A painful reality of 2020: The year our family had to stop going to church

A few weeks after we moved to a new city this winter, COVID-19 hit, leaving us to “attend” the online service of a church we had been visiting for about two months. It didn’t work.

We didn’t even know the music leaders on the screen. Now these people were propped up on our kitchen table, earnestly looking at us through our iPad, inviting us to join in with congregation-less singing. And while I truly admired the effort they were making to provide a meaningful Sunday morning experience, we just couldn’t connect with it. Church felt like watching a locally produced, prerecorded TV show on the Facebook Channel.

Despite the awkwardness of the online service, we still tried to tune in on Sunday mornings, singing along with people who looked as depressed as we felt. But finally, one morning in May, we changed the “channel” and tried watching the online service of a nearby megachurch — I’ll call it “Meadowcreek.” We were hoping it might infuse some joy into the experience. That didn’t work either.

Meadowcreek was naturally more adept at TV production — they had a professional team of people who pulled off a top notch live service every week. And while it may have been shallow for me to seek a better online church experience by turning to Meadowcreek’s offering, I really just wanted to feel more connected to whatever semblance of a Sunday service was on the screen.

Meadowcreek didn’t have much of a chance at pulling in my family, but it wasn’t Meadowcreek’s fault. Like every week during the online service, dirty plates were in the sink. The kitchen table was littered with pancake crumbs and drops of maple syrup. My three-year-old son was sitting on the potty in the half-bathroom, grunting. My ten-year-old kept yawning and resting her cheek on her hand, and my eight-year-old was blankly staring into space.

My youngest daughter reached for her glass and tipped it over, splashing water on the table. Then I tried to adjust the iPad screen and knocked my glass over too (fortunately, there was only ice in it). All the while, Meadowcreek’s praise band was enthusiastically rocking it as the worship leader jammed along with the socially distanced band members.

In the midst of all of the commotion I was growing increasingly aggravated. I just wanted everyone to sit down, look at the screen, and focus; but I wasn’t focusing either. I was too obsessed with how distracted everyone else was.

“Come on, y’all, sing,” I said, demonstrating my halfhearted enthusiasm by gently clapping along with the song.

“Go ahead and lift up your hands there in your living room!” said the worship leader.

I figured I should practice what I was preaching, so I edged up my hands and then encouraged the rest of the family to join me, but it felt weird. Compulsory hand lifting in church services is awkward enough. Having to do it in my kitchen took it to another level (literally).

As it turned out, Meadowcreek — even with its remarkably well executed online service — couldn’t save Sunday morning. Online services felt like another form of social distancing.

When the church we had been visiting before Covid reopened on Sundays, we were hopeful. We were going to see real people again — to hear live preaching and sing along with other believers. But to our dismay, socially distanced, in-person church was, in some ways, more depressing than online services.

During the service, we had to sit about five yards from everyone else, which almost entirely eliminated social interaction. To the degree there might have been any familiar faces, they were hidden behind masks and we couldn’t tell whether people were smiling politely, staring blankly, or just wondering who we were.

The lack of opportunity to interact with people didn’t stop me from trying, despite the awkwardness of doing so from behind a mask. For example, one morning I tried chatting with a woman whom I thought I might know. Toward the end of the conversation, I finally said, “I don’t know if you remember me from when we visited before, but here’s what I look like.” Then I pulled my mask down and smiled. She didn’t recognize me, and when she pulled her mask down, I didn’t recognize her either.

Moments like those were a painful reminder that we weren’t known at church and — at least for a while — we weren’t going to be.

After two Sundays of socially distant church services, we went back home, but this time, we decided to make it more meaningful. If our family was going to meet at the house, we were going to do something that actually resembled a gathering of believers.

Here’s how we do it: Family church starts with breakfast, after which we sing through a few songs — some of them more basic, like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and others like “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” Then Raquel and I use a devotional from the kid-friendly Long Story Short to do a meaty “sermon” that we infuse with adult themes, group interaction, and testimonials. Next week, we’re going to add the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

We’re giving all we’ve got as parents and we hope that the seeds we’re planting in the heart of our family will bear good fruit. That already appears to be the case.

Our daughters are developing connections between Old Testament stories and the way they point to Jesus. They can recite the books of the Bible (thank you, Shai Linne). My oldest daughter’s eyes were laced with tears this morning as my wife and I talked about how God has personally called us, like Moses, to obedience that often looks pointless and feels painful.

As encouraging as our at-home services have been, our family still longs for the day we can be a part of a corporate church gathering where we can be known. It’s a longing so many of us are feeling, but deep inside, we really want more than the good old days of normal Sunday services. We’re yearning for that day in Heaven when we’re gathered for the Church’s family reunion around the table at the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6-9).

Be encouraged, though. Covid can’t keep the Church apart. There’s a natural attraction — a need — of different parts of the supernatural Body of Christ to pull together. We can’t live without each other. So, we keep trying — watching online services, joining Zoom Bible studies, having family services around the sticky breakfast table, and/or showing up for disheartening socially distanced church services.

We’re longing for God to bring His Kingdom together on earth at a time when the world seems especially broken, and our efforts to connect are not in vain. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Dear family members in Christ, however we can do it, let’s “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). This too shall pass. One way or another, let’s pass through it together as best as we can.