As the church of Christ, we are sailing in uncharted waters at the present time.
Faced by a novel virus which is highly contagious governments throughout the world have adopted restrictions which have either prevented the church from gathering physically or have allowed reduced numbers with uncomfortable measures such as mask wearing.
Christian leaders are bound to protect the wellbeing of the flock in their care whilst honouring the civil leaders with whose politics or handling of the science they might disagree. Its not an easy route to negotiate.
In Greek mythology Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters on either side of the strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Famously, the dilemma confronting sailors was that in avoiding one danger (e.g. Scylla) you went too far in the opposite direction and came to grief at the hands of Charybdis. That is very much the danger we face in the church regarding our response to pandemic restrictions.
On the one hand there are those who are militantly opposed to the state’s restrictions and who wish to assert the church’s freedom. Recently 700 church leaders signed a letter which was then offered to the press. I agreed with most of the letter and with the theology of church as a physical gathering of God’s people offering real intimacy. There was one line, however, that stood out. “We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again.” That was like a cry of defiance to the authorities, the equivalent of the All Blacks performing the haka before the commencement of a match. And, unsurprisingly, that was the line that was seized upon by the press as an intimation that the church was prepared to move to civil disobedience over this issue.
Now there are several issues over which I could foresee that faithfulness to the Word of God could constrain me to “obey God rather than man.” I don’t think, however, that another lockdown would be one of them.
None of us would deny that the State has a legitimate concern to regulate matters “around” the church’s worship. We comply with regulations on how we prepare our food, on the protection of vulnerable groups and on how we store private data. Our church activities in that sense are not above the law. What we do not tolerate is the state dictating the content of our worship or preventing us from worshipping at all. Now it is clear that the government has not meddled in the content of our worship and unless we think that being in our building is of the essence of worship it is not clear that they have prevented worship either. In fact, it is a remarkable providence that we were asked to close our buildings to prevent the spread of disease at a time when God- given technology made it possible for us to hold worship online. We in the west are quick to ramp up our difficulties to the level of persecution. If we want to know what real government persecution of the Christian faith looks like there are plenty of other countries whose churches we could learn from.
So despite the sudden upsurge of epidemiology experts in the church we should be slow to criticise our leaders when they are patently trying to do the best for the community and we should be clearly seen as having that heart for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of those around us. The Westminster Confession of Faith (23, IV), referencing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, declares “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted.”
But those who veer from the Scylla of asserting our “rights” are in danger of drifting into the Charybdis of accepting the “new normal”. Here I am addressing myself as much as anyone else.
Once we came to terms with the technology many of us found that delivering services online became a new and exciting experience. As church leaders we have been beguiled by the statistics of people connecting online and we saw this new way of doing church as opening new ways of mission. As time has gone on the reality has been more mundane. The early fascination with online church services has not, to my knowledge, led to a huge number of conversions. It seems that there are plenty of people online whose interest is sufficient to register a “view” but not enough to sustain them through a sermon.
On the other hand, there is the danger of a subtle but strongly negative impact on Christians of prolonged use of “online church”. The threat is to our habit as Christians of organising to get together on Sunday -regardless of what else is happening- to be there at 11.00 and then at 6.30pm (or whatever the Lord’s Day norm happens to be).
Much of the Christian life concerns repeated doing of the right thing because “that’s what we do”. Habit is an extremely important bulwark against backsliding. On a church scale habits coalesce to become church culture. These are the ways in which we express our lives together as Christians. A culture of prioritising the gathering with other Christians and enjoying real fellowship with one another is something that can be undermined by the attractions of online service.
Online church means that you can skip the discipline of preparation for worship and lounge before a screen in your pyjamas with a coffee mug in one hand. Online church means that you can tick the box of worship later in the day after you have done something which seems more pressing or attractive. Online church means that you are less accountable to others because no one is physically there to see how you are getting on. Online church is a real and present danger to a church culture of person to person Sunday gathering of adults and children built over generations.
Now of course we are glad for the provision of Zoom and Facebook to enable us to connect when the building is not available or to help vulnerable people stay connected. Likewise, there are churches who because of their size or accommodation arrangements currently remain dependent on digital services. But we should move as quickly to meeting together as we can and when this pandemic passes (and it will!) all of us should set our faces against online becoming the “new normal”.