I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together: whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. (Psalm 122:1-4)
I was glad. Such are the feelings of the hearts of the righteous who gather for worship. The wicked who have not God are given over to their sinful ways. Not so for the people of God. They know where they can find rest and relief, that which uplifts and encourages. It is in the fellowship of God's people, for there they find the Spirit of God in the midst whose power to heal the soul reaches even the mind and body.
Even the medical community recognizes this phenomenon. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, conducted by Trinity College Dublin from 2009-2016, followed 6,000+ religious Irish adults over the age of 50 for a decade. Their findings are statistically significant: those attending worship services regularly had far fewer depressive symptoms than those who did not. Social connectiveness appears to be a predictor of mental health. Women in particular are directly affected. A 2016 JAMA Internal Medicine study found "that women who went to religious services more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of death than those who didn't."
To be sure, the leadership of MBC is not insensitive to the very real threat of COVID; however, we do not go so far as to condemn a temporary refraining from in-person worship, especially when our knowledge of the virus was limited. We did not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together as some falsely accuse; indeed, we never deserted our custom of gathering, which is the sense of the Greek word egkataleipo translated forsaking in Heb. 10:25. The passage plainly says the opposite of forsaking is exhorting, which we continued doing. We temporarily suspended in-person gatherings much like churches do on heavy snow days. There is a time to every purpose ... a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. To insist on uninterruptable gatherings makes the verse an absolute command and goes beyond scriptural warrant. Would God's children stricken in a hospital bed, or an elderly shut-in, be in violation? Assembling is our ethos, our manner, and it typifies that which will be eternal only in the new heaven and the new earth.
Some still struggle to gather these days. Dr. Jobe Martin (Biblical Discipleship Ministries) recently wrote in his December newsletter:
"... it seems that one of the Enemy's schemes is to use this pandemic to keep the Body of Christ separated and in fear. New studies are coming out showing that those who are continuing to fellowship in person at their places of worship (at least once a week) are the only category of people not succumbing to the huge mental health crisis that is a part of this pandemic. While we are complete in Christ, at the same time, our Lord has set up a way He wants His Family to also complete each other: outplaying His indwelling Life and unconditional love to each other in all situations so as to build each other up in Him (Heb. 10, Eph. 4, Phil. 2). Here is one challenge: ... do not instantly negate [in-person fellowship] because of the possible threat of COVID. Instead, take that opportunity ... to our Lord in prayer regarding His will for your specific involvement in it. The Enemy wants the Body of Christ 'distanced' and waiting until the pandemic is over to 'get out again,' because He knows how effective we are when we are exercising our spiritual gifts with each other."
A lack of in-person gatherings also affects pastoral care. Proverbs 27:23 says Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds. The Hebrew word for state can also be rendered "face", resulting in the sense of having a lot of face time with the sheep. As a former engineering supervisor and director at a large defense contractor, this author can testify that far more is learned in-person than through the combined technical tools available (and we had plenty).
God desires His children, formerly from disparate backgrounds and cultures, to bond into His everlasting family starting now. Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. (Ps. 50:5) These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women (Acts 1:14). They were all with one accord in one place. (Acts 2:1b). The Biblical pattern is clear.
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