Social distancing as a way to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread has created many questions about how to maintain a sense of community while not physically coming together in one space. For Christians, though, the social distancing that resulted from the worldwide spread of a virus raises a pressing question: How do we understand ourselves as the church when we can’t meet in person?
John Calvin proclaimed that the marks of the true church are the gospel rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. So, if the existence of the church is indicated by its worship, as Calvin said — the Word preached and the sacraments rightly administered — what does the current diaspora mean for the church?
I want to explore four traditional characteristics of church that, although most clearly expressed and reinforced when we gather together, can apply to the Christian life well beyond worship held in a church building.
The first is call, which is best experienced in the corporate Call to Worship that opens many a Sunday service. Presbyterians believe that God’s grace is “prevenient”; that is, that God acts first. The Christian life — and worship itself — is begun by God calling us to God’s self, into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:12). However, during a time of sheltering we are reminded that this call can happen every day, anywhere. Daily Prayer from the PC(USA) “Book of Common Worship” offers this call in the form of prayer — morning, midday, evening and at the close of day — inviting us to a new rhythm of worship beyond a church building. How else can you open yourself to hear God’s call?
The call of God then leads us into confession — the telling of the truth about ourselves, about God, and about the relationship of the human and divine. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). Our words express and form our faith, telling it like it is and shaping us for what is yet to be. This truth-telling includes the confession of sin and the responding assurance/confession of God’s mercy. It is truth told in our formal confessions of the faith (The Apostles’ Creed, the Brief Statement, etc.). It is truth presented in the ways the Word of God comes to us in worship and life — in song and prayer, in Scripture and preaching, in the witness of nature and of others. It is shared truths and traditions mutually accessible even when we are apart. Is there a prayer, song or other devotional practice you can commit to sharing at the same time as others?
Confession then prepares us for the element of worship traditionally defined as the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup — communion — although it includes the passing of the peace and fellowship time. Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). Without being able to break bread together or touch hands in a hearty shake, communion as the church takes on new expression. When I studied communion in the PC(USA), it became clear that all kinds of ways of receiving the elements were viewed as “communing together.” Just as God’s action among us is not hampered by particular models of participation in a communion meal, God is not hampered by our inability to get together. The church is the church every time we choose to lean on one another, passing the peace by phone, text or computer. The church is the church when a simple table grace is said, asking God to join us all together in love and communion.
Lastly, the fourth characteristic of what church has always been about, still is and always will be, is commissioning. As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21). In baptism we join Jesus’ disciple-making work of bringing Good News to all. Commissioning is for the work of the church in the world — no matter how we meet, where we meet or if we cannot meet together. How can we express our love of neighbor and reveal that the church is strengthened by the very necessity of finding new ways to socially connect? What gratitude can we express to God, together or apart? How can we live out the call, confession, communion and commissioning, not just as traditional Sunday morning rubrics, but as the very framework for being the church today?
Barb Hedges-Goettl is a PC(USA) pastor who, with her husband, Len, co-pastors a small neighborhood church outside of Philadelphia. She has a Ph.D. in liturgical studies, which began with an interest in what it means to be the church.