A group of shell-shocked refugees stood in the midst of an unending plain under the hot scorching Babylonian sun. Their homes were piles of ash hundreds of miles to the West. Their temple, the center of their worship, was a pile of rubble. Then one of the refugees began to sing a mournful tune:
Psalm 137:1 By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy: they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
Exiled to a foreign land, cut off from the temple, their world had changed. Life was now one big question. How can we sing here? How can we be the people of God in such a place? How can we worship God without the temple? Many are asking the same questions today: can we be the church while we social distance and our church buildings are closed?
This is an important question, because if the answer is “No”, then our only option is to wait for things to get back to normal. But what if God is behind this pandemic, just as he was behind Israel’s exile in Babylon? What if it is God who has shaken the world and it is our call to adapt? Perhaps God is calling us to rethink our understanding of “church”?
It is probably as unthinkable for us to imagine church without a building and large worship gathering as it was for Israel to conceive of worshipping God without the temple. But what if I told you that one of the fastest-growing churches in the world is in Iran?
(If you don’t believe me, check out this article)
The church in Iran owns no buildings and has no large worship gatherings and yet disciples of Jesus are multiplying faster there than anywhere else in the world. What if our biggest obstacle to being the church today is not COVID-19, but our conceptions of what church must be?
The church in Iran has virtually no resources, but what they do have is a commitment to being disciples of Jesus. In other words, they are committed to practicing Jesus’ teachings together and sharing Jesus with others. For them, a church is not a building, nor is it a worship service, but a community of people living a grateful way of life together where they are learning to love God more than anything else and love their neighbor as themselves. They build their lives around sharing the treasure of Jesus with those God places in their lives. In this way, the Gospel has spread in Iran like a virus. Could that not happen here?
One example we could follow is the German Confessing Church. The church in Germany was driven underground during World War 2 (at least the part that refused to collaborate with the Nazis). One of the leaders of this “confessing church” was a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was chosen to head a secret and underground seminary called Finkenwalde. It was there that he wrote a manual on how to be the church under difficult circumstances. It became a classic we know as Life Together.
(You can pick up a copy here)
In this book, Bonhoeffer breaks down the life of a disciple into three parts: the Life Alone, the Life Together, and the Life on Mission. All three are possible, even if we are under quarantine. Here is one way for us to do it.
The Life Alone
No Christian will become a mature disciple unless they learn to feed themselves. We grow in maturity as we practice daily Bible reading and prayer on our own. In Bible reading, we listen to God, we respond to his Word, and we share it with others. In Prayer, we have an ongoing conversation with God that involves both speaking and listening. We developed a tool called the Pacific Union Connect (pacificunionconnect.com) where you can learn to develop your own “life alone.” This site includes daily Bible readings (https://pacificunionconnect.com/daily-bible-readings/) and articles on Bible reading, prayer, and meditation (https://pacificunionconnect.com/genone-blog/keeping-spiritually-fit/).
The Life Together
If God is our Father and Jesus is our Savior, then the church is family. As a family, we love, pray, and care for each other. Make it your practice to express love and concern for your church family. Here are some ideas:
- Send a card or a random text.
- Check in with an elderly person to make sure they are OK. Stop by and talk with them from their driveway.
- Make a list of people within the church to pray for. Watch your email for the prayer chain.
- Get in touch with the deacons and see if there is anyone that is in need.
- Go for a walk with someone.
- Check in with a friend in the church and share your struggles and what you are learning as you read the Bible.
The Life on Mission
Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 28:18 that our mission is to “make disciples of all nations.” In other words, our mission is to follow Jesus and share Jesus with others. But the idea of discipling the nations seems so enormous that we scarcely know where to begin. But what if we begin where God planted us? Your neighborhood, your job, your family, and your co-workers – none of this an accident. God has set the time and place for all people to live so that we might reach out and find God (see Acts 17:26).
So one place to begin is something that we call “Tic-Tac-Toe” prayer (for more details see the article: https://pacificunionconnect.com/2020/05/06/tic-tac-toe-prayer/). Draw a tic-tac-toe board and place your neighbors in the bordering squares. First, learn their names (this is New England after all). Second, find out a detail from their lives. Then see if you can learn about their hopes and fears. All the while praying for them daily that God will use the circumstances of their lives to open their hearts to the Gospel and pray for opportunities to share Jesus with them.
Let’s make the church go viral
How are you developing the practices of Bible reading and prayer during COVID? (Life Alone)
How are you reaching out to your brothers and sisters in the church? (Life Together)
How are you engaged with the mission of making disciples of Jesus? (Life on Mission).
The building may be closed. You may be unable to attend a worship service. But instead of going to church, we can be the church.
I’d love to hear your ideas and questions. Let’s get this conversation going by posting a comment below.