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The following is part of a (much longer) conversation, edited for clarity, concerning the church during and after COVID-19. The conversation is between Dale Christensen, guest editor, and Daniel Smith from Toowoomba, QLD.
Dale: What’s been your congregation’s experience during and post COVID-19?
Daniel: It’s been challenging live-streaming our entire worship service on a public platform. There are things that you would say to your congregation that you phrase in a different way for anyone else. I’ve found that particularly difficult when teaching on the more controversial topics. We’ve also found it challenging to retain the sense of being a church family worshipping together, rather than a crisp, clean production for those outside. When it becomes more of a production, it disadvantages both the people in the building and those listening online – because they’re getting a cookie-cutter worship service. For example, since we’re live-streaming we’ve removed people’s personal details from prayers. Stripped of those personal touches you could look up a Church of Christ service anywhere online and get pretty much the same thing; apart from my clothes and the length of my hair you can’t really tell one week from another.
Dale: With all the services looking the same – and this is something the apostles never addressed, for obvious reasons – if you sit down on Sunday evening and pull up the recording of that morning’s service, and towards the end you realise that you’re actually watching the service from two weeks ago – what’s going on there, theologically? You’ve participated in all the elements of an assembly, but it wasn’t this week’s gathering, right?
Daniel: It actually happened to us last week. We live-streamed our Wednesday night classes – and it doesn’t help that Judges is a very repetitive book – but somebody tuned in, got a couple of minutes in, and thought it was a previous lesson. So they stopped. It’s kind of funny, but it does speak to just how impersonal that is when you’re not assembling with people. In a sense you’re just putting on a TV show.
Dale: It does feel uncomfortably close to televangelism.
Daniel: I think now is the great testing point for the church. I mean, we thought the testing point was March or April 2020. But I think this moment is the true test. We’re on the back foot. It feels like we’re at a moment when, if we get it wrong, we could witness people losing their faith entirely. So we’re tempted to take the pragmatic route: ‘What’s keeping the most people [in church] right now?’ But it seems that might lead to a shallower faith in the long term, and a less authentic congregation. Having said that, one of the reasons I’ve decided to teach here on church history is to show people that while this is a period of great testing, it’s just another season in the church. When people look back in a thousand years, will this be seen as another significant period, like another Crusades, or Reformation? How many classes on church history will you have to take before you learn what happened in 2020-21? I’m not trying to diminish [the pandemic], but I want to emphasise the sovereignty of God in all of it. The church has gone through much harsher struggles and has emerged victorious, stronger.
Dale: One of the other questions brought up by the pandemic is ‘what is a congregation’? What sort of pastoral responsibilities do elders have for people tuning in every week from another state or country?
Daniel: It’s fascinating to me that of all the words that could have been used to describe God’s people, the word used specifically refers to the act of assembling. It’s significant that it’s meant to be an identifying factor of the church.
Dale: It’s indispensable to Christianity, yes. I think there are questions about what counts as ‘assembly’. But you can say that Zoom worship still ‘counts’, while acknowledging it’s a pale imitation of what Christian gathering is meant to be.
Daniel: I think Justin Bieber came out recently and said he’s part of an online church that promotes itself as easy to join from home – you log on, get the message, and go about your day. And that would be so confusing for Paul or Peter – or Jesus. We literally called it ‘the assembly’ and yet you’re staying at home, not meeting anyone, not being involved in their lives? So I want to emphasise that [the assembly] isn’t not just a vestige of ‘how we used to do church’; it’s a core component of what church is.
Dale: You hear this: ‘the church is not the building, it’s the people’. Well, it’s also not the people, individually. It’s the corporate body of believers – sometimes together and sometimes apart. It’s never one person making the choice to isolate themselves – ‘just me and God’.
Daniel: And western individualism is leading us towards this: where your identity is defined by your own beliefs and practices, rather than your place in a community. This notion of ‘you’ve got your own faith, you express it in a way that best works for you’ is a result of modern philosophy creeping in and telling us how church ought to work. If your faith is disconnected from being part of a community, then actual, physical isolation from a community doesn’t matter, because that was never a big part of it anyway.
Daniel and Hannah Smith serve the Gipps Street Church of Christ, Toowoomba, QLD. They’re expecting their first child in September 2021. firstname.lastname@example.org