As we hit the one year anniversary of the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown measures, it’s time for some reflection.

It feels like a strange dream to think back on the first few weeks of the lockdown. I was actually in the arena for the final NBA basketball game, when news broke that the league was shutting down their season. The shock in the crowd was palpable, and as I drove home that night I knew life was about to change drastically. And, obviously, it did.

I’ll never forget driving through the streets of Dallas at prime Friday night rush hour, only to see a handful of other cars. On those few times I ventured out, there was nothing but empty streets, empty business parking lots, and a lot of “closed” signs hung on darkened buildings. It was truly surreal. Though those extreme changes did not last all spring, the lingering images, such as lines of people outside of limited capacity stores, masks nearly everywhere, and the ubiquitous plexiglass dividers remind us how things have changed in the last year.

At the time, the pressing concern for Christians was obvious: should we still meet? I shared my thoughts at the time, in what unfortunately turned out to be one of the most widely read pieces I’ve ever written. In that piece I made the case that no, churches who canceled services were not violating any Biblical principles. With a year’s worth of hindsight to shed light on the situation, I can tell you now that I was simply wrong.

I can give myself a pass to some degree, in that it was a totally new situation and we were all dealing with it on the fly, and at the time we had no idea just how long many of our congregations would remain apart. Canceling for a week or two under extreme circumstances is something we probably all have to do from time to time. And, everything I said about church involvement being far more than simply gathering is true, too. So, some of the things I wrote were correct, and I still stand by those.

But with regard to the general conclusion, I was horribly wrong. What we did was absolutely “forsaking the assembly,” or more accurately “forsaking the assembling of yourselves together” for the purpose of encouraging one another and stirring one another up (Hebrews 10:24-25). Virtual church is not church.

We accepted the premise that places like fast food restaurants and liquor stores (and cannabis dispensaries, in legalized states) were “essential” and their workers “needed” to take the risks to be together, while corporate worship was “unessential” and we didn’t “need” to be together.

I did not think through the implication of accepting a framework in which McDonalds workers needed to risk themselves to provide everyone with Big Macs and fries but Christians didn’t have any duty pressing enough for us to need to be together.

Other essential services – grocery stores, meatpacking plants, fire departments, police departments, to name a few – truly were essential. Without them we would starve or be in all kinds of other dangers. Even so, they’re still not more important than what happens at the gathering of the saints.

With our decision, we made a bold statement about the importance of worship, fellowship, discipleship, and everything the church does under those umbrellas. That statement: it’s no big deal. It can wait, indefinitely. It’s not essential.

So why write this now? For one, because there are still those who got comfortable “watching church” (a total oxymoron) online, from the comfort of their living room, and have yet to venture back out. Plenty of those are perfectly young and healthy enough, and are going out for other purposes, too, yet are still avoiding their church families. To them, it’s time to come back to your church family.

Second, because it’s important to review past mistakes so we can learn from them. What we can learn here is that we have far too small a view of the church and are using way too little of its designed function.

Finally, I want to make the case that we should never do this again. Sure, worship and assembly don’t necessarily have to look the same way they always have. But if for whatever reason we find ourselves in such a situation again, I hope churches will keep these things in mind.