Where 2 or 3 Gather – Covidtide Prayers 1/3 “Church Is Canceled” (Is it?) – Brad Jersak
“Yes: where two or three come together in my name,
I’ll be there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20 NTE).
“Christ said two or three, not two or three hundred.” —Simone Weil
Christians: What if… what if the church can no longer meet in buildings, must cancel all its services, and what if even live-streaming fails us. What if the internet crashes and the government bans gatherings bigger than 2 or 3?
Is church canceled? Does ‘church’ even still exist?
Jesus: Did I stutter?
Can we conceive of a Christ-centered faith in which two or three are gathered in his name?
As COVID-19 blitzkriegs the globe, those who still conceive of the “church” being contingent on worship services held weekly in brick-and-mortar buildings are having to adjust rapidly. It’s one thing to “cancel church” for a few weeks due to blizzard conditions. But when the closures are both indefinite and legislated, we are forced to reimagine how we “gather in his name.”
So far, the creative responses of dispersed congregations depend on our prowess at digital connectivity. “Social distancing” has generated the demand for “live-streaming” services and/or remote “Zoom meetings.” At least we can see one another’s faces online—“proof of life” for the church held hostage.
When the technology works, it’s a blessing for those who miss being with their faith family. As I write, I can say I “went to church” online in Toronto and Abbotsford last Sunday. Eden and I zoomed into Hope4Life Miami for two hours this morning. And Eden is prepping a sermon for her “virch” (virtual church) this Sunday from the privacy of her office.
Then again, perhaps not much has changed for the millions of Christ-followers who had previously abandoned live services in physical structures. For those no longer affiliated with any institution or congregation, innumerable sources and genres of Christian radio, television and online content are readily available. For decades, PTM’s Greg Albrecht has offered daily online radio messages and weekly services, all archived and accessible. The www.ptm.org website is loaded with resources and pdf versions of both its magazines.
Yes, for those who developed spiritual allergies to the local church, a buffet of virtual Christianity has been available for just nine months shy of a century. On January 2, 1921, Calvary Episcopal Church broadcast the first radio church services on KDKA. The Rev. Lewis B. Whittemore conducted the service and so began Christian “broadcasting” (the actual verb for sowing seed, by the way).
But that’s still a recent trend in Christian history. How is it that Christianity as a living faith survived prior to 1921 through extended times of medical or political lockdown? Was the church Christ founded ever truly suspended, even when driven underground?
During the Communist Revolution, Eden’s Oma and her clan could not gather for public worship for over 30 years. Would they have said, “church is canceled”? How was it that their faith survived? What form did Christianity take through the centuries when it was quarantined by persecution?
I suspect we suffer such intense historical amnesia and cultural tunnel vision that we’re tempted to imagine that “church is canceled.” What if the church doors were locked and, Lord forbid, even the internet should crash? Would Christianity cease to exist except in the privacy of our hearts? But wait…
Across the centuries, the words of Christ speak to us: “Yes: where two or three come together in my name, I’ll be there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20 NTE). How might two-or-three discipleship look, specifically? What makes gathering “in his name” any different than when the same people meet to talk about canceled playoffs or gossip about neighbors who aren’t social distancing properly? What components to “gathering in his name” are optional and which are non-negotiable? That’s been a matter for debate for ages.
This current crisis is an invitation to reimagine church. When it’s all over, do we really want everything to return to how it was? Could we make good use of this reset so that whether or not we attend local churches, we recognize what had been missing or what had been superfluous in our life of worship?
When Pope Francis delivered his homily to St. Peter’s empty square this week, he answered that same question:
It is not the time of God’s judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, O Lord, and to others.
In the next two installments of this series, we’ll explore a few new and potentially abiding orientations to how and why we “do church” or “be church.” See you then.