I'm not sure that anyone could have imagined this.
And I'm not thinking just about the virus. I'm also thinking about the staggering way that our lives have changed.
And I am thinking specifically about our church not being able to gather as a group. Honestly, who could have imagined that?
Today (April 19) was the sixth Sunday in a row that we were unable to gather. I still believe that it is wise and kind and compassionate not to meet as a group. At the same time, what's unfolding right before our eyes is causing us to think hard about what it means to be church - and how exactly we will be able to fulfill our calling in this new world. Frankly, it's a great thing for us to be thinking about.
Our first question focuses on the purpose of church. Why does the church exist? What is the role of the church? What should the church be doing?
A good way to answer this first question is to consider the description of the first followers of the risen Christ. This is what we read in Acts 2:42-47.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching
and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Everyone was filled with awe,
and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
All the believers were together and had everything in common.
Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Traditionally, it has been understand that the church has five crucial functions - and we can see all five if we look closely at these verses in Acts 2. Together, these five functions are our "what" - and they define the purpose of the church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission. If we wonder what a church should be doing, that's a pretty good answer. These five tasks are all crucial. These five tasks are also inter-related. (For example, worshiping God leads us to care for other people. Growing as a disciple compels me to go out on mission. Spending time with other believers builds up the family of faith. And so on.)
Again, these five tasks are our "what." And our "what" will not change even in the midst of this world that is changing so fast, right before our eyes. Whatever our future looks like, these five functions will always be our "what." So that's the answer to our first question.
Our second question has to do with our method.
Our "what" will not change. What may change, however, is our "how." What may change is "how" we will accomplish these five crucial tasks. And this will be quite a challenge for us - because we often are so committed to our way of doing things that we begin to see our method and our process as holy, unchangeable, and sacred. We love tradition. We love what we know. We love to do things the same way. But now we find ourselves in a day when we will need to cling to our "what" even as we consider changing our "how."
I don't know exactly what the answers might be, but I am beginning to see some of the questions.
What will our corporate worship look like if we cannot gather as a large group or be close to one another? How will we enjoy fellowship if we cannot gather in large groups for meals? How will it change our life together if we do not feel comfortable hugging or shaking hands (or, dare we mention it, greeting one another with a holy kiss)? Will our Bible studies feel different if we cannot sit close together? And what are the implications for ministry and missions in this new world? Will we ever return to serve in New York City again? Will we be able to take our ukulele group into Turning Brook?
I know. It's possible that things will one day simply return to "normal." Even if that happens, it might take a while. But it is also possible that things will never be "normal" again. Whatever happens, though, we will need to find a way to accomplish our "what" as a church.
Let's not kid ourselves. Change is always hard. And we may not enjoy what's coming. But as a church, we are compelled to figure out how to live out our calling in these days that we have been given. God, of course, will help us know how to do that. God will lead us.
But as God leads us, we will want to remain deeply committed to our "what" . . . while we hold our "how" loosely.
Throughout history, the people of God have been remarkably adaptable. Whatever the circumstances, our commitment is to the call of God. And it is up to us to find a way to fulfill that calling even in a world that might look very different.
I have no doubt that we will figure it out. For now, it is time to start asking the questions.