The last eight weeks have been a rollercoaster ride, for sure. Before spring break we had only begun to hear the faintest whispers of a new virus that had originated in China and “might” pose a threat elsewhere. By the end of that week we were told that shelter-in-place orders of varying degrees of severity would take effect, educators were ordered to shift to online instruction…and anxiety over the situation triggered muscle spasms in my low back that left me bedridden with sciatica for several days. The economic effects of all of this are by all accounts severe, yet the extent of the economic fallout remains unknown and is in any case beyond my competency as a commentator. The effects on education, particularly music education? There I do have some expertise, but I will withhold writing about that for a little longer so that I can do so with a bit of distance from what has been a very unusual spring semester. For today, I’d like to speak on how all of this affects ecclesiastical life, since that is an area where I have very much interest and at least a very small amount of study sufficient to yield some hopefully useful observations.
First of all, I think it right to be thankful for the technology that enables churches and related organizations to maintain a ministry presence of some kind during this time. Who would have imagined just a generation ago that even the smallest churches would be able to livestream Sunday school lessons and have viewers interact via written if not spoken comments? Likewise, the way in which ministers, musicians, and others can now collaborate remotely to assemble something approaching the format and liturgy of regular worship was unheard of within the lifetimes of practically everyone reading this. Now nearly everyone in the industrialized world—and even large numbers of people in the developing world—has internet access sufficient to permit them to remotely participate to some degree in the communal life of God’s people. For this, we can and should be thankful.
Thankful, yes, but not satisfied. For one thing, even the most casual observation of and reflection on humanity will reveal that we are by nature social creatures. We not only simply enjoy being together, but our societies depend upon millions of daily mutually beneficial interactions for economic development, the increase of knowledge and technology, and overall mutual wellbeing. Conversely, extended social isolation is associated with all manner of individual and collective dysfunction. While certainly there are variances in the amount of social interaction needed or desired by specific individuals, even the most introverted amongst us eventually reaches the point of yearning for human contact. In our family my son is the more sociable one, my wife is the confirmed introvert, and I occupy a middle ground characterized by the desire to have conversation but little willingness to initiate it. While my son has been anxious to get out of the house from the very beginning of this event, even my wife is yearning to interact with people at this point. We humans really do need each other.
While human nature dictates that we are naturally social creatures, for Christians the desire for community runs deeper than that. Throughout scripture, God presents his plan for his people—for the redeemed humanity—as a largely corporate one. In the early chapters of Genesis this truth is presented negatively. Among the punishments visited upon Adam and Eve for their sin is being cast out of the Garden, that idyllic place where they formerly enjoyed communion with God (Genesis 3:23-24). While the relationship broken here was with God, just one chapter later Cain’s fellowship with humanity is severed when he is sentenced to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). The message here is clear: isolation is among the consequences of sinning against God and against each other, and it is not a happy situation.
The New Testament presents this more positively. In the early chapters of Acts we see the members of the young church not only gathering for worship but also actively seeing to one another’s practical, physical needs. In Colossians 3 Paul instructs the believers there to “[teach] and [admonish] one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v. 16). The author to the Hebrews exhorts his readers, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Sure, we can pray for one another separately and encourage one another via phone call, text message, or letter, but that falls far short of the collective presence both commanded and encouraged in these and other passages, and the meeting of physical needs particularly requires real human interaction. Besides, we all know that there is something very important that one might call a “ministry of presence.” Sometimes it isn’t important that you say or do something for someone else. What is important is that you be there, and no amount of saying or doing can replace it. This is true not only in interactions between individuals (Christian or not), but also for the gathered church. Presence matters.
The apostle John wrote that “we know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14). To love God’s people is an important confirmation of saving grace in one’s heart, and among other things makes a person long to be with his fellow Christians. While I am thankful for the ability to worship with my family (and my dogs) in my living room at Quarantine Presbyterian Church, this is but an imitation of the real thing, a substitute that sort of suffices but really doesn’t. My household may be 50% introvert (and I am the divided one among the three of us), but 100% of us are ready to resume the gathered worship of the people of God. May it come sooner rather than later.