When I was 15, I’d listen to the conservative evangelical teaching of Back to The Bible on the radio, then watch the 700 Club on TV. I’d read a book by faith healers Frances and Charles Hunter, followed by a book about persecution by Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand. I read Scripture devotionally from a J. B. Phillips translation of the New Testament and studied my New American Standard Bible.
It was a spiritual hash and a highly unconventional approach to discipleship for a teenaged follower of Jesus. But when my Jewish parents told me, “As long as you live under our roof, you will not be permitted to attend church,” they were clear that they hoped this ban would starve out my new faith in Jesus the Messiah.
For the first three years as a believer, I worshiped alone in my room, sustained by radio preaching and Christian books I became adept at sneaking into the house. I could not attend church on a regular basis until I turned 18. Until then, I grabbed snatches of fellowship where I could with friends at school and occasional visits to their churches when I spent the night at their homes.
During the past few weeks, COVID-19 shelter-in-place rules have moved most (though not all) believers out of pews and into their homes. America’s churchgoers are now participating in corporate worship, prayer meetings, and Bible studies via Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube. While some are hopeful this will be a temporary hiccup in church life, others who are elderly, immunocompromised, or chronically ill—or live with those who are—may not be able to physically attend a church service for the foreseeable future because of the ongoing pandemic.
My experience as a new believer in a home hostile to my faith was a profoundly formational experience. It not only shaped my expectations and hopes about being a part of a local body, but it also prepared me for a chronic illness in adulthood that kept me from church for weeks, even months, at a time. Even after a couple of toxic church experiences during which it was tempting to revert to do-it-myself Lone Ranger faith foundations to protect myself from hurt, I’ve never have been able to do so—in large part because of what I learned worshiping alone in my room as a teen. Here are five truths that isolation taught me of what the church is and isn’t.
1. We do not gather for busywork.
I was once on staff at a church that hosted an annual community Easter egg hunt. The church devoted significant financial resources to this event, and it was treated as an all-hands-on-deck commitment for church members because the day included a short evangelistic skit and an invitation to church. This continued even after an analysis revealed that not one person who’d ever attended this event had come to faith in Christ or had begun attending services regularly. The mantra of “but we’ve always done it this way” kept the egg hunt on the church calendar year after year.
The Bible reading I’d done alone in my room gave me the idea that gathering was focused on the risen Christ, that it was counter-cultural and could be risky business. When I first started attending church, I was shocked by the amount of religious busywork in most congregations. I still am. Activities like softball leagues or spa-themed events are well-intentioned and usually have a Christian veneer to justify their presence on the church calendar. Certainly these things can help cultivate friendships. But the current pause on church activity is an invitation for leaders and members alike to ask how the events packing our pre-COVID ministry calendars relate to our mission.
2. Christian fellowship is more than good church attendance.
Some believers have always had difficulty attending Sunday services, including public servants, medical workers, caregivers, and those in fragile health. I noted in my book Becoming Sage that many well-meaning believers quote Hebrews 10:24–25 as a way to encourage others to show up at church. However, the passage is not about shaming people into attending a church service on Sunday mornings.
Rather, these verses emphasize everyday mutuality in our relationships as we urge one another in community toward lives characterized by love and good works, in light of the fact that the end of days grows ever nearer. This passage reminds us that it is our job to pursue meaningful expressions of fellowship whenever we gather with other believers. Commitment to a local body of believers is the primary way in which these relationships are formed, as well as the means by which we share together in corporate worship, learning, Communion, and service.
There is a greater commitment than church attendance, and it enfolds even those who can’t regularly attend. Hebrews 10 describes the nature of our lives together, whether we meet at church or run into another believer in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store.
3. We are not meant to be religious consumers.
In recent years, I’ve watched the rise in popularity of multisite churches that stream their services to satellite locations and online broadcasting. Friends burned out on congregational life would tell me they were staying connected to a church, often from a distant city, by watching a livestream of a service. They could shop for the master Christian communicator of their choice from the comfort of their own living rooms without having to deal with any of the uncomfortable or difficult bits of sharing life with people in their own hometowns.
While I am the first to acknowledge being on the other side of a screen is better than nothing, it is not meant to be a way to escape from the “iron sharpens iron” nature of embodied community. When we are forced into physical distancing, we may discover in new ways that we were never meant to be consumers in the body of Christ. My experiences of isolation both during my youth and throughout my adulthood have confirmed to me that there is a deeply incarnational reality in Jesus’ words about two or three gathering in his name. We cannot share spiritual gifts if we are a congregation of one (1 Cor. 12).
Before I understood much about my new Christian faith, I understood I connected to the body through the Head (Col. 1:18). The kingdom of God did not have just one member—me. We belong to one another (Rom. 12:5–6). We may not be free to meet in person, but we are still free to connect in meaningful ways through our screens, our phones, and snail mail.
4. Trials clarify and purify.
The past few years have seen a torrent of bad news stories about the church. Abuses of power by leaders, coverups by those surrounding them, and shrinking numbers of attenders in many streams of the church point to a widespread spiritual unhealthiness.
Author and former CT executive editor Andy Crouch recently tweeted that pastors should prepare for a major decline in giving and the likelihood of bans on large gatherings for at least the next year. In the short term, an economy in recession and ongoing serious public health concerns are going to prevent us from “going back to normal.” But God isn’t calling us back to normal. He is calling us forward—following him as pilgrims into what’s next. As others have pointed out, we might use this time to reevaluate the health of our church ministries and our own spiritual walk.
When I was a teen, I assumed that an ideal discipleship setting would include church involvement and mentoring partnerships at a vibrant congregation, a supportive family, and a carefully curated reading and media list that would weed out fringe faith teachers. Ironically, my early discipleship included the opposite. However, the trials I experienced required me to learn to seek God first. The difficulties and discomfort left little room for nonessentials in my young faith.
5. Gospel proclamation requires lament.
Through the years, I’ve been stunned by the number of people I’ve known who have muted the confused, mournful sections of Scripture because they claim those passages make them uncomfortable. As a person with a chronic illness, I have learned that my diagnosis also makes these same people uncomfortable. Well-meaning church members come at us with “sure-fire” cures like dietary fixes, nutritional supplements, or essential oils. They want to cure our pain but also make their own discomfort disappear.
But those kinds of expressions of concern tend to mute the thing we need the most—someone who can be present and stick with us for the long haul. K. J. Ramsey noted in a recent CT piece:
All too often in our bodies, and in the body of Christ, we’d rather pretend health is the absence of pain rather than the willing care of it. … When the church does not make space for lament, the church is not whole.
The practice of lament in a congregation cultivates an environment where this is possible in ways that quick-fix practices and happy talk faith never can. Lament is the language of empathy.
The mirror of God’s Word is meant to show us not only who God is but also who we are. By minimizing the grief, pain, and loss of our human condition, we substitute an airbrushed, truncated version of faith for the real thing. The losses we’re all experiencing in this pandemic call for lament and not for the peppy sloganeering of therapeutic moral deism that has passed for the good news in some circles.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi convictions led him to an underground expression of church before and during World War II, eventually landing him in prison, then concentration camps as he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945. His words from his book Life Together formed me as a young believer. May they shape us now—together—in this era when we’re doing life apart:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of six books, including Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife(Moody Publishers), which released April 7.