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The Once and Future Church11 months ago
Rob Daborn dives into the question of what God is calling us to be and to do in these uncertain times. He encourages us to look for signs of where the Spirit is at work in new ways, even in the midst of the current crisis.
In the group of rural parishes to which we belong, I’m glad to say that all our church buildings are now open for Sunday worship – but it’s not, of course, what it used to be! Although we are careful to observe all the guidelines on social distancing and keeping everyone safe, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is not Christian community as we’ve known it.
Since the earliest days of meeting together for the breaking of bread and prayers, Christians have sought to gather in one place and to draw as close to each other, in every sense, as they feel they comfortably can. The present reality that we can only meet online or by consciously keeping two metres apart takes us into a new place that begs serious questions about what Christian community will look like in the future. Even when the social distancing rules are relaxed and a Covid-19 vaccine is available, there will be folk who will feel vulnerable and unwilling to mingle as before.
We’ve lost something here that is at the heart of what it means to be church and at the moment it’s far from certain when this togetherness will be restored. And so I think, first of all, that it’s all right to allow ourselves some space to grieve for this loss as we gaze at the carefully spaced congregation around us and worship without song, and with no coffee and chat afterwards.
Having acknowledged and grieved for our loss, I believe we need to move on and to ask the question “What is God calling us to be and to do in these uncertain times?” I’d like to use this blog to offer a couple of clues from scripture as we wrestle with this question.
My first clue is at the heart of all four gospels: each evangelist tells us the story of how Jesus died on Good Friday and was raised to life on Easter morning. As well as proclaiming that the Jesus who died was wonderfully raised to new life, there is also a gospel principle being set out here: death is never, for us Christians, the end of the story – there is always resurrection to follow. And so, in our time, while we find ourselves grieving for the death of one way of being church, we can also look forward with confidence, because we can be sure God has something new for us to move on to. Good Friday is always followed by Easter morning.
The second clue comes from the Book of Acts, which we’ve been zooming through in our online housegroup. As we read through the story of the powerful proclamation of Jesus as the Christ and the emergence of local groups of believers, I was struck again by how much the leaders of the new movement were conscious of being led by the Holy Spirit. This included guidance as where to go next with the Good News, for example in Chapter 16, where the Spirit guides Paul and Timothy away from the Roman province of Asia and, following a vision, they set sail for Macedonia instead. The Spirit also guided the emerging Christian community through some of its growth pains, for example at the Council of Jerusalem in Chapter 15: the letter sent out after the council meeting makes clear that the Spirit was with them in reaching a decision that would have a crucial effect on the future shape of the church.
Our calling, then, is to look for signs of where the Spirit is at work in new ways, even in the midst of the current crisis. As the Christian author John Taylor has well expressed it, “mission means finding out what God is doing and trying to do it with him”. Other writers of this blog have already noted how the widespread move to online worship and learning has sparked an exciting response from an unexpected range of people who seem to have been untouched by traditional patterns of mission. Similarly, Christians meeting on internet platforms have discovered that the lack of physical closeness is offset by the opportunities of meeting and learning from other believers from totally different cultures: how wonderful it’s been, for example, to see church members from a whole swathe of countries round the world joining online to sing a blessing on their nations.
To follow where the Spirit is leading calls for discernment, which I believe to be a gift given to some but also a skill which others in church leadership may learn: it is perhaps the first and most important step in Spirit-led mission. Like the first believers, we shall no doubt find that we end up in unexpected places and in the company of unexpected people. We may well recover much that is dear and familiar to us in our common life as Christians – I, for one, will be glad when our housegroup is once more a group meeting in a home, and we can enjoy coffee and chocolate biscuits again after a Sunday service! But the crisis has also opened up new adventures in mission and community – we can’t tell what future church will look like, but we can be sure that it will be there, and that it will be different.