So many things have been scrutinized and altered during the last couple of months: our work, our recreation, our relationships, our patterns, even our thoughts. Habits like shaking hands, hugging our loved ones, even scratching our noses have undergone radical shifts.
For people of faith the unthinkable has happened – no church on Sunday. Of course most christians understand that church isn’t a building, but in actual practice meeting with other believers in a structure of some sort is precisely how it is practiced.
Lots of churches were ahead of the curve when the corona virus landed here, having already invested in technology and an internet presence. Not much has changed for them except now music and sermon are recorded or streamed, sans pew-sitters.
For the remaining churches who were still worshiping without electronics, it was a gut-punch when there was no longer a reason to heat their sanctuaries. So they were forced to dabble with technology and discovered it wasn’t all that painful.
E-church has heightened an interesting theological debate these days. How can Holy Communion happen if there is no pastor or priest standing in front of me offering bread and wine? Or on the other hand, if God is always with us, why can’t we hear liturgy online and use our own Italian bread and cranberry juice? Is Communion the act of joining with other believers in receiving and remembering or is it an internal posture of gratitude and confession? (Yes & yes.)
We are at an interesting place in christian history, wrestling with new realities that we didn’t want to consider before. The new realities have us asking the question, What is church?
For many the answer is simple – church is a place where you go. After all, our faith is relational at its heart: God/others/me. Isn’t that what disciples do? Isn’t physical proximity at the heart of Incarnation – God with us?
But with great respect and thanks to those who are doing it, I have to admit that watching church worship music on line is hollow compared to the real thing and e-pastors can be interesting but so much personality and nuance go missing.
On the other hand, what if the pandemic lasts for a year? Or what if a new one follows this one? Or what if there is an economic collapse and it’s impossible to maintain buildings and support clergy? Or what if … ? (Just call me ‘Apocalyptic Brian’.) Does that mean church will end because we can’t meet somewhere? Of course not.
God is spirit and he is with us. The church is wherever God’s people are. What is wrong or inappropriate about worshipping together while we are distanced apart? It could even be argued that the Bible normalizes smaller worship. Being in a crowd is preferable but we don’t stop being the Church just because we can’t breathe each other’s air.
You”ll be back, right?
According to a new survey, the recent E-ifying of church has resulted in an increase in attendance. The initial reaction of most of us is to think, How can that be – churches aren’t even open? Then we realize that attendance has probably increased for that very reason: people can now worship or explore faith while curled up on a couch, wearing sweat pants, sipping good coffee. Sunday has become an actual day of rest instead of another day of busyness. Guilt free.
Will it last? Well sure, but not as strongly. The novelty of electronic distancing will wear off soon enough and there is some question as to whether online church has staying power.
When people eventually come back to traditional, corporate worship there will likely be another spike in attendance as everyone celebrates normality, but it won’t be long until it will return to the same place as before.
I used to be knowledgeable about church: I grew up in church, worked in church, lived in church. I was full of ideas and wisdom and I had shelves of ‘church growth’ and ‘how to’ books. Not any more.
I came to realize that if we just relaxed and walked with Jesus our lives and our churches would be more meaningful. The value of church is not in where it happens or how it’s done – the real value of church rests in the hands of how you and I live.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” – 1 Peter 2:9-10, NIV
The church looks exactly like a worldwide army of Jesus people loving God, each other, and their neighbours.
I like a book by Alan Kreider titled, The Slow Ferment of the Early Church. In it, the author examines the inexplicable growth of the early church in the Roman Empire. It is a fascinating read (if you’re interested in church history) and suggests four reasons for its success:
- Patience: there was no frantic strategy or measurement of success; early Christians simply lived their faith and left everything else to God.
- Fellowship: Their fellow believers were their primary community; they met together and cared for each other with exceptional love. They met regularly in their homes to teach, pray, sing, share the Lord’s Supper.
- Community: They practiced hospitality, welcoming visitors, caring for the sick, helping the poor, visiting prisoners, while remaining quietly distant from the idolatry and immorality around them.
- The first three items mixed together to form a bubbling, internal ‘ferment’ that slowly, naturally expanded until it could not be contained.
The early christians didn’t have buildings, the internet(!), or a coordinated plan. Yes, they gathered together as believers but there was no “Come look at us!” thrust. Instead their lives were individually beautiful, and over time the bustling world around them couldn’t help but respond to something meaningful and good.
The thing is, many church people spend themselves on planning, managing, stressing, running – inventing new ways of doing the same thing. Just going to church can get old. Just building a church is exhausting. Just financing church can be wasteful. Just surviving church can be depressing.
What is the church? It’s not merely a place or an activity, it’s who we are. It’s not what we build, it’s how we live.
The rest is just window dressing.