Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sunday Service

As we continue to look at the implications of closing our doors on Sunday, one of the questions we have to ask is: what is church? Because for many of us, the answer to not meeting together on Sundays has been to simply stream our services - the same as they would be in person - and make sure that our members and our communities still get four songs, a prayer, and a sermon. (It wouldn't be Sunday without them.) 

It amazes me how quick we were to say, "We won't have church this Sunday, but don't worry! We'll still give it to you in a different format!" The implication is that "church" is a service provided to me that can simply be repackaged as the circumstances deem necessary. It is nothing more than a common consumer good. 

We know, of course - at least, we talk like we know - that this is not true. We talk about church being an opportunity for fellowship and for worship and for discerning together and encouraging one another. Yet, our behavior shows that when push comes to shove, maybe this isn't what we believe. Because we were quick to cut all of that out and make sure we still had a performance to put on, something to view, an added value to filling a certain seat at a certain time. 

The truth is, and I know I'm not alone in this, I could walk into a church building on Sunday morning and have a fully satisfying "church" experience without formalizing any of that stuff. I don't need a sermon. I don't need four songs. I don't need a prayer. What I need are my brothers and sisters. What I need is my family. What I need is that connection that I get with other believers who are all world-weary and straggling through the doors for a bit of rest, of hope, of redemption. What I need is that time with my fellow sinners, those walking in the same mud and muck as I am. 

Of course, that's exactly what we're shutting down right now, this kind of fellowship.

I'm not saying that what we do on Sundays isn't important, but I believe that if you bring together a body of believers, the singing will naturally break out. The teaching will naturally occur. The prayer will organically manifest. The things we plan so hard for are a byproduct of our doing faith together; they just arise out of our hearts when we're together with those we know we're sharing this journey with.

If you follow me on social media, you have heard me say over the past few weeks that as the CDC continues to "recommend" suspending all "non-essential" gatherings, the church remains an essential gathering. That's because that is what, at its heart, the church is. Read the New Testament. Watch how the early church placed such an emphasis on meeting together, how vital it was to their being. It wasn't because that was the most convenient way to package the presentation; it was because they needed one another. 

A lot of churches are placing an emphasis right now loving one another, on continuing to be there for one another, on maintaining contact with one another through phone calls and emails and prayer chains and all of the like, and that is vital to what we are going through right now. Stream the Sunday service if you like (and I think there's some value in doing so), but don't let your congregations - or your communities - think that that's "church." Don't let them get lulled into the idea that what they're streaming is the same as what they get on a Sunday inside our doors.

It's possible that we're reaching more persons with our streams. It's possible more are tuning in. It's possible we're making it more convenient for the seekers, and all of that is great. If, of course, what you want to do is impress a bunch of people with your sermon, your music, and your lights. But if we're not also out there actively living out community the best that we are able to, if we reduce ourselves to our programs and our podcasts and twenty minutes of our pastor in front of a camera, then what we're giving our members - and our communities - is not "church;" it's a class, at best. A lecture. An educational experience, but not transformative to the core the way that real Christian community, the real church, is.

And maybe I'm more sensitive to this kind of stuff. I don't know. I'm a single woman in this world who speaks the spiritual language of sacred spaces. My soul breathes the fellowship of church, the one-anothering, the togetherness. That sense of belonging and community and commonality. But even if it is just me, I know it's not just me. My soul will never be satisfied by a livestream; I need a life-giving stream. 

But as we move our services online for however long our doors remain closed, we must remain mindful of this: the church is not a service. It's not a program or a performance. It's not a consumer good that can simply be packaged however seems convenient at the time. The church is a body, a fellowship, a living organism. We must keep our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our hands on our communities and still one-another. Still love each other. Still do life together. Still be the church.

(This does not mention the number of persons who will stream the church service and decide that they don't have to serve at their church any more, since it seems to go on well enough without them. If we stream and convince them it's just a presentation, a program, a service provided to them, we may lose the engagement of those who make our fellowship radiate bright with God's glory. So we must also remind our brothers and sisters how important their contributions are, and we can do this, too, with an emphasis on continued fellowship and community. We need all of us, every one of us.)

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