Not Gathering with the Church Hurts You Spiritually


Some will think this is insensitive, some will think it’s overdue, but I want to make sure it’s said: not physically gathering with the church hurts you spiritually. So, pandemic-weary Christian, work to gather again with your church, even if your church continues to offer a virtual option. Likewise, pandemic-weary pastor, gently encourage your pandemic-weary congregation to gather as soon as they can.


To Christians, let me admit, I don’t know your situation. I don’t know the laws you’re under or what health risks remain for you personally. Therefore, with a general-audience article like this one, I want to leave space for differing circumstances and consciences. Providential hindrances are real. If the flu keeps you home from work, you stay home and shouldn’t feel guilty. At the same time, you know that staying home from work, over time, hurts your job. So you get back to work as soon as you can.

Likewise, as you think through your own church-attendance situation, hopefully in conversation with your pastors, maybe you remain providentially hindered from attending. The Lord shows mercy and grace. He makes provision for the stranded, the soldier, the shut-in, and the high-risk senior saint.

But as you weigh out all the variables, I want to leave a pebble in your shoe. If you can’t attend, I want you to be a little frustrated that you can’t attend, lest you get comfortable. If you’re not frustrated, something’s wrong. The Lord has commanded us not to forsake the assembly (Heb. 10:25). And absence from the gathering does affect our spiritual state, even if we have a legitimate reason for not attending, like being sick or quarantined. Jesus designed Christianity and the progress of our discipleship to center around gatherings. The math is therefore simple: Gathering with the church is spiritually good for you. Not physically gathering with the church spiritually hurts you.


To pastors, let me say, I’m raising the topic now—in the winter of 2021—because I’m hearing from some of you that a few of your members have grown complacent. You’re telling me that members aren’t attending when they probably could. They’re a little too comfortable with the virtual option.

Indeed, this is why some churches never offered the live-stream service in the first place. They didn’t want to risk encouraging an appetite for a much-less-healthy substitute. Many other churches, however, made a different judgment call. They offered the much-less-healthy substitute. Yet they—in my case, we—did so knowing there were risks. One risk is tempting members to think, “Hey, I seem to be doing okay spiritually just by tuning in every week. Maybe not going to church on Sunday isn’t that big a deal.” Yet now is the time, pastor, that we reckon with those risks, lest they come home to roost.

Therefore, I would encourage you to find some way to discuss this with your church. I don’t need to tell you what words to use. You can figure out how to encourage your members to gather without being insensitive to those in tough situations. Just a few weeks ago, our own elders discussed this topic. We agreed to say something in both the weekly meeting as well as in individual conversations. The latter would allow us to exercise pastoral care with individuals in different situations. Yet we agreed we needed to remind the church that not gathering isn’t spiritually healthy.

Furthermore, I’d encourage you and your fellow elders to discuss amongst yourselves, like we did, whether and when to turn off the virtual option—or at least to restrict it more severely. Virtual church individualizes Christian discipleship. It subtly replaces a family-faith with a consumer-faith. Some of your members will keep choosing that option if it’s available, even though they shouldn’t.

I recognize that virtual church also seems attractive for evangelistic reasons. Non-Christians seem more likely to tune in than turn up. I get it. But the Bible says non-Christians need not just a picture of you preaching; they need to be surrounded by Christians worshipping (1 Cor. 14:24–25). In other words, virtual church individualizes not just discipleship but evangelism. It shows the world a picture of Christianity through words, not words and lives. Maybe that’s why Christianity grew for 2000 years without our virtual services.

Meanwhile, the Bible’s command to gather is not burdensome (see Heb. 10:25; 1 John 5:3). It’s for our good, our faith, our love, and our joy. Your members may need to be reminded of this.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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