help evangelical churches recapture their historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblically intend purposes of teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!

Kevin Hester & “Trinitarian Preaching”

by Theological Commission

Recently the Commission for Theological Integrity hosted its annual Symposium on the campus of Hillsdale FWB College. Among the many excellent papers presented was Dr. Kevin Hester’s entitled “Trinitarian Preaching: On the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.” It was extremely well-received, and we’re happy to provide you with the audio file of this presentation. You can listen/download here.

Additionally, a paper copy of this presentation, along with the rest of this year’s papers, can be acquired by ordering a copy of the Digest of Papers. Checks for $20 (which includes S&H) can be made out to the ‘Commission for Theological Integrity,’ and mailed to the attention of Mrs. Martha Fletcher at 3606 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN, 37205. Notify us at fwbtheology@gmail.com if you’d like to place an order, and please provide your mailing address in the email.

Thank you for your interest.