The impact of coronavirus and social distancing on the way we worship
Published on: 06-01-2020
I haven’t been to church for many weeks. That’s not something you’d expect to read in Adventist World. Going to church on Sabbath morning has been part of my DNA for more than a half century. I grew up in an Adventist family, and going to church was a given. As a teenager attending public schools in Germany, I looked forward to spending Sabbath with my friends at church. I was involved in many church activities. Since then, I have taught Sabbath School classes, preached sermons, served potlucks, and enjoyed sweet fellowship with other followers of Jesus almost every Sabbath.
I confess, sometimes we sat too much. The sermons were not always gripping, and the music was at times slightly off-key. But it was church—my church.
COVID-19 has changed all of this. Many countries have mandated some type of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. That means that many of us haven’t seen friends from church for a while.
Except, that’s not really true. Here’s an example: For the past eight years we have hosted a Tuesday night Bible study at our home. It started as a way of keeping my teenage daughters connected to their church during the week. They have long ago left home to pursue their studies, but the Bible study has continued. We usually have between 10 and 15 people attending. We have averaged more than 30 people online over the past months. Zoom has become our best friend.
While we couldn’t physically meet with others, we seem to have gone back to the model that worked for the early church—but virtually. Small-group meetings or Bible studies hosted on Zoom, Skype, or WhatsApp, and prayer meetings on call-in numbers, have mushroomed. They filled the void left by the COVID-19-related restrictions.
Church historians agree that worship during most of the first two centuries A.D. was centered in house churches, or, perhaps better, “household churches.” Acts 12:12 describes a prayer meeting in “the house of Mary,” pleading for the release of Peter. Paul includes many greetings to individuals hosting gathering places for Christians in their homes (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2; Rom. 16:5, 23; etc.). Household churches had the advantages of intimacy and increased safety, and were culturally appropriate.
Let me suggest four takeaways about the current moment as we reconsider worship.
First, worship is not only a well-structured activity exclusive to Sabbath mornings. We worship—individually and corporately—because we recognize our need for a Saviour. We knew that before COVID-19, of course. But somehow our inability to meet in our local congregations has highlighted this anew. Worship is a mindset and attitude, not a moment.
Second, more than ever I have felt the importance of the intimacy of worship. Small groups—virtually or sitting together in a real space— offer this advantage. While I love organ music and enjoy ethereal choir music, I value even more knowing the joys and burdens of my fellow worshippers. That’s difficult (though not impossible) to accomplish in a large congregation.
Third, worship within the context of a house setting offers accountability. With only 10 to 20 people (or even fewer) attending , I know every member personally. I miss them when they are not present and will contact them. My impression is that we need more intimacy and accountability in Adventist worship, and less formality and distance.
Fourth, I predict that house churches will see an uptick even after we look in the rearview mirror at the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, in some parts of the world with limited religious freedoms, house churches represent the most vibrant, yet veiled, face of worship. They offer more safety, and a viable alternative in urban centers with skyrocketing real estate prices.
Perhaps what I’m rediscovering is that church—with or without physical buildings—has always been and will always be about living with God, united closely with others in community and mission.