Are there lessons that lockdown could teach us, because every new situation has the potential to speak to us. But it may be premature to speak of lessons, because, if the present situation resolves sooner than is expected I conject we will have learnt little. It will be business as usual, with an inconvenient hiatus – for most of us. To some, my inconvenience has been for them an occasion of great loss.
I suspect this lockdown will last longer than we’d wish. And time itself may be the only thing that effects actual change.
Of course, the temptation to pontificate will prove more than some can resist. We will hear every hue of prophetic pronunciation and denunciation. Some of them will be insightful, some will be bizarre, and others inconsequential (much to the chagrin of those would-be prophets).
Lessons may be a way off yet, but not observations. For instance, churches that are tech savvy have responded quickly, and in many cases very effectively. Some had already shown prescience doing online services. They have sophisticated systems that adapt to numerous platforms to keep connections alive among the church community. Many of these have resources to continue in high quality productions featuring worship and preaching. A normal Sunday, except online. But is this optimal? We may need to wind the clock back before we can answer this.
Until the time of the Reformation, church community gatherings were largely ‘us and them.’ The focal view of churches was the sacramental table, administered by ‘them’ – the priest. He celebrated the host, dispensed the wafer, and proclaimed the gospel in sacramental terms, all in Latin. Essentially, he did our religion for us. He had to, we barely understood what he intoned.
With the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the focus of the churches, in time, became the pulpit from which the minister preached the gospel in the vernacular, expecting adherence to its truth.
The pulpit, if not front and central by location, was elevated above the congregation (for voice projection reasons, but also a point was being made), and central to the mission of the church. If you visit a Roman Catholic or a Protestant church today, you will still see this essential difference.
This heritage is deeply embedded in the life blood of our churches – Protestant, Pentecostal, Evangelical. Preaching is the high point of a service – the direction they are geared towards. I doubt this thought will raise an eyebrow.
But does this focus tend to obscure, or take out of focus, biblical patterns/paradigms that the scriptures present for church life? And, maybe we have an opportunity to refocus due to this pandemic?
It sounds as if this is already being done in many churches, where connection with community is, at very least, supplementing preaching. Of course, it is never going to be either or, nor should it be. It is both, but a balance is being redressed.
In our foundation texts Acts 2:42-47 describes the structure of the church after the day of Pentecost. Debate still exists as to whether these verses are prescriptive or descriptive. It is likely to be both, and may even bend towards prescriptive, as Luke is writing with specific purpose, including this part of the churches narrative in Acts to call his readers back to this pattern of church life. Even in his time of writing the church needed to remember.
Teaching is the mentioned, then fellowship, the lifestyle, followed by breaking of bread and prayers. Generosity to/amongst God’s people is also included in this list.
The picture is clear. Community contextualised everything.
Most of these elements were not temple based, as teaching may have been. They were connected to homes, meals and fellowship. Teaching is not minimised, but it doesn’t dominate – God’s people being together eating, praying and caring for each other does, even if for the purpose of hearing the apostle’s teaching.
In a further example the apostle John writing in I John 1:3 states that the purpose of his proclamation was so that those who heard would have fellowship with those that spoke. John didn’t preach to be merely heard; he preached to affect connection with his hearers and with himself, which in turn would be with the Father and the Son. This is a different purpose to preaching; it has shared community and shared experience as its end.
All to say, maybe in lockdown the observable trend of heightened community connection (so much more like the church Luke saw) is as important as preaching messages.
If Sunday online is no different than an ordinary Sunday, I suspect we may be out of focus. Why perpetuate a monolithic model, that fewer seem attracted to, and not use this time to ramp up and enjoy connections with your community – as well as, not instead of.
Some are forced to do this, simply because they have neither the technology nor the know-how to present professionally competent content. Others are choosing to add life giving community to content rich communication.
If the four or five fundamentals Luke presents in Acts 2 are about community then an overdeveloped emphasis on preaching pulls this picture out of focus.
Going back to our foray into history, in a reaction to a sacramental approach to church meetings preaching became the replacement. Even here it isn’t either or, but something has been left out of the picture; a picture Luke was at pains to ratify in Acts – the vital and sustaining role of community, a community that hears together, eats together, receives communion together, prays together, and cares for one another, together.
It appears ironic that we may now be doing this better online than we did offline. This is as incongruous as the pandemic is ubiquitous.