It is easy to understand why so many feel anguished about the unintended but “dreadful” consequences for the church posed by the coronavirus. We can no longer gather in groups unimpeded by size restrictions, masked faces, and social distancing. Many churches are shuttered, services disrupted, and the time-honored traditions put on hold. We easily can become overwhelmed by the effort extended in trying to keep church alive under the new conditions, or by grief as we focus on what we lose, week by week.
Our losses are real, but they are not the whole story. There exist truths other than the losses that lie within our current forced reality. We need to follow the example of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof whom, after reviewing the importance of the traditions and instructions honored by his people, stopped to consider further truths that applied to each situation. After the recitation of the strengths of the established folkway, he would say, “On the other hand.“ While we grieve that certain traditions have been interrupted, “on the other hand,” this forced cessation of the established expression of Christian worship and life may open the doorway to a new paradigm of Christian fellowship and worship. Given the statistics on growth (or lack thereof) and the greying of American congregations, perhaps a change in models might not be a half-bad idea.
Let’s be honest: while meeting in large groups allows for greater sophistication and polish in platform performance, it is often at the price of reduced membership participation. Experts provide a level of professionalism in the service that cannot hope to be matched in smaller gatherings. Large congregations have the resources to provide inspirational programs that small gatherings (particularly those restricted to 10 or less) cannot hope to equal. On the other hand, the large meetings often introduce the elements of anonymity, invisibility, isolation, and intimidation in the use of gifts. In short, large-scale meetings support a form of religious experience that can become the breeding grounds for spectator Christianity, spiritual atrophy, alienation from the group, and even quiet separation from the gathered ones. This is not to disparage the strengths of the many churches that work hard to overcome these tendencies, but simply to own the dysfunctional tendencies of “church as we have known it,” and why we need to change our focus from what has been lost to what lies “on the other hand.”
The pattern of church that has evolved in Christianity accomplishes many precious things, but its appropriateness depends on what we see as the purpose of the church and how to best achieve that purpose in our own time and place. As we assess the relative success or failure of our design for church, we should stay fixed on the core Christian experience: the reception of the love of God that leads to love for the neighbor and love for one another. A good case can be argued that the goal of the church should be to provide opportunities for growth in the area of mutual love. Jesus made love the centerpiece of his ministry, and it featured prominently in his actions, parables, and instructions. Jesus explicitly taught his followers to love one another, and told them that all people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another (John 13.34-35). He left the command to love each other as he himself loved them (John 15.12). It is growth in love that enables the disciple to be transformed incrementally into the new creature (2 Corinthians 5.17), reflecting and embodying God’s love. This is the realized part of the kingdom to come: the experience of a life embedded in transformational love that leads the committed disciple along the way of the Spirit and creates a community that has accepted the invitation to enter the life of God as healers and beacons lighting the way to the City of Love and Joy.
If this is our goal, we must ask how we best organize ourselves to achieve it, especially in an era marked by the absence of mutual care as well as open racial, gender, class, and sexual injustice. In a period where corruption, apathy, incivility, and dishonesty have become norms as the rich race to get richer by sacrificing the poor and working classes, where winning and power are more important than honor, dignity, and a principled life, how best do we construct an institution that intrigues individuals to come and learn how to love? Can this be accomplished by well-organized lectures and music for one hour a week? What alternatives exist that might be more effective? What form might better enable Christians to learn to collaborate and cooperate with each other, to value each other, to bond together for mutual support, to act as partners in working towards our goal, and to spiritual growth as we are empowered to be our most productive and creative selves through the mutual affirmation and grace we experience in our interactions with one another? While our churches have been sites of healing and the proclamation to salvation for many, on the other hand, many have fallen far short of providing this experience for their members.
The Sabbath School quarterly this week focuses on the ability of small groups to fill in the lacunae left in the emphasis on minister-focused services and models of ministry. It urges its readers to consider the potency of small groups as the loci of active ministry and the experience of friendship, affection, and intimacy. The premise is that as we face the challenges of life together, and encounter Christ in each other, we are presented with the opportunity to grow towards fullness of transformed being. Our time within small groups provides us with the opportunity to participate in God’s salvific project of the ages. The prospect of growing in grace and love increases as we experience welcome, insight, self-knowledge, consolation and peace in our cherished interactions with those who know us well or are willing to be open to extend to us their friendship and authentic selves. Our ability to dare to care is revealed and tested in the small setting comprised of individuals who have journeyed across different landscapes than we have.
In short, the Church can be identified most clearly as the body of Christ when its members regularly meet in small groups that have the goals of living out the life of God’s community; increasingly becoming forces of healing and redemption for each other and the larger world. The vitality of these groups is manifested in the willingness to share themselves as well as their goods or tangible resources. It is only by receiving and extending compassion that we learn how to be compassionate, that we learn to reflect God. It is as we have the opportunity to be responsible to a group beyond ourselves and our family that we can experience the forgiveness of the larger community, the abundant grace of God, and what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
So where does that leave us? Certainly not happy that we are deprived of being church in the way we are accustomed to being church. And it does not decrease our longing to meet with a broad community of believers. When the pandemic is over, we will appreciate more fully than ever the precious weekly traditions and the gathering of believers. Hopefully, though, if we use the interim time wisely, we will return with a greater understanding of the significance of small groups and more willingness to attach ourselves to a group or groups within the larger community. We will be more willing to take part of the ministry of the church, and more willing to assume more of our own responsibility for our personal spiritual growth. Assuredly, nothing is a given. We can grumble and hibernate until the crisis is over. Or, we may choose to use our time exploring the gift of the small group, and return with praises on our lips for the insight the time made possible. We will all be relieved that it is over, but some of us might just be saying, “On the other hand…”
The situation reminds me of the oft-repeated Asian folk-tale about a spiritual master and three rather malicious youths. Angered by the respect the villagers showed the sage, the ringleader called the others over and laid before them his plan to confound the master. He would hold a live sparrow behind his back and ask the master if it were alive or dead. If the sage said dead, the lad would bring forth the live sparrow. If the sage said alive, he would break the sparrow’s neck and present a dead bird. Either way, the sage would be diminished before the people. And so the youths approached the sage and began to set the trap for the elder, but the surprise was to be on them. The young leader asked the question regarding whether the sparrow was alive or dead, standing smugly in his position of power. The master looked at him thoughtfully, and then replied, “The answer is in your hands.” The situation is much the same for us. We may spring back from the pandemic wiser and spiritually more mature for the difficult trial, or relatively the same. The answer remains, “in our hands.” What we lose or gain from this experience largely depends on whether we choose to focus on the trials of the disruption, or what lies on the other hand, the opportunity to explore alternative ways of being church.
Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California.
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