Like many congregations in our city, our church leadership has been evaluating what to do for Sunday Service.
Should we cancel service?
Should we “not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing?”
Maybe divide up into small house churches and give house leaders an adapted service to lead!
Maybe just do a live stream!
People who are very vocal on the matter seem to have already arrived at the best solution: “We should definitely cancel.” “Let’s continue to meet in faith! (with some precautions of course!)” “Online would be best. Imagine not having to find parking!”
I don’t know if they’re able to be so vocal because they’ve already had endless thorough discussions and I’m only seeing the result of hours of discussion and meetings. But I know whatever our church ends up doing (and at the moment, it seems like we’ll do a live-streamed minimal service), the concerns underneath still linger for me.
What is our public witness?
No matter what we decide, there is the ever present public witness of the church on display. While the news and news feeds are rampant with misinformation and fear-mongering, how does the church witness to the hope of the gospel? Do we feed into the fear, throwing off all other concerns “just to be on the safe side?” When fear and panic set in, most of us automatically go into self-preservation mode. We stock up on rice and toilet paper. We ignore those in need because we see our own needs more dire than they really are. We “pass by on the other side” to avoid injury to ourselves.
I am not advocating that we mindlessly and foolishly run headfirst into dangerous situations; we are not called to seek danger — we are not called to be stupid. But what does it mean for us in this period of social upheaval to live for others? What does it mean to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors?
In the early church, there were two great epidemics — one immediately after the other — that wiped out a large portion of the population. While there was mass panic and flight from the city centers, Christians stayed behind to care for the sick and the poor. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers who lived through this period, praised the efforts of those Christians, many who died caring for others:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
This was in stark contrast to how “the heathen” responded to the outbreak. Dionysius also wrote,
The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.
This powerful witness lingered in the hearts and minds of the public. Even when Emperor Julian (commonly known as Julian the Apostate) tried to squash out the faith by providing alternate services to the poor to serve the gods, he wrote of his frustration with “the Galileans,” being unable to counter their witness:
Those impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into the agapae, they attract them… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity… See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods."
I hope that we can rise to the challenge to be the Church during these times. While we must be cautious, may our caution not hinder our witness. We do not want to be the foolish congregation that further spreads the contagion and endangers our neighbors. But we are also called to live by faith, rather than by fear. It is my hope that the Gospel will compel us to live our faith before others that all will see and know Christ.
Jesus, help us. Give us wisdom to discern and act. There is much confusion and anxiety; we confess our need for you to lead and direct us. Give us hearts that are willing to follow even into the places where we are spent for the sake of others. Help us to follow you in your death and resurrection that we may “shine [like stars] as lights in the world.”
How are we being formed by the new normal?
Another great concern is how our congregation will readjust to the new normal. If we’re doing an “online service” how will this affect the weekly and daily life patterns of our congregation? We are habitual creatures, forming habits and being formed by habits all the time. How can we offer guidance when the seeming “convenience” of WFH and online worship leave a vacuum of order in our schedules?
Can an online worship service be a manifestation of the church gathered? I’m not sure. I am not saying that it can’t happen; I’m just saying that a recorded service (the default for most online services) is a poor substitute for the church — if a substitute at all. If the aim is merely making sure our members get some good teaching, we could just send them some podcasts, or a YouTube playlist and be done with it. There are times when we reduce corporate worship to theology consumption (often via sermon); this is especially true in our tradition that tends to value knowledge, systematics, and education over wisdom, nuance, and practice. The former you can get on your own, the latter requires relationship.
I’ve seen this pattern repeatedly in my time with the church. Meetings merely become venues to get information and get on with our lives and respective ministries rather than opportunities to practice love and fellowship with others. Growing up with a fairly conservative Christian upbringing, the question often posed upon church gatherings is what makes Christian fellowship different from a mere social gathering? And the glib answer usually involves some form of Christian instruction or practice like a devotional sharing or prayer. But I’ve witnessed an issue that’s equally concerning from the other end: people who go to meetings (that are full of Jesus-mentions and theological teaching) but these people are there to get quick answers and logistical instructions without recognizing other humans in the room who need fellowship — social relational connection — and without recognizing that they themselves are humans that need fellowship.
The issue of getting people to recognize the corporate body of believers — the people, the community — in the existing in-person Sunday service is hard already. An online service (as I currently imagine it to be) would be even harder. In our culture, convenience and efficiency are highly esteemed, but there is nothing convenient or efficient about the gathering of people. The messiness of the church gathered resists efficiency; efficiency doesn’t build relationship. You never want to get to know someone who is always in a rush to be somewhere else or do something else. The mystery of the Gospel is manifest in the church gathered (or the “hermeneutic of the Gospel” as I am fond of quoting from Newbigin).
The challenge for us in this interim period is to work out a way for the church to be expressed while we maintain “social distancing.” I have no idea how. One day when we have Ready Player One virtual halo worlds, maybe that would be more straight forward, but that’s not today. The longer we do this compromised worship service, the more we will be seduced by the convenience of “doing church” from the comfort of our homes. For some (not all) I suspect it may be hard to go back. New patterns will form and habits will undoubtedly set in. Just last month I left for a trip with my family for a little over a week. How easy it was for my weekly rhythms to be completely lost when I got back.
Holy Spirit, who lives and breathes in us, we ask you to breathe into your people as we are scattered about our city. Stir in us a longing for one another every time we meet. Give us love for people. Release us from selfishness. Give us discipline to form and develop habits that form us more and more in the image of Christ.