Something curious has been happening to “The Church” in the age of COVID. In many areas, public gatherings have been limited or even prohibited, leaving local churches scrambling to re-invent their worship services and other programs. For a few weeks last summer, my local church was “closed” to the public, but sermons and worship songs were filmed and sent out as podcasts. Families could stay at home and still “come to church.” Since our congregation is made up of many large families and many elderly couples who are at high risk for getting or spreading COVID, this seemed like a safe alternative. However, for those who are single or just a couple living alone, we were encouraged to find another couple or family and “do church together.” (My husband and I watched the podcasts, but we didn’t gather with any other couples.) I knew of several small churches that continued to have “regular” live services– with congregations of fewer than 50, and plenty of space, they could meet the state guidelines. Others had “Zoom” services, or live streaming services for their sermons and a small praise team. David and I visited a couple of small churches, and, as our church opened up for limited seating, we happily attended in person. The larger the congregation, the more difficult it has been to have “live” church. Many are still struggling to find a “safe” alternative for congregational worship.
Most of the churches in my area are currently open and trying to “get back to normal.” But something is still different. My husband and I went to Easter Service this year, and it felt really good to worship with familiar faces, even if they were still behind masks. There weren’t as many hugs or handshakes, and not as much “fellowship” before or after the service. The Joy of Easter was mingled with caution; the joy of seeing others was mixed with the fear that some familiar faces were still “missing.” We waved at familiar faces, and we sang familiar songs. But for me, at least, it seemed that we were still isolated from others. We “showed up” for church; we didn’t really “gather together.” I don’t know that anyone else felt what I did– and I don’t think this was any “lack” in our local congregation. But I think it will take some time and effort to reclaim “togetherness” in the sense that we used to take for granted at church.
As I reflect on all this, I feel a sense of sadness and loss. And yet, I also sense a wonderful opportunity to rebuild and redefine our church community; one that remains close, not based on familiarity or shared worship style or similarity of situation or culture, but IN CHRIST! “Where two or three are gathered”…(see Matthew 18:20) We often use this verse as a promise of God’s presence whenever we have a service or a fellowship meeting. But the verse reads, “For where two or three are GATHERED IN MY NAME, there am I among them.”(ESV– emphasis added). This seems obvious, but I think we have a great opportunity to reflect and re-think what it means to “gather” in Christ’s name.
We have amazing opportunities to “gather” via social media, live streaming, digital sharing, etc., with brothers and sisters around the world. We have the opportunity to develop friendships and relationships around the world, and worship with thousands of others simultaneously. And that’s wonderful. But Jesus’s promise is not made to mega-gatherings of believers “showing up” for a worship “experience.” Jesus promised to be where “two or three” are gathered in His name. And that doesn’t just mean that we need to get involved in a small group Bible study or “plug in” to a small fellowship group– though both are great opportunities.
But what happens when Jesus shows up at the grocery store when you run into your neighbor and share a prayer request, or at the restaurant, when your family says grace, inspiring others to do the same? What happens when “IN MY NAME” becomes a bigger part of our everyday life? What happens when that friend on social media becomes a prayer partner, instead of someone who just “likes” our jokes and photos? What happens when we make an effort to gather with a few neighbors for Bible study– even if we all go to different churches for worship?
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
I confess that COVID has shown me how much I’ve been living life and pursuing prayer in a bubble. I need to “gather” and interact one-on-one and in small groups with other believers. How much of Christ’s presence have I halved by hoarding it to myself or searching for Him in the church pews–how much more I can pursue relationships that include and invite Jesus to be “among” us, rather than just “with me.”