All over the world, different countries have put in place various measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 among communities. As mass gatherings are suspended, churches are no longer conducting physical congregational worship services, but are reimagining different ways of gathering.
My church is no different. Weekend services are now decentralized and streamed into the homes of church members, and small groups are meeting via online video conferencing. In a time like this, we are grateful for how digital technology still allows us to do church together.
All these changes have made me ponder what exactly church is. What if God, through the present crisis, is asking us to rethink how we do church, so as to rediscover His intentions for it?
I do not claim to know it all. In fact, what I hope to share here are not assertions, but rather, questions meant to invite us to discern and explore these thoughts together.
What Makes up Church?
When we look at the beginnings of the New Testament church, we find that several practices were important to the early Christians: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship with one another, the breaking of bread, and prayer. They ate together and helped each other out in areas of need (Acts 2:42-47).
I find it fascinating that the New Testament does not tell us how to do church, in the way the Old Testament spells out strict, detailed, and elaborate commandments and requirements of worship. Rather, the New Testament reveals to us the important elements that make up the church without prescribing exactly how to carry them out.
I believe this could be God’s way of inviting His people to steward our freedom, creativity, and discernment to explore, express, and enjoy church together. As we meet to spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25), He desires us to come up with a myriad of ways that can best lead us to fulfill the Greatest Commandment (Mark 12:29-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 22:36-40; Acts 1:4-8)—within the specific contexts that are unique to each of our communities.
Why Do We Need to Gather?
What led to my thinking in this area came, ironically, from the time when I was not attending church services or cell groups. After I experienced a personal revival in my relationship with God, I did not yet feel ready to go back to church. So I began to meet with God on my own by worshipping Him in song, reading His Word, and through prayer. As I listened to or watched sermons online, He spoke to me through them. When I met up with my Christian friends, I experienced His love through their friendships.
When I attended church services again, I soon started to wonder: if I could connect with God in all these ways by myself, why do I need to go to church?
Don’t get me wrong: I believe it’s just as important for me—and for all Christians—to learn how to meet with God by ourselves as it is to gather together corporately with other Christians as a church. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but, in fact, strengthen each other. But what I’m pondering is this: what is the essence of gathering in one’s local church community? What does it allow us to experience that we cannot do in our own private time?
During the years when I was asking myself these questions, I heard Malaysian pastor Tan Soo-Inn say something that struck a chord with me. He believed that young people—but I would say this applies to all Christians—have no lack of information in a time when we can so easily look for it with digital technology. But what we really need is authentic relationships in church within which we can process information and life’s questions as it relates to the Christian worldview.
British pastor and writer Sam Allberry puts it this way in his book Is God Anti-gay?: “[The church] might not have the best celebrities, the most attractive spokespeople, the most impressive resources or the most acclaimed thinkers, but we should have the most wonderful and attractive relationships.”
Because we have been adopted as sons and daughters by God our Father (Galatians 4:4-7; 2 Corinthians 6:18), we’ve become brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers in Christ (1 Timothy 5:1-2). This makes us members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15)—a ”family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).
What would this look like practically? I imagine that when a loving family gathers, the presence of each person adds to the joy of everyone and the absence of any person leaves a gap that everyone else wished was filled by that member of the family. These relationships are marked by a hard-won intimacy that comes from everyone getting to know one another in authenticity and vulnerability. It’s a place where people feel free and safe to love and be loved—for who they are and whom God has called them to become—in the giving of grace and with a tenacity for truth.
All of this, I think, will allow us to grasp to a greater measure the fullness of the love of God, in ways that we cannot possibly have done by ourselves (Ephesians 3:14-19). Because each member is important, every person contributes something unique to everyone else’s experience of God in such a community.
What Then, If We Can’t Gather?
“How can Christians do church in such a way that, even if persecution comes and we’re no longer free to gather, we can still continue to be the church to one another and the world?” That was a question my wife asked a couple of years ago in our conversations about what church should be like.
I think her question is a really pertinent one, especially in light of how Christians are not able to meet physically in the current pandemic. It led me to reflect on the way I worship God.
To start with the most obvious: When it comes to worshipping God in song, am I able to worship Him only when there are skilled worship leaders and worship bands on stage? Have I been relying on the dim lighting, instrumental sounds, and fog machines to feel the atmosphere of worship and “the presence of God”? While mass gatherings are suspended only temporarily for now, what if one day persecution prevents the church from gathering altogether? Do I know how to still direct my devotional attention to the Lord in other ways?
I realized that if I needed these external components to worship Him, I may be missing the heart of worship. So, as a simple act of learning how to be free from these “things”, I made a commitment to God that, in private and corporate worship, I would always posture myself—in my heart and even with my body—to direct my reverential attention to Him, even when I’m not familiar with, or don’t like, the worship song.
At the same time, if the essence of worship is about ascribing honor to God; contemplating His glory and beauty; proclaiming our love and gratefulness to Him; reminding ourselves of His character and competence; and making a commitment to surrender and yield our lives to Him, worship must also take other forms besides musical expressions. Singing is considered a high-risk activity that can spread Covid-19 by my country’s government, and places of worship have been asked to adopt alternatives to singing. I really hope this can prompt us to explore non-musical expressions of worship!
Some ideas I’ve encountered are: going into nature and letting God’s creation speak to us of His character, taking turns to write a psalm together, and expressing thankfulness to Him through other artistic forms, like sculpture, gardening, drawing, cooking, sign language, drama, etc.
What might it look like if we also thought about this with regards to the other aspects of church we’ve been accustomed to? Can the preaching of God’s Word be done in ways other than a one-way verbal communication? Are we able to experience the exposition of Scripture through other means besides listening? How about praying and interceding beyond the use of language? What are creative forms of giving and receiving the benediction?How can we redesign the way we do church, such that we can still meet together to worship Him and serve one another, whether we have access to our usual ways and means of worship—regardless of persecution or pandemic?
This may look different depending on the make-up of our local communities as well as our cultural, social, economic, and political contexts. But whatever shapes and structures it takes, I believe that the heart of church, firstly and finally, is about learning to help one another love God and others as His family, while keeping to the basic elements that make up the church, as described in Acts 2:42-47.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given us rich opportunities to reimagine how we can keep doing church better. Let us do so in ways that allow us all to better understand the love of the Father through the love we practice towards one another, such that we cannot help but attract—and we cannot wait to invite—non-believers to come to experience this love through our family-like community!