In what has turned out to be strange timing given the spread of COVID-19, I wrote an article a few months ago regarding the limitations of modern technology when it comes to church. In it, I highlighted the dangers that come when Christians “neglect to meet together” regularly, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it (10:25), choosing to feed their faith solely through online means.
There are real limitations to an online-only faith. Perhaps most fundamentally, you can’t receive the Sacraments online. When Christ instituted baptism for the forgiveness of sins, he used real water, not a poor virtual reality facsimile. When he gave his body and blood in the bread and wine of the Last Supper, he blessed the elements on the table before him—not the bread and wine in houses down the street.
And while the ministry of the Word is possible through online means—live-streamed services, podcasts, video lectures, and more—it’s still no substitute for sitting down in a pew at your local church. A good lecture is no replacement for a pastor who knows you and your struggles personally. Conversation in a Facebook group is no replacement for fellow church members who bring you a casserole when you’re facing a crisis or just had a baby.
Yet, in this current crisis, churches across the country are increasingly choosing to refrain from gathering together for worship. My own church body, Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), officially recommended on March 18 that all congregations suspend services. Why? Our synodical president—what other churches might call a presiding bishop—explained it by highlighting the Scripture’s commands to respect governing authorities and to seek the bodily good of our neighbour. After all, federal and provincial requests to cancel public gatherings, including worship services, "have not been made to silence the proclamation of the Gospel, nor does such constitute a persecution of Christ’s church,” he said. “Rather, they have been made in the interests of the safety and welfare of all the people.”
In other words, we want to “love our neighbour as ourselves”—and that means limiting our neighbours’ exposure to disease. As a result, Christians who rightly value the community of believers that meet in the local congregation are now suspending services and seeking to minister in new, albeit imperfect, ways. Pastors who have never before streamed a sermon are rapidly learning to do just that. Parishioners are seeking out Christian community and devotional encouragement via social media. Churches are telling parishioners to take hymnals home (after disinfecting them) with instructions on how to use them for private or family devotions. (See, for example LCC’s recently published “Brief Guide to Home Devotions.”)
And there are other means for pastors and members to look after each other in this time: dropping off groceries on the door steps of those sick or in isolation; visiting with members, especially the lonely and the elderly, on the phone; sending an encouraging email; and more. But the most basic act of the church—gathering together for Word and Sacrament—is something from which we are now asked to abstain for a time.
In doing so, we obey the words of Christ, who said the two greatest commandments were to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-29). There is no disagreement between these two goals: when we earnestly seek to love God and worship him aright, we will also seek the welfare of our neighbour.
So, Christian, love your neighbour: stay home. Respect the guidelines of health authorities as they call for social distancing in order to reduce the spread of COVID 19.
And use this time to foster a greater home devotional life. Read your Bible more. Take up the observance of matins or vespers.
And pray. Pray to the Great Physician that he would bless the work of healthcare professionals both here and abroad. Pray that the sick will be healed. Pray that the dying will find hope, and the grieving comfort.
Lent—that season of the Church year devoted to repentance and self-denial—may last a long time this year, well beyond the usual 40 days leading up to Good Friday. But when it ends—and it will end—the Church will reemerge to celebrate a glorious new Easter. It might not be on April 12, as called for on the calendar, but it will be no less joyous for all that. What a reunion it will be: Christian sisters and brothers gathering together once more locally and around the world to hear the Word of the Gospel, to receive together the Body and Blood of our Lord, and to confess together the great mystery and promise of the Christian faith: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Allelluia!”