Churches had to suspend congregational activities a while before due to the aggregated epidemic outbreak. Hence, many believers could hardly see each other.
A scene that I’ve seen from the first service since the church reopened, gave me warm feelings. Two sisters were thrilled and about to give a hug to each other as they hadn’t seen each other for a long time. But they only did hand waving and head nodding as greetings because a church member interrupted them with good-willingness, who reminded them of keeping the social distancing. I was deeply touched by such affection between church members.
Photo by Kool Shooters
It has been more than two years since the first wave of epidemic outbreak. Many churches were affected and had to press the pause button on all worship services. There have been great challenges facing these churches in terms of pastoral caring. Based upon my observation during this period of time, I noticed that for many reasons some churchgoers lost their zeal for physical church gatherings. Such a visible change among church members does urge us to reflect on the importance of the physical gatherings.
In modern society, many with little interest in reaching others would like to chat with people only online because of the widespread use of social media. As a result, they may know a lot of people but with little connection and mutual understanding.
The convenience of the internet offers a good way for pastoral caring, but for the interactive communications among believers, it can never replace the moments that church members spend together. Nor can it provide practical help for sisters and brothers in dilemmas. That is because the timely appearance as a friend is one of the simple ways to show care and love for those who are suffering. No matter how advanced technologies have developed, virtual condolences are always weaker than being there with the one who needs comfort. Since the presence of someone can give a sense of satisfaction, helping one to get through the tough times.
Being an extrovert or an introvert makes no difference to one’s demand of living in groups. As the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs reveals, we all naturally have the “need for belonging”, while Christians also feel the need to live in community. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. But not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”
Christians need one another. But it doesn’t mean the community life is a must for Christians, nor to say that fellowship is easy. Church fellowship, though imperfect as it seems, is still one of the core contents of the Christian life.
The Apostle John said: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12) He meant that paper and ink are limited. So are videos and phones, for they are not substitutes for achieving offline interpersonal relationships. The lack of face-to-face interactions may create a sense of loss, and the deficiency of intimate relationships can cause a loss of joy.
With only 13 verses, John finished his second epistle. Even though he still had a lot to say, he refused to do so -- because of his willingness to have face-to-face communication rather than merely paper-based communication. John said that the reason that he would like to talk face to face was to make “our joy complete”. Before one could easily travel from place to place with convenient transportation, people in different places wrote letters to communicate with each other. But John reminded us that letters cannot replace face-to-face communication. Also in the internet age, messages that are delivered through social media can never take the place of a warm smile on one’s face; neither ink nor digital data can be the substitute for warm hugs which bring comfort and encouragement.
The Bible says, “not giving up meeting together, as some in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another -- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25) Christians who are called to meet together can share words of encouragement. We shall learn and practice to encourage one another in our life of piety, instead of working behind closed doors and living a solitary life. In this case, Christians are not individualists.
We shall watch over one another, give words of exhortation and encouragement mutually and build the body of Christ. This requires Christians to walk with others in both words and actions to strengthen their faith in Christ. Exhorting others means the duty to help them, to pray for them, to stand by them, or to share our testimonies with them. In doing so, their faith could be strengthened and they could become no more weak. In Hebrews chapter 3, it also says: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today”, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Hebrews 3:13)
As the body of Christ, members of the church, we live a faithful and obedient life because of our duty, and this then could inspire others to grow spiritually. But if we are like desert islands, the teaching of loving one another could hardly be practiced. Sorts of relationships in the Bible are only possible when we live together. Although the internet and social media can serve as very useful instruments, they are still limited to showcase the entire picture of your true life, especially the blind spot of your spirituality.
Christians are not the people who hide behind a screen to grow; instead we live in the community. In a physical fellowship, one can grow vividly and strengthen one another. Saint Peter described the enemy of our soul as “like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Its targets are the solitary, whom it could prey on as the sheep away from the herd. It reveals that danger usually comes when one leaves its community.
Go and offer a helping hand to the church members who are in the same tricky situation as we were, so that they could be supported and sustained; and in return, when we fall over, our sisters and brothers can sustain us as well. Because of this, our pilgrimage to the Kingdom can become less daunting. The community of church is a great source of power that boosts the lives of Christians. If someone wants to become the catalyst of your life, never rob them of their chance of trying to do so.
Unless we build a good tie with other Christians, we cannot have life to the full (John 10:10). If we believe that spiritual growth can be achieved simply by studying the Bible and listening to sermons, we then fall into a trap -- wrongly believe that growth equals knowledge acquisition. If so, the false thinking may impede us from making any progress. We also will miss one of God’s best gifts for us -- His children.
Internet can be a good way of acquiring information, but spiritual growth is not merely to absorb orthodox doctrines. We may learn many theological doctrines, but the lack of communication with God’s people can make it difficult to grow spiritually. Only in the real relationships can truth be practiced and transformed as good testimonies of serving. It is also our willingness to end the pandemic soon so that every Christian can have the normal church life back.
Author: Guo Wei
Translator: Bei Feng
Published on Tianfeng 2022 (Vol. 7)