I have never spent as much time on video chats as I have during this pandemic. It has made me realize how technologically adept much of the Western church has become. Were Covid-19 to have made its appearance even five years ago, it seems likely that we would not have had the same ability to stay as connected as we do in 2020. The conversation around the healthy use of social media and virtual connectedness has become increasingly layered in these last months and these added nuances will almost certainly be helpful in discerning how best to interact with technology. One thing is certain: much of the church in North America has been challenged to find new ways of living out community in this season.
Despite the constant access to the internet, multiple messaging platforms, and constant streams of virtual conversations, I have found myself struggling. After more than two months of physical distancing, I find myself occasionally echoing a tired refrain of growing disconnectedness. People are tired and lonely while fighting to remain hopeful and present. This refrain is not only one of absentminded frustration or impatient cabin fever; it’s deeper than that. As Christians, we miss being the church as she is meant to be.
This verse in Colossians highlights several different aspects of the gathered church. There is a gentle call to bless one another with teaching, correcting, and singing, all while taking the posture of thankfulness. This thankfulness is meant to be experienced in community and directed to God. Certainly, Christian individuals are always called to thankfulness and we fight for that posture daily. There is a thankfulness, however, that manifests itself particularly in the presence of the local church and is experienced in that context.
In Hebrews 10, Christians are instructed to avoid neglecting to meet together. So what happens when we are prevented from meeting together, not due to neglect, but rather a pandemic? How am I to live out a call to love, serve, teach, admonish, and sing with other Christians when the solution is not as simple as “stop neglecting to do so”? How do we experience the thankfulness to God we are to find in the midst of the local church gathering together?
As a Christian who regularly strives to see the positive side of things, I have had to come to the uncomfortable realization that I am not going to experience the same thankfulness I would in that context. Certainly, I am able to be thankful for the group chats and service streams that have allowed me to stay as connected to this church as I have. Still, it is not the same as physically gathering together. Moreover, I do not believe my call is to work hard to see these situations as similarly as possible, as much as my “glass half full” brain might like to do that.
As an introvert, this has come as a bit of a surprise to me. I have watched my extraverted wife, Holly, struggle to maintain her mental well-being in the midst of this separation. I’ve seen her energy levels drop and emotional health waver, struggles that many people have been communicating lately. This has been difficult for me to watch, but it did not surprise me. What was surprising was finding myself exhausted and emotionally spent while having more “introvert time” than I could have asked for.
I think this is because, as a Christian, I am fundamentally a member of a greater whole. The Bible communicates this in various ways. We are children in a family (1 John 3:2), members of a body (1 Cor 12), and citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20). There are no individual Christians walking around on their own, deciding whether or not they are in the group. To be a Christian is to be a member of Christ’s body and body parts don’t choose whether or not they are attached to a body. They simply don't function apart from that body.
The Christian life, then, is profoundly physical. Meeting together is necessary if we are to make use of all the spiritual gifts and serve one another. It is necessary if we are to eat together (Acts 2:42) and sing together (Col 3:16). In this time, I find myself missing the necessary, physical aspects of Christian life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
Having extensive time to read, think, pray, and give myself to disciplines of solitude has not replaced my need for the actual presence of the church. I miss it because I, as a member of the body, need both solitude and community. Having a large amount of one does not compensate for the lack of the other.
In this season, I have come to the at times uncomfortable realization that I need to experience what is lacking. It is important for me to mourn the absence of the gathering. If Christians brush past this in pursuit of a more positive approach—as I am wont to do—we risk stripping the gathering of its necessity and purpose. We are meant to meet together so that we can hug, eat, pray, laugh, sing, listen, cry, and more together with our family. Letting myself feel what is lacking has led to a deeper understanding of my need for the gathered church and my identity as a member of Christ’s body.
However, I am not just called to mourn; I am also called to rejoice! God is perfectly faithful in the midst of isolation; He does not need my positive spin. As members of Jesus’ church, we are secure enough that we are freed up to mourn what is missing in our discipleship. We can feel this security precisely because membership with Christ IS membership with His body (Rom 12:5). Whether we can physically meet does not affect that.
Whereas our identity in the context of work, pursuits, hobbies, and even some relationships may very well be affected by this season, it is not so in regards to our membership in the body. God is no less our Father and King than He was before Covid-19. We are not called to relentlessly chase after something being held from us so that we might not lose our identity to a worldwide disaster. We are free, then, to pray for renewal and redemption with both sorrow and joy.
May this season bring greater awareness of our need for community. And may our worship be all the more passionate when we do meet together again!