Some Reflections on COVID-19 and the Church

It’s been all over the news. COVID-19 has been seeing an increase in number of people getting infected. Churches seem to be badly affected too with some being identified as cluster zones. In the midst of much concern, fear and anxiety, there is pressure for churches to suspend services temporarily. In fact, a number of churches have suspended services, with the Roman Catholic Church suspending mass indefinitely. The decision involved in such a situation taken is not an easy one as it can easily be (mis)interpreted as having a lack of faith or irresponsibility. In such a situation, there is a clarion call for Christians to work together with church leaders as noted by some Christian sites. In any case, for those who have suspended services, the go to plan for most of these churches seem to be online streaming. It’s not the place of this post to question whether services should be suspended or not. While the NCCS has released a statement encouraging churches to continue with services, there may certainly be unique pastoral considerations within individual churches that may perhaps warrant the course of action taken. However, at the back of my mind, there is a concern with having online streaming as somehow the default contingency plan.

Part of the concern stems from the fact that clearly something is lost when the body of Christ does not come together in communion but rather watch individually at their own respective homes. While I understand that such a plan certainly isolates people from one another hence significantly decreasing the chances of either transmitting or catching COVID-19, such measures in my opinion need not be taken unless and until there are rules that people should not even be allowed to leave homes. After all, if the logic is that staying at home without gathering lowers the risk of either transmitting or getting COVID-19, one still needs to account for the fact that we still report to work on a daily basis where there is gathering and human contact. The reality is that, as a nation, the threat of COVID-19 has not been deemed serious enough such that everyone needs to be confined within the individual household.

If the above is true, then resorting to an online streaming service as the default seems to be an unnecessary step given that the logic of it cannot be sustained at the moment. On top of that, as mentioned above, theologically we need to grapple with the fact that something of the koinonia is lost when God’s people don’t come together. Service isn’t merely informational. It’s not just about listening to a sermon or singing some songs. It’s about doing them together, praying together, eating together, and serving one another together.  Even in the act of listening to a sermon, we listen as the gathered people of God to hear God’s speech directed to us. That is what it means to participate in the liturgy. Hence even in the times of the early church, the 2nd century Christian Justin Martyr notes that deacons would take the elements of the eucharist to those who were home bound[1]. The sense of coming together is not incidental or even secondary to the Christian faith. Part of the salvation narrative is not merely that we have been saved and reconciled to God but also to each other hence we are drawn by the Spirit to Christ who gathers his sheep. The church is a concrete visible reality as seen in Acts.

Because of this, I cannot help but wonder whether a better cautionary contingency plan is to go back to what was practised during the initial stages of church life – home gatherings. Taking such an approach still retains the theological significance of God’s gathered people while at the same time limiting and controlling mass contact unlike church services. In such a home gathering, bread can still be broken, songs still be sung collectively, confession of sins done corporately, prayers made together, and the sermon heard together through the reading of it aloud by a member of the church. After all, Paul’s letters were distributed and at times read aloud as it was the task of letter bearers to do so.[2] In such an approach, even those quarantined can still read or perhaps hear the sermon.

While such a position may certainly come with an increased level of logistical planning such as liaising and assigning respective people to open their house based on districts/location, visiting different households to conduct communion or temporarily authorising a select group of church leaders to preside over communion, I think this approach to house churches should not be discarded or perhaps even given a secondary priority in comparison to online sermons watched at an individual capacity at home. Our course of action needs to take into account and be undergirded by our theological understanding of the ontology of the church. In saying this, I in no way think my theology of the church is the one that needs to be embraced by all. Neither do I think that it’s easy to implement what has been stated, granted that it also cannot be impossible seeing that the practice of house churches was the norm within the first few centuries of Christianity and even today in many parts of the world. What I have offered here is merely one alternative contingency plan based on my own theological reflection of the church. Furthermore, such a contingency plan is certainly one that will require time to plan. But with the health minister’s recent comment that worship services may still continue, may we take this time to thoughtfully consider how we can best bear faithful witness to the visible reality of the church before concluding too quickly that online sermons should be our go to response?

Without a doubt there are statements about the church in the New Testament that use spatial analogies; one thinks of the church described as a temple, a building, a house and also a body. It is clear from this that there the church is to be described as the visible church-community of God on earth…It would be very dangerous to overlook this, to deny the visibility of the church, and thus to devalue it into a purely spiritual entity…It is intrinsic to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ that it [the church] occupied space in the world.[3]

[1] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” 67.5.

[2] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia–a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 23.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer works v. 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 6:62–63.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s