Daniel Finkelstine in the Times newspaper on the 22nd April wrote that we cling to the hope of the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel but there is no light what we are faced with is a moral choice. He says that it is unacceptable that reviving the economy will lead to deaths then in effect we are accepting that the restrictions blighting our lives are here for the long term. But that in turn has some very profound implications for Christians.
The Archbishop wrote to all clergy closing churches as a sign of unity with the nation and if there is no vaccine then logically gatherings in church cannot resume. And so, we need to examine what it will mean to be church in a virtual world. I am happy to accept Wayne Grudem’s definition of church as being “the community of believers for all time.”But we have to consider it in a biblical context first and foremost. However before we turn to a theological consideration of the issues let’s look at the practice of churches during the lockdown and they fall into four groups
Here the church gathers at a set time and place hosted by a person to interact and share together as they worship
You tube church
I would argue that this isn’t gathered church over and above the fact that people are online together at the same moment in time. The production quality is often better that zoom or livestream but there is no way to interact.
This is less interactive than Zoom and can be made widely available like you tube and has the added interactivity element of zoom but at a lower level. IT has the added benefit that people are gathered in that they are taking part in a live act of worship. Productions quality is often simple.
Some churches are staying in touch by phone etc. but they have no Sunday worship. This I imagine will affect many small rural benefices.
The gathered church
In the old testament Moses is told in Exodus 19:17:
Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
And it says in Deuteronomy 4:9-10;
“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children— how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.”
The key concept seems to be that God’s people are to gather together and this isn’t changed in the New Testament in that the Hebrew word used in Exodus and Deuteronomy is translated as “ekkleiazo” from which we get “ekklesia” which means church. Clearly gathering together is fundamental if we are to be what God intends church to be.
But what is it to gather and how will the changes affect that? Firstly, if we start to gather online primarily, we exclude;
- The poor that cannot afford the technology needed
- The people that cannot afford or do not have adequate internet.
- The old.
- The disabled.
- Those in care homes.
But before we consider what is the best way to be church in the Covid-19 crisis let’s look at gathering as a concept. The dictionary states that a gathering is “A gathering is a group of people meeting together for a particular purpose.” There is no understanding that there is anything physical in this concept of meeting; but the Old Testament definition definitely suggest physical meeting is important and we could argue if there had been Zoom in Moses day he might have used it, but as it didn’t exist they had no choice.
However, there is something fundamental in God’s design of all humans they need to be in physical contact with other human beings this is made quite clear in Genesis 2:18 as God says to Adam that it is not good for him to be alone. Now I know that this strictly speaking is only referring to marriage but there is something deeply important for humans and being able to be in physical contact with other human beings. Umberson and Martez in their 2011 paper “Social relationships and health a flashpoint for health policy” wrote that;
This article describes major findings in the study of social relationships and health, and how that knowledge might be translated into policy that promotes population health. Key research findings include: (1) social relationships have significant effects on health; (2) social relationships affect health through behavioural, psychosocial, and physiological pathways; (3) relationships have costs and benefits for health; (4) relationships shape health outcomes throughout the life course and have a cumulative impact on health over time; and (5) the costs and benefits of social relationships are not distributed equally in the population.
Simply the issue is that good social and by that I mean physical interactions keep us mentally well and the paper concludes that “Adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers.” This paper however doesn’t address the importance of us being in the same place at the same time, but it does raise issue for us about those we will exclude from gathering as set out above. So how important is it that I go to be with you in the same physical space?
Shruti Tewari, Sammyh Khan, Nick Hopkins, Narayanan Srinivasan & Stephen Reiche wrote a paper in 2012 entitled “Participation in Mass Gatherings Can Benefit Well-Being: Longitudinal and Control Data from a North Indian Hindu Pilgrimage Event.” And they concluded that;
We found that those participating in this collective event reported a longitudinal increase in well-being relative to those who did not participate.”
The study seems to show that being in church together is good for us and we can conclude that what we have at the moment is therefore bad for us in the long term but spiritually and psychologically.
There are other important factors we need to consider the fact as well that there is a significant impact on true worship and the real ability to minster to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We simply have to accept that until a vaccine is found, or a treatment is found that is effective we cannot gather as we once did and there can be no false light at the end of the tunnel perhaps. So how do we face the new reality as bible centred Christians.
Firstly, we need to carry out some mental and spiritual deep cleaning and reordering in that we need to stop teetering on the precipice of hope in the daily COBRA stats and as it says in Psalm 18:2-3;
“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we stop worrying about what might happen and we crawl out of the sea ofjournalistic despair and stand on the rock. Then we remember that as well as being our rock God loves us and as it says in Romans 8:28;
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
And so, we know that we are no abandoned to our fate and for some that die of Covid-19 Gods will is to take them home to glory and as Paul says this is not to be described as a negative. For others it will mean that they stop relying on the experiential nature of church and are challenged into a deep personal walk.
So, we have established that not physically gathering is bad for us and the church and that many of the digital alternatives are falling short of what is needed. And that the lockdown will however have ways of blessing us. But the question still facing us is when can we gather again and what will that look like?
Well a lot has been helpfully written in the last few weeks about the way Christian’s faced previous pestilence including:
· Antonnine plague (165-180AD)
· Plague of Justinian (541-542AD)
· Black death (1346-1353)
· Spanish Flu (1918-1919)
The overarching reality is that they all affected the church but they didn’t stop its mission and growth in fact the acted as John Lennox suggest this might as a megaphone calling people back into a real relationship with the God they have ignored. But that still doesn’t address the way we might have to be church in the future.
Can I make a radical suggestion that we just do our best an use the lockdown time to develop something many have ignored, solitary, concentrated time alone with God because that is something we have ignored to the churches detriment? We need as church leaders to be equipping our people to be still in the presence of God and to wait on him and be still not like a child wanting it and it must be had now.
We will gather again but now is the dark time of the soul when Satan what to break our trust that God is there. Refuse to listen and name him as the deceiver he is.
 Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem IVP 1994, p853
 Journal for social health and behaviour 2010; 51(suppl); S54-S66
 PLOS ONE journal 2012
 Philippians 1:21-23