Coronavirus has changed church life dramatically. Services and activities have been reconfigured, moved online, or stopped altogether. And being creatures of habit, we could easily start to feel comfortable with this ‘new normal’, and continue with it unthinkingly, long after the pandemic is over.
So we need to examine these changes in the light of Scripture. Perhaps we’ll decide to retain some of them. But there are others which we simply can’t afford to accept in the long term.
I’m going to assume you’re convinced already that biblical preaching, the sacraments, sung praise, and evangelistic outreach can’t be dispensed with forever. But I want to point to some less obvious areas of church life where, as soon as it’s responsible and safe, we need to make a deliberate effort to return to the old normal.
The book of Acts shows that corporate prayer has been a prominent feature of the New Testament church from its inception. And while prayer is commanded frequently throughout Scripture, the vast majority of those instructions are issued not to individuals but to churches.
Over the years, many congregations have chosen to hold a midweek meeting for that purpose. But in recent months, a lot of those meetings have had to go online. Video conferencing has been a precious blessing; but is it what the Lord is seeking when he tells us to pray together?
God made us physical beings. The end goal of his plan of salvation is not that we should behold digital images of the redeemed. Heaven will be a physical gathering in the bodily presence of Christ. That’s why we’re told not to forsake ‘the assembling of ourselves together’ now (Hebrews 10:25). When a congregation of saints gathers in one place to worship and pray, they’re joining, ahead of time, with that heavenly gathering (Hebrews 12:22-24).
If you’re tempted to stick with Zoom and drop the physical prayer meeting for good, know that you’ll be missing out on something special. Jesus said, ‘If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:19-20). With such a gracious promise, why would we delay a return to praying together any longer than we have to?
Physical touch is a God-ordained means of displaying affection and warmth to a fellow human being. Christ exemplified this when he led the blind man by the hand, put his hands on the children to bless them, reached out and cleansed the leper. The disciples usually greeted him with a kiss – as Judas knew well. So there’s something dehumanising about being banned from cuddling a grandchild, putting an arm around a bereaved friend, or holding hands with a relative in a care home.
Having each been adopted by God, the members of a local church are one household, one family. We’re told to treat our fellow members as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters; and we ought to demonstrate that close relationship through affectionate physical contact – as long as it’s done ‘with all purity’ (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
Perhaps the hearty handshake will become a thing of the past in wider society. But the church of Christ mustn’t abandon ‘the right hand of fellowship’ (Galatians 2:9). And did you realise there are more commands in the epistles to kiss one another than there are to sing together?
A family whose members are afraid to come near each other is an abnormal family. So as soon as it’s safe again, we believers need to return to expressing our Christian love physically and tangibly.
Face to face fellowship
May the day come soon when we can come out from behind our masks! God gave us faces to express our inner thoughts and emotions through a smile or a frown, a crying eye, a furrowed brow, a mouth which can speak.
He frequently invited the children of Israel to draw near to him and seek his face. That intimate knowledge of God was the prayer of every saint and the blessing which the High Priest pronounced (Numbers 6:25-26). And the Lord answered those prayers when his Son took on a human body with a human face. The disciples saw it physically – and there beheld the glory of God (John 1:14). We see it now by faith; but one day that faith will turn to sight, and we’ll see our Saviour face to face (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 22:4).
So through his design in creation, and through his revelation of himself to us, God has shown that he wants his people to make themselves open, knowable, readable: that we shouldn’t habitually hide our faces from one another. Hence the apostles were always keen to see their correspondents ‘face to face, that our joy may be full’ (2 John 12). As long as these coverings remain, our fellowship will be impeded, our communication curbed, and our joy incomplete.
Masks are for bank robbers, actors, clowns: people who want to disguise who they are. So while we accept them temporarily in a time of emergency, they can never become a permanent fixture in the household of God.
Through Christ, our generous God has opened up his home to all of his people that we might dwell in the house of the Lord forever (John 14:2; Psalm 23:6). And since we’re all going to live together for eternity, he wants us to start practising now through Christian hospitality (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9).
Sharing our everyday home life is a marvellous way of getting to know our fellow Christians better and showing love to those who are needy or lonely. There doesn’t need to be food. But the value of eating together is demonstrated in the Lord’s establishment of the Jewish feasts and the Lord’s Supper. Relationships are strengthened as we share our joys and sorrows over God’s gift of food.
The Lord Jesus knew this. Many of his closest interactions took place in the homes of people like Levi, Mary and Martha, Peter’s mother-in-law, and Simon the Pharisee. These were the times when his people came to know him best as he ministered personally to their souls.
Perhaps you weren’t too big on hospitality before the lockdown. Why not resolve to change that when the restrictions are eased? Give the invitation, as Lydia did: ‘If you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come to my house’ (Acts 16:15). And if you’re invited, be ready to accept.
There have been good reasons for suspending these aspects of church life for a time. But their absence must be seen as an aberration, an abnormality. We should be anxious to reinstate them as soon as we can. And when we do, let’s return to them with a with a greater zeal than before and a deeper appreciation for these normal, God-ordained means of grace.