Can you remember LBL – Life Before Lockdown? (It’s a new acronym, I hope it’ll catch on). It feels like life has changed so much in the past year, it’s hard to remember what it was like before. My days were full of activities and meetings – taking a look back in my diary brings back memories of having activities most days: groups, meetings, services, there was at least something on every day.
My life was in many ways centred around the church. The beating heart of this was the services, especially on a Sunday: in the morning I would go to two services (in our parish there are two church buildings, with a service at each one). Then there would be a service in the afternoon which I was at most weeks. Sometimes there would be an evening service. So each Sunday I was usually at church three times – even four, on occasion. That’s a whole lot of church!
So – what’s the problem with that? The problem is that I spent so long AT church that I forgot to BE church. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Church is not a building
One of the things that we sometimes explain to schoolchildren (expecting them to be surprised!) is that church is not a building. A building can be ‘a church’ – but all that means is, a building which is dedicated to God for the purpose of the church. The church is really the people.
In the New Testament, the word ‘church’ never refers to a building. (In the early days there wouldn’t have been church buildings anyway – they weren’t built until Christianity became more established). Christians used to meet in private houses or public meeting rooms.
In fact, the New Testament uses various metaphors to describe the church, for example as Christ’s “body” (Ephesians 1:22-3), or as a family (Mark 3:34-35). Those are not cold and impersonal – actually it’s the most warm and personal thing you can get! You belong to it simply by repenting of sin and believing in Jesus Christ for salvation. The New Testament sees church as being highly important – but it’s nothing to do with the building.
We don’t ‘go to church’
In the days of the New Testament, the church would meet together because they were Christians who loved each other and wanted to meet. It wasn’t their act of meeting together which made them the church: their love for God and each other gave them a desire to meet.
This is what it says about the church in the very early days:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere heartsActs 2:44-46
So the believers had everything in common; they put each others’ needs before their own; they met together “every day”. Meeting together wasn’t something they did because they wanted to do church – they met together because they were church! As we saw just now, the church is a body or a family – and Acts shows us what that might look like in practice.
It’s so important to understand this. A lot of Christians know that ‘church’ is not about the building. But I think we still too often conceive of church as something that we go to to participate in, rather than something that we are.
Love = being church
Early on I was playing this song by Graham Kendrick:
It’s based on Jesus’ words in John 13:
‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’John 13:34-35
Notice what Jesus didn’t say: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you go to a service once a week.” Worshipping God together is important, but it’s only a part of being the church. I think we in much of the Western world have forgotten that we go to church because we are commanded to love one another.
Sometimes people say, “you can be a Christian without going to church”. Technically this is true, of course. I’ve spent hours visiting people who would love to come to church, but ill health has made it impossible. But – you can’t be a Christian without being part of the church. If someone claims to be a Christian but has no desire to meet with fellow Christians (let alone love them), then I’d suggest they haven’t understood what it means to be Christian.
Christians meet together because we love God and each other. That’s how it should be, at least. The word often used is “fellowship” – fellowship is really about Christians meeting together out of love for him and each other. I think we have become far too ‘event-focussed’ – so church is not about being a building, but an event that we go to.
And then the lockdowns came
A few weeks ago I said that the lockdowns had given us what we (thought we) wanted. I think the lockdowns have actually been helpful, because they have exposed the truth. This is what I believe has happened in this case. If we see church as an event, then it doesn’t really matter too much if it moves online. You can have songs, Bible reading, sermon, etc – all of those things can be online. The one thing you can’t really have online is fellowship.
If we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s that meeting online (whatever technology you use – YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, etc) – isn’t really meeting. Not in the full sense of the word. It’s a very poor substitute for physical meeting. Technology of course has its uses and I have been immensely grateful for it over the last year – but it’s not a substitute for meeting face-to-face.
Now, here’s a confession. The thing I really missed at the beginning of lockdowns was all the services. Not necessarily all the people. I did miss them as well, I missed them a lot! But, if I’m totally honest, I didn’t miss the people so much as I actually missed the services.
Part of the reason for that is that church has always been about services. In my time in the church, it felt like the our purpose was to put on more events. We want to worship God – we hold an event and we all come to it. We want to evangelise – we hold an event and invite people to it. I’ve always been busy running around setting up equipment, or putting chairs out, or the like – so much so that I just haven’t had time to build deep relationships with people.
Time for relationship
I said before in my post about being human that we were designed for relationships. We serve a Trinitarian God who is, and has always been, a community of other-person centred love. We are made in the image of God, to reflect that other-person centred love. Our human societies – and especially the church – should be a reflection of our triune God.
Unfortunately, in my experience at least, a lot of churches spend so much time putting on events that there just isn’t time to build meaningful relationships. Taking 30 minutes after a service to have a coffee is great, but it’s not time when you can build deep friendships with people. Home groups are great, and you can go deeper with people, but I’ve found that they don’t often lead to deep relationships either. I suppose that’s not surprising given that in a typical home group, you’ll spend a couple of hours per week together – and a lot of that time will be Bible study. It’s a far cry from holding everything in common and meeting together every day!
Thinking back over the past year, the people I’ve most naturally kept in touch with have been the people I have the strongest relationships with. It just happened organically, without feeling forced in any way. Some of them have been parents from the toddler group we run at the church. There are one or two people I used to spend a decent amount of time with chatting to each week. That’s the nice thing about those groups – it was a bit of time without pressure where you could just sit down and get to know someone. Unfortunately, it’s that exact kind of spending time together which I think doesn’t happen so much in “ordinary” church.
Lessons for a post-lockdown church
I think the big lesson for me from all this is to remember how important relationships are in a church. Church is not found in a building or an event, but in relationships with other Christians. It’s so important to work at those.
We in the church often don’t help ourselves because we try to busy ourselves with running lots of events all the time. I’m more guilty of this than most – I love events! I love being busy, I love rushing around doing stuff – especially doing stuff for God. So often, just sitting down and talking to someone feels like I’m not doing stuff.
And, to be completely honest, I think this feeling comes from a wrong view of God: sitting down and having a chat with someone is (usually) an enjoyable experience. Rushing around setting up for things might give a superficial sense of achievement, but it’s not really enjoyable in the same way. Yet I sometimes think that God wants me avoid what I find enjoyable and focus on my view of doing stuff, because I have to lay aside my desires for Christ. Well, it’s true that Christ calls us to take up our cross to follow him, but it’s completely wrong to say that means God doesn’t want us to enjoy ourselves. Rather, we should delight ourselves in him.
Take delight in the Lord,Psalm 37:4
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
So, in a nutshell, what would I like a post-lockdown church to look like? Ultimately, one where time and space are given to relationships. Where we don’t have to feel like we have to run round and put on events all the time. Where we can get to know each other, and get to know others, properly.
We are living in a world of social distancing, a world where people are literally told to stay away from other people. I think we will emerge from this pandemic to a world where people are desperate for real, meaningful relationships. Not more Zoom or YouTube events. We the church have something distinct and important to offer the world. We are meant to show the world what it’s like to live without fear in a community of love. Let’s stop rushing around to put on church events, and start being the church.