Written by Leslie Koh, Singapore
After spending a number of years in the media, Leslie finally decided to move from working with bad news to good news. He believes in the power of words (especially when they’re funny). He works as an editor in Our Daily Bread Ministries.
After five months, I finally went back to church last week. I had expected it to be an emotional event for me, but I have to confess—it wasn’t, really.
Since churches in Singapore were closed following the Circuit Breaker in April, I had missed going to church a lot. For me at least, watching the online Sunday service at home, on a screen, just didn’t capture the same “atmosphere” of sitting in the pews worshipping with fellow believers.
So I was excited when our government finally announced that physical churches would be allowed to resume, with a maximum of 100 persons at each service. And when I stepped into the worship hall last Sunday, I had expected to feel some stirring emotions, possibly of gratitude or relief, or of awe that I could finally come back to church.
Except that I didn’t.
The restrictions, of course, didn’t help. Under the rules, we had to sit 1 metre apart from one another in different zones, and were not allowed to sing or mingle. We could wave and smile at each other with our eyes (masks on at all times, please), but we weren’t supposed to go round and chat. Communion was almost a private affair—get your bread and wine, and back to the pews to partake of it on your own. Even if we met for lunch after service, we couldn’t gather in groups of larger than five.
Mind you, I’m not complaining; I believe we need to proceed carefully and considerately if we want to return to a “normal” life without causing COVID-19 infections to rise again.
But as I sat there, I realized that while it was great to come back to church physically, what I missed most about church was the fellowship and the mingling. So while I was physically back in church, it still didn’t quite feel like church.
That made me wonder: Why bother going back if all these restrictions are still in force? Is it worth going back when current church services aren’t what they used to be—and I’d be more comfortable watching the service from home without a face mask on or in smaller groups with my cell group members?
We’ve Been “Doing Church” Creatively . . . But Is it Enough?
Over the past few months, many of us have discovered that some elements of church—such as the preaching of God’s Word and praying—can be done online effectively. But no video conferencing can fully replace singing together, exchanging handshakes and hugs, and catching up on the past week in person.
No wonder the Bible often uses the Greek word “koinonia”—meaning a holy, divine fellowship and community—to describe the meeting of fellow believers.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
Hebrews 10:24–25, too, notes that mutual encouragement is part of “doing church”:
Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards 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.
This reflection has made me rethink church yet again. While the COVID-19 situation has prompted many of us to see that “doing church” can be done in new, creative ways (including online), these thoughts on what we miss most is a challenge to “do church” differently.
Indeed, friends who have shared that they miss the congregational singing and interaction, also say that they will now be more intentional in greeting each other, catching up, and encouraging each other spiritually and socially. After all, these aren’t an unnecessary extra before and after church service—they’re an essential part of meeting as believers.
Why I’ve Decided to Start Going Back
I’ve heard concerns from friends who are worried about how returning to physical church services might jeopardize the progress we’ve made in fighting COVID-19. Some ask: Is it socially responsible to be returning so soon?
I’ve asked that question myself, and would like to suggest one good reason to go back to church if we can: it’s not because we believe that our efforts to meet faithfully will be rewarded with an automatic exception from COVID-19, and it’s certainly also not because we believe that attending church service is compulsory. Rather, it’s because deep inside, we have a conviction that life must go on.
In some ways, taking some small risks to return to our routines represents our fervent hope that soon, these things shall pass. So, we start going back to our church services simply because we believe we will be back in church one day, worshipping and fellowshipping joyfully together.
Even if there are limitations to the way we might be able to “fellowship” in the next few months, there’s still value in coming together in the same physical building with the people we share a common belief and conviction with, and experiencing the same elements of worship together. Perhaps, for some of us, this might even be the challenge that we need to intentionally forge deeper relationships with a smaller group of people—instead of spreading ourselves far and wide in our interactions with others.
The Real Challenge
So whichever side of the fence you might be on, it’s important to remember that—at least for now—choosing whether or not to return to physical services is a matter of personal faith, individual convictions, health considerations, and many other practical factors.
But either way, I believe, we are still challenged by the call of Hebrews 10:24-25: to “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.”
If you’re not yet ready to return to physical services, how are you spurring others on in the faith? How are you caring for others in practical ways? How are you keeping up with your fellow believers in Christ and reaching out to encourage, comfort, and pray for them?
And if you’ve chosen to return to physical services, how have you shown love by being socially responsible and considerate? Will you be patient with those doing contact tracing and the usual checks? (Mr “Why all this fuss” Impatient Churchgoer, you know who you are). Will you choose to be gracious and understanding towards those who have genuine fears and concerns, even if you might not feel them yourself?
And while we are looking forward to the day when we’re able to fully resume physical services—hopefully with a live worship band, no more pre-recorded sermons, and the freedom to pass the offering bags down the line—we may also have to embrace the fact that church service as we’ve known it will never be the same again. So how can we continue to remind each other of what’s truly important?
After all, while church formats and services may need to adapt to the new challenges of our times, good old koinonia will always be a part of the body of Christ.
See you in church. Or maybe not.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Our Daily Bread’s Covid-19 resources website. This version was adapted and edited by YMI.