Oh church, where have you gone?

silver imac near white ceramic kettle
Photo by MockupEditor.com on Pexels.com

You may have noticed my tag line by now – clergy abuse survivor. I hesitated to identify myself as such. It can be limiting. Plus it might open me up for presumptions and false judgements.

But by readily admitting something key (and ugly) that molded me and my faith — those of similar belief as I hold might give me more credit; not less.

Being a clergy abuse survivor means that I saw directly into the nest of at least one of the (evil) birds Jesus said would roost in that yeast-inflated mustard tree. I realize I just mixed parables there–but yeast represents sin, and I personally believe that Jesus’ mustard tree parable was more along the lines of the church growing through unnatural inflation; than it was a sign of robustness and good health.

I think that’s why I am a little disturbed by this new way of ‘doing church’ — where we sit in front of a screen and tune in to a sermon or a pared down Sunday service and think that we’ve just had church together. And I’ve actually felt this same disturbed feeling in my heart before– it’s actually brewing for at least a decade. Back when it first started, I sensed we were ill prepared for what lie ahead. And now I see just how right I was to feel that way.

About five years ago, a minister friend and I were chatting. He was sharing some of the burden he felt for the congregants under his care. I recall saying to him, some of what I had felt stirring my heart, which went something like this:

“If something causes the church to go underground, into hiding, is your congregation ready and prepared, do they know how to have church themselves in their own homes–alone or with one or two or three? Because the way I see it, the task of every minister should be teaching every person and family and home they serve how to survive and keep being and doing church when there is no longer a church building to go to. And I do feel that someday churches will be hit with something, and our only option might be our own homes.”

My friend went silent at that curveball which he hadn’t seen coming. Then he slowly nodded. I was not sure if he fully got my sense of urgency; so I continued explaining how at our house, we had been doing just that. We’d been practicing ourselves, confessing sins, praising in songs, doing our own communions, praying more, skipping church services so that we could figure out what it meant to be the church in our own home. That way, if and when the time came; we knew how to do it on our own if needed.

I’ve been out of touch with my minister friend since this virus hit, and last I heard he had moved to a new, small congregation from the one he was serving back when I shared an urgency I had felt so strongly on my heart. So I have no idea if he began implementing some changes to prepare others for a time like this. Or if he fell back into the same old routine; where the minister holds court at the front and most everyone else participates simply by showing up.

Unfortunately: I had lost touch with my own strong feeling, and had slipped back into the easy participation of sitting and listening, being polite and withholding, instead of fully participating, diving full in, to a church gathering of two or more. So when our small fellowship stopped meeting recently, my husband and I tuned in to an online sermon and church service the next Sunday morning.

And we sat in silence and listened. Speaking to one another a little bit, later, about what we’d heard.

But that isn’t church.

There is no intentional coming together of the living body, in watching a screen.

The following week everything inside of me seemed to go awry. I was irritable and unkind. Finally, the dam broke and I found myself crying out, though I tried not to yell,  — we are doing this all wrong; we need to have church ourselves! A time where we sputter and wing it and bake some bread to break just for us and cry out in prayers–and it’s awkward and messy and beautiful just the same. Because this thing we did last Sunday where we sit passive and listen is no different than watching Netflix or the news. That is NOT church. And my spirit needs church more than ever right now…

Not to say there isn’t value in listening to online sermons. There is. I am ever thankful for the internet connecting us to one another and the ready information we can still seek and share (it may not always be the case). And if someone is truly alone with no ‘two or more’ to gather with, then online fellowship has to suffice in this hour. But a screen in place of a person isn’t church. If we don’t physically gather, we are in danger of hardening our hearts. For it is all too easy to become passive watchers; rather than active partakers in worship and study. If by and large most of us tune in to a screen, and tune out the urgings of our own hearts for real contact, what does that say about the church in this hour?

Zoom and Skype may bring us closer to that real connecting point; much more like face to face. Which is important. Even the apostle Paul knew the value of meeting face to face thousands of years ago.

If we have two or more people in a home — we can still do church and we can still be church. Gather together. Open the Bible and study and expound, the Holy Spirit will be the teacher. Enter into the initial discomfort of singing worship without a worship leader’s guidance, and saying humble unplanned prayers together. For Jesus has promised us He is there wherever two (or more) are gathered. Believe it. Don’t forget it.

The reason I forgot all that once burned in my heart about how to ‘be the church in my own home’ is quite simple. It was some mixture of laziness and complacency and a yearning for an easy sense of comfort rather than temporary discomforts which bring a more lasting satisfaction.

Laziness, complacency, and seeking momentary comforts are a dangerous combination in this hour.

So this week the two of us muddled through our own thing. Coming together quite simply.

My week, so far, has gone about the same as last; lots of curveballs and weirdness and a few health scares too. There is no magic fairy dust exemption of reality; merely from gathering as a church. But my heart is much more settled now that I know we still have a true gathering church after all; and it meets with Jesus at my own table.