The Socially Distanced Church
By Brian Lee
Are you adapting to social distancing? When we began this strategy, we may have thought it would last 15 days, or maybe a month. But what if it takes longer? Two months, six months, or until a vaccine is developed, perhaps 18 months from now? What does church look like during a season of social distancing, and what impact might that have on what the church looks like going forward?
The following are some thoughts on questions I hope to develop, both in dialogue with our local church leadership and with other ministers in the churches.
The single largest impact of social distancing is on public worship. When the government is advising against or prohibiting gatherings larger than ten for the sake of public health, how are we to respond?
Reactions will vary so a healthy dose of Christian liberty is reasonable for faithful Christians to come to a range of different conclusions.
Some churches initially felt it was essential to continue worshiping until absolutely forbidden to do so. Worship is essential. If God commands us to worship, and man forbids, we must obey God rather than man.
Yet God commands love of neighbor, as well as worship. He also commands submission to the governing authorities. If the authorities advise that public gatherings will harm public health by harming our neighbor, we should listen.
This is not a time for civil disobedience. The disease was largely spread in South Korea because one of the first infected persons attended a large gathering of a Christian cult, where failure to attend was strongly discouraged. Hundreds and ultimately thousands became infected. To carry on with church gatherings is unloving and a poor witness to a watching world.
One note of caution: Many Church Fathers and Reformers in history selflessly ministered to the plague stricken. We may be tempted to emulate them, both personally, and as church bodies, gathering for worship in the face of great personal risk. However, we know much more today about epidemiology and the spread of communicable disease. Violating a quarantine not only puts the individual at risk, it puts the community at risk. Christians need to think carefully about how our actions will impact others.
HOW SHALL WE WORSHIP?
Suspending worship for a week or two for the sake of public welfare is not unheard of. We have all done so for the sake of a blizzard or a storm. But what if this lasts for months? What if, after government restrictions are lifted, it remains extremely hazardous to attend large groups, creating good reason for people to stay home?
Under these circumstances, the church should encourage a greater reliance on private, home worship. There have been long seasons where the church was restricted to very small home gatherings, due to persecution, for instance, and the Christian faith has survived and thrived during these times.
Technology provides a wealth of options. Our first response in Washington, DC was to provide a live stream of our full Sunday liturgy for our members to view online, excluding the Lord’s Supper. Our hope is not to build a “virtual worship” experience, but to supplement home worship. We plan to do this as long as necessary. Other churches have provided video messages of sermons or devotionals or song.
While these resources may be useful, they are not the same as gathering together. The church is by definition a worshiping assembly. As more and more areas of our work and school life transition to remote, online participations. Christians should stand firm that the breaking of bread and pouring of wine can’t take place over a Wi-Fi connection, and true Christian fellow- ship entails incarnate, bodily communion.
The individualistic, Gnosticizing impulse in modern religion is strong. Many for years have been pushing Christianity toward a personalized, virtual expression of the faith, and we need to be particularly wary of these tendencies during this time. Satan will seek to use this season of isolation to peel weak sheep from the flock, and watchful shepherds need to be on their guard.
Pastors and elders need to think deeply how they can maintain a virtual diet for their people – as well as for a watching world – that leads to thriving and faithfulness. I urge leaders to teach your flocks to long for gathered worship, put them on guard against the foe of virtual life. And perhaps, due to a flood of Zoom conferences and Skype calls, God will use this season for our good, to instill a greater love and longing for public worship and human fellowship that only the church of Christ can provide.
God’s people need to sing. This is harder to do in private than in public, and we live in an age of waning musical talents.
Pick a monthly psalm to memorize and provide musical accompaniment. At Christ Reformed, we have encouraged ownership of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, and during this sea- son have loaned hymnals to those who don’t own it. We have a list of publicly available musical accompaniment at our church website (www.christreformeddc.org) and Facebook page. There are a lot of other resources available, and churches should be taking the lead in marshaling them to address this challenge.
My dad was a mediocre golfer, and in this respect the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But we used to enjoy watching the pros play on television, and I’d be a wealthy man if I had a nickel for every time he said, “Drive for show, putt for dough” after a professional golfer missed a putt. It’s impressive to hit a golf ball a long way – drive for show – but mastering the short game is where the money is made – putt for dough.
Sunday morning worship is the pastor’s equivalent of a 300-yard drive. But the short game is where churches separate themselves from the pack. This is where the harvest is reaped. In this time our short game is being put to the test. How does a church be a church without gathering for worship?
How can we be the “called out ones” when we’re not responding to the call to worship publicly? One answer is Christian hospitality. But for obvious reasons, the socially distanced church faces restrictions on that front as well.
Another thought is that we use technology to maintain contact. At Christ Reformed, we divided our membership list up among all our elders and deacons to ensure robust personal connection with every member. Technology helps in small ways through texts and emails. More robust interactions through phone and videoconference calls. While firing off a text takes seconds, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of the human voice and human face. Phone calls reveal anxiety in a voice; follow up questions can be asked; stories and jokes can be shared.
One basic tool our church uses is a Google document accessed by the leadership that tells us when each member was last contacted, and it keeps a running status report on their work, home and other needs. I check this daily and make a few calls to those who haven’t heard from us in a while, to ensure that no one falls through the cracks.
Praying together one on one or in small groups is vital, and ongoing prayer for the flock is more essential than ever.
EVANGELISM AND MISSION
While shepherding a socially distanced church is challenging, evangelism and missions are as well. Yet the world needs the gospel, and people are more willing to open up during times of crisis.
So how do we reach them? I’m still wrestling with this challenge. Here are three initial thoughts on socially distanced evangelism:
First, works of love and mercy bear witness to the power of Christ’s saving work in our hearts and in the world. There will be opportunities for works of service in the days ahead. Let’s look for them and be willing helpers.
Second, many of our own family members need Christ. We should embrace opportunities of Christian love and service, confession and forgiveness, at home. More than ever, our households should model Christian love and reconciliation for the world to see. Let’s double down on family worship, catechesis, and reconciliation.
Third, we all have many callings in life. As our work and school lives are upended, remember that being a Christian is a vocation, as is being a husband or wife, a child or a parent. So is being a good neighbor. As some vocations fall away, there are abundant opportunities in faithfulness in others. We need to be activated to love and care for one another during this time of remote, distance church, learning to love one another in new ways.
Prayer is central to our calling. It is a mark of gratitude and a work of mission. Pray for both the church, and for the world.
This is a partial list. Many things about our church life – including finances, property, etc. – are in flux. We can’t anticipate them all. Pray that God would give us wisdom, and the strength and flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Let’s be bold and courageous in the work of Christ.