As COVID-19 rages on globally has crossed 5 million cases and 340,000 deaths to date, governments across the world are implementing various forms of lockdown, restricting the movement of their residents. The virus, with some evidence that it can be spread by carriers who are asymptomatic, brings even greater challenges to epidemiologists around the globe in trying to contain the spread of the virus. COVID situation also highlights the inter-connected and inter-dependence of the globally supply chain, tracing how the virus spread across the globe and the domino effect of factories shutdown starting from Wuhan.
Churches globally, almost all adhering to government advice to help contain the spread, have cancelled worship services and mass. Even the Pope conducted Easter service at the Vantican via video streaming online. Many churches, with the blessing of modern technologies have been using Youtube and other platforms to live stream their Worship Services. Small groups or prayer groups resorted to Zoom, Skype, Webex, etc to meet virtually. But how long can this be sustained while cases continue to rise?
Many who are used to having various programmes and activities in ministries are feeling a sense of idleness and irritability because almost all activities have ceased. They can no longer meet with other brothers and sisters to enjoy the singing, coffee or chatter after service in fellowship halls. Pastors feel a sense of loss when they preach to a hall of empty seats. With only a small camera to face, he hopes the congregation will tune in via the internet. It begs the question, “What is church?”
Church in Acts
More than a few posts on Facebook and other social media platforms have likened the situation today to the first century church described in the book of Acts. The meeting of large groups in a purpose-built building called a cathedral (church) did not quite happen until the 3rd Century when state sponsored religion under Constantine developed a mass or service. Otherwise, the Greek word ‘Ekklesia’, typically used to refer to an assembly of citizens in a city (as in Acts 19:32-41) and literally meaning ‘called out’ or called forth’, would be used to describe a group of believers. This was where we get the word ‘Ecclesiology’. Church in the first century was more like how house churches operated in China before COVID, where believers still gathered physically in groups of about twenty or less for prayer, worship and fellowship. In some ways, we experience in part restrictions that persecuted churches experience. In this new reality of COVID, technology has enabled us to meet via video streaming and teleconferencing instead of gathering physically. Is this still church?
6 Expressions of Ecclesiology
At the recent Global Workplace Form, Dr Clint LeBryns from South Africa gave a brilliant plenary session on the 6 expressions or framework or lenses in which we can expand our understanding of church. He spoke with the context of corporate workplaces and public workplaces in mind.
1) Worship Services are the most common understanding and probably the only way many Christians today view church. It is where Christians gather for worship with corresponding liturgy, based on various traditions as we know it.
2) Congregation focuses on the communal dimension of relating to one another through the body life. This is akin to small groups or care groups in churches where members share their life with each other.
3) Denomination is the larger expression where the church is engaged in speaking or in representing in unison a specific topic, or in services to community. (eg. Methodist or Presbyterian Welfare services)
4) Ecumenical (or Universal) church where inter-denominational gatherings or expressions speak or work together. (Such as the World Evangelical Alliance or Lausanne Movement)
5) Individuals that are scattered in the different spheres of society, homes, workplaces or communities, serving through their talents, gifting and vocation.
6) Individuals organised in NGOs, labour unions, workplace groups where Christians live and serve together to address a need or purpose.
There may now be a 7th expression where cyberspace becomes a possible expression of church, where Christians organise themselves to be meaningfully engaged with each other. But, should church be a platform demonstrated by only the 6 expressions above? How real is the virtual world?
A Theology of Materiality
LT Jeyachandran from India has expressed very well over the years a theology of materiality. As much as the church denounces materialism (which it should), there is a materiality in Creation as well as in the Kingdom to come. Raw materials in Genesis 1 is transformed to finished products in Revelation with streets of gold, and foundations of the celestial city with precious stones. Unless Christians are able to value both spiritual and material, visible and invisible, eternal and temporal as what God has intended, we will never be able to affirm both the spiritual and physical aspect of church. Jesus’ resurrected and glorified body is not merely a spiritual existence but also physical.
Rather than the use of the word “virtual” defined as “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so”, I would use “cyberspace”, defined as “the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occur.” We need to remember that cyberspace is enabled by a whole host of optic fibre cables, internet switches, servers, hard-disks and computers — all in which are physical objects.
Humans are created and endowed with 5 senses, allowing us to interact with the physical environment and each other. In hospice care, the sense of touch is essential in the care model for patients, and so is the physical presence of another human being towards the end of life. Bonding between mother and child and the attraction of the opposite sex comes not only from visual cues but also the sense of smell in the form of pheromones. In the cyberspace however, only 3 out of the 5 senses are engaged. The mouth and the ears are well engaged in teleconferencing, while the eyes are limited to the clarity and view of the camera. On the other hand, the sense of smell and touch are totally disengaged.
As such, we are handicapped in cyberspace and cannot truly experience the full range of engagement as humans. But this is also the reality of the fallen world. Interestingly, occurrences of Anosmia (loss of ability to smell) and Leprosy (loss of sense of touch) are not as common as being visually, audibly or vocally handicapped. Perhaps this is why many are less bothered when the sense of smell and touch is absent and that cyberspace may be a viable replacement for face to face meetings.
Relational and Service Aspects of the Christian Faith
Relationship and ministry (or services) are key tenets of the Christian faith. In Genesis, the first call is not only to a relationship with God, but also to other human beings. (Gen 2:18 - “for it is not good for the man to be alone”). We are also called to the garden “to work it and to guard it”, summed up in what is typically known as the Creation Mandate. (For more information read Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 40). Thus the passive expression of consumer Christianity, whereby we sit back to enjoy spirituality at a distance, in the comfort of our own homes and claim that ‘my faith is mine alone’ and not accountable to the larger body of Christ, is absurd. The call to faith in Christ is also a call to His family, in relating and serving each other and the world. Yes, we may be locked down in one sense, but in another, churches are stepping up to serve their communities. Some churches are opening their church buildings to serve meals to taxi and Grab drivers, while others are operating as homeless shelters that protect the homeless from getting infected.
Reflection during COVID lockdown
A major flaw of modern evangelical churches has been its activism with programmes primarily geared towards the local congregation. With the temporal cessation of activities and gatherings, it is time for a true Sabbath, where Christians reflect on what it means not only to DO church but more importantly what it means to BE church. It is crucial that we all take time to reflect, take stock and perhaps re-align ourselves with the heartbeat of God for who He is and what He wants to do in this world.
Think Post COVID lockdown
Pertinent questions remain. What would the global church do after the lockdown? How do we better utilise technology to serve the Kingdom of God? How do we better care for creation now that it has been given its rightful Sabbath from the consumerist world? How can we find better expressions of ecclesiology that will truly reflect the Kingdom of God and a biblical view of Shalom? How will the church serve the greater good and thereby bear witness to the Gospel, through our families, workplaces, community and the public square?
This is a time to reflect, re-think, re-fresh, re-group, re-envision, re-tool and be fully ready to re-engage when the battle of COVID-19 is over. Fight this battle and be ready for the next. This is how we can win the world to faith in Jesus Christ.
Timothy is CEO of Dover Park Hospice. Loves food, music, movies and believe Star Trek is the best alternate universe for humankind.