“To go or not to go? That is the question” – some pastoral reflections as KEC reopens.
After 6 months, church is finally reopening! But can I go? If I’m allowed to go, should I go? Is it responsible for me to go? Given the convenience of online livestreaming, do I even need to go? Isn’t it better to just stay home? Those are some of the questions that might be on our minds.
However, to answer such questions, we actually need to take a step back and remind ourselves first: what is the church, and what is it for? For if we do not know what a church is, and what the purpose of a church is, we will not be able to make good, biblically-informed decisions, but instead be more susceptible to our ever-changing moods and whims on that particular week. So let me just offer some brief reflections to remind us of these fundamental truths first.
Firstly, what is a church? It has been common during this time to hear this saying, very popular within Christian circles, that “the church is not a building, but a people”. Where is the church, people ask? Well, it’s wherever Christians are, we say! And it is true, as far as it goes. Besides, there are many laudable reasons Christians often say that. Firstly, we say that because we rightly want to push against over-identifying our facilities, our premises, or our institutional identity with the “church”. After all, the Bible consistently understands church primarily as God’s people. In Acts 20:28, for instance, when Paul reminds us that the “church of God” was bought by Christ’s own blood, he certainly didn’t mean that Jesus died for facilities, premises or institutional identities! So we want to avoid the common misunderstanding that church primarily refers to those things. Secondly, many people stress church as people, because they want to guard against a “Sunday-Christian” mentality whereby the act of attending church is seen as the sum total of what it means to be a Christian. By stressing church as being made up of people who are working and representing God in their respective spheres, we are trying to preserve a sense that we have an individual responsibility to be ambassadors of Christ not just on a Sunday, but throughout the week, and that our whole lives are meant to be given in worship, not just those 90 minutes spent at a church service.
However, while the saying is true, it is not quite adequate. It is certainly right to affirm that the church is fundamentally people. Yet the Bible goes further than that. Biblically speaking, church does not just happen to a collection of individual Christians, each doing their own thing, but is seen in terms of a collective identity, who represent God together and are vitally connected to one another. In other words, to employ a distinction the theologians sometimes use, before the church becomes a scattered community, it is first of all a gathered community. This is obvious from the fact that the Greek word we now translate as church, ekklesia, ordinarily meant “assembly”, that is, a gathering, and that is what we find the people of God doing – gathering (eg. Acts 4:23-31)! This is also obvious from some of the images he New Testament employs to describe church, such as a body, or as living stones of a temple. The hands, elbows, knees and toes all obviously have to be interconnected to be one body, and the stones have to be placed next to and on top of each other to be built into a spiritual house! This also make sense of the frequent “one another” language we find in the New Testament. To love one another, forgive one another and so, it is simply assumed that we are being with one another in a significant way!
So yes, it is true a church remains a church when it is not gathered, just like how Liverpool Football Club remains Liverpool Football Club even when it is not gathered. However, if the Liverpool football team never ever came together on a field, there is no meaningful way you can say the members are actually part of the team. Broadly speaking, we can apply this analogy to the church. The church is not just people, but people who come together.
Therefore, to say that church is fundamentally a people is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to say more: It is a people who ordinarily gather regularly.
But for what purpose? We could explore a number of reasons the Bible gives, but I just want to home in on one in particular. When we explore the language of the New Testament, it appears that one very big reason Christians meet together is for the purpose of building each other up, what we sometimes call edification (eg. 1 Cor. 14:26). This can be seen in passages like Ephesians 4:15-16 or Hebrews 10:24-25. The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to assemble regularly for the purpose of mutual encouragement. Encouragement in the context of Hebrews is not general encouragement, as if it’s simply a call to motivate someone to try/work/study harder or be optimistic about an upcoming exam/work project/etc. Rather, it is specifically encouragement not to drift away from Christ but to pursue him with all our heart and soul. In other words, the New Testament assumes that at least some spiritual growth and stability can only happen in the context of community. This makes sense: to grow in sacrificial love, for instance, we would actually need to be in a context where we can put the interests of others first. So we can say that church is meant to be a people who ordinarily gather regularly for the purposes of building one another up to maturity.
So how does this help us when considering whether to go or not when church reopens?
Clearly, the Bible does give priority to the importance of gathering together, perhaps in a way we have not realised before. Therefore, it seems right to say that we should also put gathering together as a priority, where possible, if we want to be faithful to the Word of God. To do otherwise is to go against the grain of what a church is and what it’s for.
It is important to clarify what I am not suggesting. I am not saying that considerations of public health have no bearing on our decisions. I am not asking us to be foolish and reckless. Perhaps some of us work in situations where we are highly exposed to the possibility of contracting the virus, or live in close contact with vulnerable family members, and those are doubtless key factors to weigh. I am also not asking us to ignore the S.O.Ps that have been laid down by the civil authorities. I believe in this case, we can give them the benefit of the doubt that they are sincerely acting to do what is best for their citizens, rather than trying to advance an insidious agenda of restricting our religious liberties. As such, we should seek to comply with the guidelines they have laid down. Finally, I am not wanting to cause distress to those who sincerely want to come to meet with God’s people on a Sunday, but for medical or physiological reasons, are unable to come. Let me reassure you I do not wish to burden your conscience.
However, I would like to encourage all of us, especially those of us who do not fall into highrisk categories, not to be ruled first and foremost by fear or excessive caution when deciding whether to come back to our in-person Sunday services. Many of us have rightly been concerned for our physical health. However, I would ask that we should be similarly concerned for our spiritual health. We need to give attention to how we are doing spiritually, and how being away physically from the main gathering might have not done us good.
Wait a minute, you might say. Haven’t we been gathering virtually, at the very least? While we are thankful for technology which enables our church to come together in a real if diminished way, nonetheless we must not be naïve about the limitations of these forms of technology. Information and good content can be imparted by means of a livestream, but it could also easily turn us simply into Christian consumers, happy to just be receivers and spectators. By contrast, God expects us to be active disciples of Christ, seeking to give our lives for his sake and for the sake of others. Christian discipleship is an inherently relational activity, rather than a passive one. The deep cultivation of character and conviction cannot happen by just happily switching on a screen. The Apostle Paul, while happy to try to do his best to offer pastoral instruction and care from a distance via his letters, often expressed his wish to see the people he’s writing to face-to-face. He knows the value of being present with them (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-13). He knows that’s where discipleship happens best.
Now, when we return to in-person gatherings, we are returning in circumstances that are far from ideal. We cannot easily talk to one another. We cannot easily sing together. We cannot do so many things! So we are still not returning to what is “normal”. So is there value in doing so? Is there any real encouragement to be found? Yes, I think so. Because what we are doing is in a sense, gathering to suffer together. We gather to endure our trying circumstances together. We gather to navigate a new normal, and to learn new habits together. When we gather, we are implicitly saying to one another: “you are important enough to me that I am willing to take the risk to step out of my house to do this with you”. When we gather, we are helping each other be accountable. No one knows if you decide to switch off the livestream midway or do other things on the computer when the Word is being preached. But this is not true of in-person gatherings. And that in itself is formative. All these things, in themselves, are a form of encouragement to one another, and helps to strengthen our Christian convictions. So let’s not underestimate the power of gathering together, even in this strange situation we find ourselves in.
In summary, I am not laying down a blanket rule as to whether you should come or not when BEM KEC re-opens. What I have attempted instead is to help all of us to be prayerfully driven by God’s Word (our Core Conviction #2) and by God’s wisdom in deciding when and how we should come back, rather than to make unreflective and reactive decisions. If I have succeeded in doing that, I will be more than happy, regardless of your final decisions.
Nevertheless, I hope to see some of you in the flesh soon!
Love in Christ,
“To go or not to go? That is the question” – some pastoral reflections as KEC reopens.