Ecclesiology in this Weird Time of Social Distancing

Like many pastoral staff teams, I sat at home in a Zoom meeting as we evaluated our first entirely-online worship service in this time of home quarantine.

When our lead pastor asked those of us who were watching the service at home what we thought, the first word that came to my mind and spilled out of my lips was “weird.” I didn’t want to come across as negative, but that single-word evaluation was my gut response.

I felt fortunate that our church had the ability to livestream our worship service. I sat in my living room during our live online worship service managing our live feed on YouTube and interacting in the comment section in real-life time, but that too felt weird.

My family did participate in communion in our living room, but I had failed to prepare it properly. We had no wine, so I used a low-calorie, carbonated, black raspberry flavored drink to serve in its place. That definitely tasted weird!

The entire morning felt out-of-sync, synthetic, unnatural. It was a Sunday morning, and I was supposed to be gathered with my church family in our facility. I told our staff team that it didn’t feel like church because I didn’t get a hug from Sister Nancy, an older African-American woman in our church who is an all-star greeter and resembles Papa in Paul Young’s The Shack.

Instead of hugs and handshakes, congregational singing and serving communion to our congregation, I sat during the online service in my recliner wearing my Kansas City Chiefs hoodie watching people worship, listening to a sermon, and chatting online. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this digitally-infused experience I was having was not worship as it was meant to be.

Don’t misunderstand me; I appreciate the technology that allows us to create a makeshift sense of worship and Christian community. We do want people to engage in worship and Christian fellowship while we are all homebound. A phone call or text, a Zoom meeting, and an online worship service is better than nothing, but let’s remember that this is temporary and not the fullest expression of what it means to be the church.

The church Jesus has been building is a biblical, sacramental, and embodied gathering. Let’s consider this three-fold vision of the church. The church Jesus has been building is a biblical, sacramental, and embodied gathering. Click To Tweet

An Apostolic Gathering

Scripture gives form to the church. We are “biblical” in the sense that we are apostolic. The teaching of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament gives shape and life to our identity as the people of God. In Acts 2:42, we learn that the very earliest followers of Jesus were devoted to four things including the apostles’ teaching.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:42

Thankfully we can have sacred Scripture with us even when we are gathered online. Not only do we have Scripture translated into our native languages, we have multiple translations of the Bible at our fingertips. With a Bible app or two on our phones, we carry around holy Scripture in our pockets.

A Sacramental Gathering

The Christian community described in the book of Acts was devoted to Scripture (the apostles’ teaching) and the breaking of bread, that is, holy communion. We are not only an apostolic (biblical) gathering; we are also a sacramental gathering.

The bread and wine of communion certainly contain symbols. When we celebrate communion we do so with broken bread, directing the attention of our hearts to the broken body of Jesus, and we participate in communion with wine, turning our attention to the shed blood of Jesus. But the bread and the wine are more than symbolic; they are sacramental, the very means of God’s grace given to us.

Glenn Packiam writes in Blessed Broken Given, “Sacraments reveal the glory of God’s grace. To be sacramental is to begin to see all God’s gifts and handiwork as icons of His glory and grace.” The church is a sacramental gathering requiring the stuff of earth: bread and wine for communion and water for baptism.

In an online worship gathering, we can prepare the communion elements in our homes, which is better than not celebrating communion at all, but it still feels a bit out of place. We eat our common meals at home privately, but we eat the communion meal publicly with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Communion is a shared meal in the context of our worship gathering. We eat our common meals at home privately, but we eat the communion meal publicly with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Click To Tweet

An Embodied Gathering

It’s the lack of real physical community that makes gathering online feel so strange. We should meet online as long as public health officials advise that staying home is the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, we should never lose sight that this kind of online gathering is not normal. Our true identity as the church is to be an embodied gathering.

A number of people who have grown dissatisfied with the church as an organized institution have made disgruntled requests to imagine church as a purely online experience. I can imagine them saying, “Just think, once the coronavirus pandemic ends, we could just stay in our homes on Sunday morning, watch worship services online, and chat online in various social media groups! We could share our favorite podcasts and books with one another and call that church.

The problem with this vision of the church is that in the words of Johnny Cash, flesh and blood needs flesh and blood. We are an embodied gathering in need of space to gather together physically to worship the triune God. This vision has been the picture of the church from the beginning. In the second century, Justin Martyr penned his First Apology including these words about Christian worship:

And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.

He continues on in his apology to describe Sunday as the first day of the week when God created the universe and the day Jesus rose from the dead. This “common gathering” according to Justin Martyr is the place where followers of Jesus gather in one common space to hear Scripture being read. We gather to greet one another with an embrace, to pray, collect an offering, and celebrate holy communion.

We cannot greet one another with a “holy kiss” online.

We cannot hug our church family through a TV screen.

We cannot lay our hands on the sick via text.

We cannot shake the hands of newcomers through our phones.

We cannot feel the gaze of recognition through a computer screen.

During this time of social distancing, we thank God for the technology that allows us to create some sense of Christian community, but it should continue to feel weird. Participate in online gatherings to the best of your ability, but long for the time when we can all get back to gathering together in the same space for worship.

We cannot allow technology to cause us to redefine the nature of the church. We are a biblical gathering, a sacramental gathering, and in these days of isolation, we rejoice in the hope that we will once again be an embodied gathering. We are a biblical and sacramental gathering, and in these days of isolation, we rejoice in the hope that we will once again be an embodied gathering. Click To Tweet

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