There are currently 8 things that keep me up at night. The first 7 don’t need much of a mention (5 of them are aged 9 or under, 1 is season 7 of US drama “Homeland”, and the other is some arm pain I’ve been experiencing recently). All fairly incidental and needn’t detain us.
The last remaining constraint on my sleep is the focus of this first piece on our newly established blog: It is the future of the church in the Post-Viral era (just a small topic).
Inspired partly from these sleepless reflections, and partly by the helpful book “The Post Quarantine Church”, I have been giving a series of reflections at our midweek meetings entitled “The Post-Viral Church”. If you’re interested or you’ve missed some you can catch up here.
I want to elaborate here on reflection #5; entitled “The Practice of Presence”.
We were grateful for the surge of interest in our online services during lockdown. We have met many new people and made quite a few significant new gospel contacts through these digital means. We truly praise God for this.
However, despite an initial surge of digital interest, most churches report that participation in such online services gradually wained throughout the lockdown. Now that churches can meet physically (date of writing is Scotland in Nov. 2020) many church members have not returned to the physical gathering of the Lord’s people. This is by no means unique to our situation. The same observation is being made by church leaders across our country and around the globe.
Some will say we are in a new paradigm (undoubtedly true), that things will never be the same again (undoubtedly true) and that we should stop worrying and embrace a digital-only future (decidedly dangerous).
For clarity I do believe the church should be making extensive use of digital means to get the gospel out. We as a congregation are absolutely committed to doing that. Covid has given us a push forward in that regard – one we should be grateful for. So let me be clear I write this post, not as a technophobe but as a technophile who lives on social media and sees many gospel opportunities in that sphere.
There is, however, a world of difference between making use of digital means to extend the reach of the gospel (or serve the physically housebound), and believing it renders the physical gathering superfluous.
The famous verses in Hebrews 10 say:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching
The writer makes striking use of Old Testament imagery to shed light on the work of Christ. The imagery of the temple, the most Holy place, and the curtain blocking access all find glorious fulfilment in Christ whose priestly work on the cross opens the way for sinners like us to access and to know the presence of God as a daily reality.
Crucially, this presence is not tied to any building or place.
Given such revolutionary spiritual realities, you might expect the writer to regard the physical gathering of the Lord’s people as being somewhat unnecessary, or at least of secondary importance. The exact opposite is true. We are warned in the strongest terms not to forsake meeting in-person (as some were clearly doing).
The writer is clear. Regular and ongoing In-person gathering is essential for holding on the hope we ourselves profess and for spurring one another on in Christ-like conduct.
In a day of digital wizardry and technological possibilities some are perhaps minded to view “going to church” as an arcane or eccentric habit. Even as I type that I hear you correct me – “we don’t go to church we are the church”. Quite so. But the writer to Hebrews is concerned that, in neglecting the assembly of God’s people, we may fail to hold onto our hope and so cease to be the church at all.
Christian discipleship is never an arms-length task. Technology, of course, has its uses, and can take us so far, but ultimately we can no more delegate the essential tasks of mutual edification to the largely anonymous world of the screen than Christ could effect an arms-length salvation from the comfortable courts of heaven. Christian ministry is incarnational ministry. To be blunt it means being together, rubbing off on each other, living life alongside one another.
The question is therefore begged, in churches that have restarted physical meetings, why are many church members not re-gathering?
The Masks… (etc)
For some the restrictions (masks, distancing, etc) make the experience of church so poor they’d rather stay at home. It is also particularly difficult for single people, who must come and sit all alone in a church building. All of this is true, we are seriously impaired by these restrictions and we should have significant sympathy for these concerns. For these folks the livestream may seem an attractive option. Church leaders face a real dilemma here. Many have worked extremely hard to provide an high quality livestream. This stream must continue for the benefit of those who are rightly housebound but may prove too tempting and convenient a draw for others who could (and perhaps should) regather.
Some members will rightly stay away because of real and serious health concerns; the very elderly, the medically vulnerable, and those caring closely for others for whom exposure to Covid-19 could be deadly. We have a number of such in our own congregation. They must be reassured of our love and ongoing fellowship. They must not be further burdened by guilt because of a legitimate inability to re-gather at the present time.
There is another category of folks who, whilst not having pronounced physical vulnerabilities to Covid exposure, are vulnerable in mind. I am not just speaking about those with pre-existing mental health conditions (though lockdown has been catastrophic for them). I am thinking, rather, of those who are filled with fear. Again this is an understandable response. The imposition of lockdown upon a liberal democracy like ours could never be enforced by raw state power (folks were never going to be bundled into vans never to be seen again because they broke restrictions). In a sense the government’s only tool was to encourage compliance by repeatedly laying out the risks. As such we have, for months, been bombarded with daily death tolls and catastrophic predictions. It is unfair to call this fear-mongering, (nor should we dismiss the real threat this virus poses), but this approach has now paralysed many with disproportionate fear. We must gently encourage those who are filled with this fear to step out in faith knowing that the Lord God has already numbered their days, and will care for their needs.
Lastly there are those who have simply lost motivation in following Christ. This is the great concern of many pastors. The habit of not attending church has simply become so ingrained throughout these last months that they simply appear to be drifting away. Perhaps gathering with the Lord’s people has now become a special occasion thing – attending once a month for a ‘top up’ is now thought to be ‘regular’ attendance. They say a crisis is revealing. Perhaps for some it exposes they had never really trusted Christ. For others though who truly do belong to the Lord we must warn of the serious dangers of spiritual drift, and encourage them back into the fold.
This is a moment of crisis, but also opportunity. Let’s grasp the opportunity and practice being present together.