New Zealand currently sits halfway through its fourth and possibly last week of the Covid-19 Level 4 Lockdown. For my church, it has been five Sundays since we gathered together as a whole congregation. I expect it could be at least as many more before we are allowed to do so again. Right now the members of our church, and of all NZ churches, are scattered and separated from each other’s physical presence.
Like many churches throughout the country and around the globe, we have turned to digital technology. By using the internet we have been able to provide the ‘services’ that might otherwise be had through a Sunday service and to have togetherness as a community. We have found that the ‘Zoom’ platform is ideal for connecting our whole church on a Sunday morning.
The way Zoom works is that every participant is shown in their own box on the TV or computer screen. Every ‘household’ that has signed in and turned their camera on can be seen sitting on their couch or their bed or their back deck. If they choose they can speak up and talk to everyone else. On the Sundays we have done this, it has been good to see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices, and in a limited way to interact. For now this is about the best we can have. Admittedly this is rather good. But I think it is true that we would rather be together if we could. In spite of our digital services, our fellowship is disconnected.
Disconnected Fellowship in the New Testament
‘Disconnected fellowship’ is seen in the New Testament. By the later NT era, Christianity existed as a scattered network of gathered assemblies and friendships that stretched around the Greco-Roman world. The letters of the NT evidence many examples of Christian friendships – an extended ‘family’ brought and kept together in Christ. It is marked by affection, concern, and care for one another. But they could not always be together. Through a variety of circumstances these friendships had to be maintained at a distance.
The apostle John, for example, was dissatisfied with the paper and ink of letter writing. He desired face-to-face fellowship (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 13-14. See also 2 Tim. 1:4; Phil. 1:8; Heb. 13:18-23). But it was not only the eager-Christian-leader-types who desired to meet or reconnect with other Christians. Many of the NT letters end with expressions of emerging friendships as everyday Christian men and women chimed in on the author’s letter to share news or greetings with everyday Christians in other cities. Many of them would have never met, but warmly enjoyed with them a new and common identity.
Christianity then was (among other things) an affair of friendships. The apostle John finished one of his letters with ‘greet the friends, every one of them’ (3 Jn. 15; see also Romans 16:3-16, 21-23; 1 Cor. 16:17-20; 2 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 4:21-22; Col. 4:17-18; 2 Tim. 4:19-21; Tit. 3:15; Philem. 23-24; Heb. 13:24; 1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Jn. 13).
The Risk of Unravelling Fellowships
We today may not have such connections with believers from faraway churches like those NT Christians. But for the present moment, as we wait through the Covid-19 Lockdown, the only fellowship we can have with even our own church family is one enjoyed from a distance. The distance is made short by the windows that are our phone and computer screens, but the distance remains nonetheless.
While we wait, we face a challenge in our pattern of Christian fellowship. The Coronavirus pandemic has provided a golden opportunity for the reinforcement of the individualist and non-committal faith that Christians in NZ are already too inclined to accept. We know what this is – the impulse to skip church, pass on homegroup, and ‘be’ a Christian on our own, by ourselves, without being a serious part of a community of believers. Contemporary culture tugs us in this direction relentlessly.
A recent article by Jay Kim, ‘Taking the Church Online in a Coronavirus Age’, points out that our present practice of online church needs to be a temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience. He writes that “convenience has a way of quickly undoing the work of long held disciplines.” I affirm that we should gratefully enjoy our ability to meet together online. But we need also make sure that we look past what has been gained (or merely retained?) in order to recognize what it is that is lost when we can not or do not meet together in person. The challenge facing us is that of resisting the conveniences of this current ‘new normal’. What we have now ought to be a ‘temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience’.
Absence, Anticipation, and Resolve
Our challenge right now is to value afresh the experience of Christian fellowship and friendship. Many of us are looking forward to the time when we can gather in our home groups and church congregations again. Live-streamed video conferencing is not too far from the ‘face to face’ of 2 John 12, but it cannot make up the full experience of gathered fellowship. The time will come when we may reopen the doors of our churches and sit again on each other’s couches.
I would like to hope that the time of the Covid-19 Lockdown will be a time that makes us take stock of what we currently cannot have. I would like to hope that its end will impel us toward building, maintaining, and enjoying Christian friendship and fellowship. And I would like to hope that our enjoyment of this will be completed in the strengthening of the commitment of others to it. Commitment is too often too feeble. The Lockdown will not have helped.
So, to that end: when the Lockdown is over and it is time for church, let us put down our phones and get out of bed. When it is time for home group, let us get off the couch, be home from work, and decline the demands that would see us out of the house but absent from homegroup. It will cost us our comfort and convenience, especially if we lack the discipline of routine. But it is when we do this that we will then begin to know the value of fellowship, and then, in the manner of 2 John 12 find the joy of our Christian faith complete.