We did not gather on Sunday. It was the right thing to do. But it was also the hard thing to do. Now, of course, you might say that we did gather, virtually, but it’s not the same, and we all know it. Virtual meetings and sermons is a substitute, but it’s not a perfect one. It is what we must do for a while, but not what we ought to do forever. The people of God are meant to gather together; indeed, that is our very trajectory, moving forward to a time when we will be gathered together forever more.
But not this week. And not next week either.
And we missed gathering together, didn’t we? We missed the handshakes and the hugs; we missed hearing the people of God around us singing together; we missed the very sight of one another, a visual reminder of presence that we are still here and still in the faith. Together.
And yet the church remains. Because the church is people. And people remain. But here we have this challenge to our biblical communities, communities of faith which have been forced apart by the threat of disease. How are we, as church leaders and Christians, to continue in community with one another when we cannot – and should not – gather together in large groups? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Embrace the bigger vision of discipleship.
Imagine someone walking into a church and asking a regular, everyday church member this question: “Who is responsible for discipleship in this congregation?” That church member might name a member of their staff that has “discipleship” in their job description. Or they might name someone they know who is a great Bible study leader. Or they might pick out someone who regularly meets one on one with several different people. All those answers would be right, but they would all be wrong at the same time.
The truest answer to that question is this: “We are.” The church itself, made up of men and women, teenagers, boys and girls who are all trying to follow Jesus is responsible for discipleship. Certainly, the program part of that effort might be managed and centralized out of the church office, but the actual work of helping each other follow Jesus falls to us all. That’s true in the best of times, and it seems to be especially true in the worst of times. Here we have an opportunity for the church to remember that we each are responsible for each other, even when we cannot be with each other in the same room. Once we embrace that, we are compelled to do simple things in order to help each other move forward with Jesus, which leads to the second suggestion:
2. Embrace the need for service.
If we are all responsible for each other, then we should not wait for a direction from a church leader to pick up the phone and contact, for example, elderly members of the congregation, urging them to stay home and offering to buy and deliver groceries. We should not wait for someone we know who struggles with anxiety to reach out proactively and check on them. These are things that can and should be done without violating any of our consciences by becoming a potential carrier of this disease.
Service, you see, is both a means of and an effect of discipleship. When we serve one another, we do so because we are growing in Christ, but we also do so as an act of self-denial in order to follow Christ. And when we serve one another, we will find that community is deepened. And that community is especially sweet and Christ-honoring when it goes beyond our particular demographic or friend circle. It’s through service on days like today that we can see relationships build beyond their current boundaries.
3. Embrace sharing truth as personal rather than public.
Friends, with all the good that might come from it, it’s my strong feeling that these are days when we would all do a little better through less interactions on social media. Now you might argue that social media is the way in which we can maintain our sense of community – I fear it’s actually the opposite.
We might have all the best intentions in broadcasting to the world how our family is dealing with this crisis, what our opinion of it is, or even what we are learning from God’s Word. But let me gently suggest that true, real and lasting community isn’t going to be found through a massive forum but a smaller personal one. Consider instead of using Facebook an actual phone call with a few people to talk about what you are reading in the Bible. I believe what we’ll find there is a forum in which we can share our fears and our comfort in a way that is much more helpful in the end, one that is actually sustainable for when we are able to meet together again.
Let us surely be sad that we cannot gather together for the time being. Sadness is not a bad thing, and in this case, it is the right thing. But in our sadness, let us not despair as if there is nothing we can or should do. These are days, friends, when we need to love each other well. We need to serve each other well. We need to encourage each other well. And the Spirit of God has equipped us to do so.