Like most other pastors and church leaders in recent weeks, I’m in the throes of confusion. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced upon us an ecclesiological conundrum. What does it even mean to be a “church” in times like this? How much does it matter that we continue to gather, physically, in the midst of such fear and uncertainty? Is such a decision wise or unwise? At what point are we being resolute or reckless?
Adding to the confusion for me is that I am preparing to release a book at the end of March in which I suggest, in no uncertain terms, that the church has always been and will always be an analog reality—a community that bypasses the conveniences of digital “connections” in order to commune with one another in real time and space. My critique of video-venue and online church is now colored in a new and unexpected way.
In light of recent developments, here are a few thoughts to consider as we navigate these anxious days.
Compromise, Not Convenience
Given the rapidly escalating COVID-19 crisis, many churches will find that directing people toward online meetings is not only a viable option, but also a necessity. In many locations across the world, government-mandated shutdowns of large gatherings are forcing our hand.
This is becoming increasingly true where I live and serve. The local university just shut down in-person classes for the rest of the quarter. Public schools of all sizes are beginning to do the same. So far, churches like ours have only been given a strong recommendation in this direction, but the trajectory is heading toward ceasing all sizable in-person gatherings. Social distancing seems to be the only feasible solution to stopping or at least slowing the spread of the virus.
Given the rapidly escalating COVID-19 crisis, many churches will find that directing people toward online meetings is not only a viable option, but also a necessity.
As we temporarily direct our congregations to these online spaces, it is of utmost importance that we clarify this digital reality as a temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience. Our clarity along these lines, or lack thereof, will be formative one way or the other. Make no mistake, sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes to watch a sermon on our television or computer will be convenient. And convenience has a way of quickly undoing the work of long-held disciplines. If we believe gathering as the church in real time and space fundamentally matters (and it does), then our temporary online reality must be viewed as a circumstantial compromise, until we can get back to the necessity of gathering in the flesh.
When I FaceTime my wife and kids on trips away, I am grateful for the pseudo connection. But what I want most is to get home, to hug and hold my loved ones in my actual arms. So it must be in this time of ecclesiological compromise.
Leveraging the Moment and the Medium
As we enter this new digital reality for the time being, we can leverage the moment and the medium in helpful ways. Though we will lack the embodied presence of our community during this online season, the various platforms we use afford us opportunities to reimagine a number of our regular worshiping practices, in ways that can connect us uniquely while accentuating our longing to truly be with one another, once it becomes possible again.
Most live-streaming platforms include a chat option. This season of gathering online may lend itself to preaching and teaching that is a bit more dialogical than what we might normally experience in a physical Sunday gathering. For pastors and church leaders, including a conversational element after the sermon might serve us well in this season. Doing so can help to bridge the digital divide by inviting those viewing online to not only lend their eyes and ears, but also their thoughts, insights, and questions. This approach also emphasizes the “live” gathering, urging people to arrive online at a set time with others, which helps mitigate the temptation to see the online church experience as a convenience to be accessed whenever you please.
As we temporarily direct our congregations to these online spaces, it is of utmost importance that we clarify this digital reality as a temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience.
A similar approach can be applied to prayer. Encouraging people online to share prayer needs in real time is something most online churches already do. While praying for one another across the chasm of digital distance lacks the depth of physical human presence, it can still be a powerful way to love one another while we are apart. At its best, it may even act as an accessible introduction between individuals who may then journey toward a more meaningful, in-person connection within the life of the church.
In most churches, there already exists a large/small, gather/scatter dynamic. There are the “large” Sunday worship “gatherings,” and there are also the “small” groups that “scatter” throughout our cities, neighborhoods, and towns. During this unexpected season, we might encourage people to gather in small groups not only during the week but also, when possible, to gather during the “live” online worship gatherings. Though we may not be able to gather as the larger body, we can still gather as members, small and scattered as we may be.
Endeavoring to See Each Other
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) is a common refrain for Christians in times like these. It’s important to remember that the Greek word “perfect” here is teleia, from which we derive the English word telos, meaning “an ultimate end or aim.” The sort of love that casts out fear is the love of God, which aims us in the direction of our ultimate end and God’s ultimate new beginning. Here’s what we know for sure: if COVID-19 doesn’t kill us, something else eventually will. The Lenten season reminds us of this—we are dust and to dust we shall return. But followers of Jesus will not remain there. This is our ultimate hope.
And this is one of the reasons why the church continues to gather, sing, listen, pray, serve, and partake of the bread and the cup of communion. It’s a means of physically embodying and pre-enacting our future hope in the here and now. Present circumstances may well keep many of us from physically gathering together in coming weeks and maybe months. We must certainly act wisely and responsibly. But in the spirit of the apostle Paul, while we are apart, may we “endeavor the more eagerly and with great desire, to see you face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17).