I have so many fond memories of growing up in the church. One of which was going to church itself. Early Sunday morning was always fun and exciting in the Omoniyi household. We would all wake up around the same time, 7 am, and the festivities would begin. The first race was figuring the showering order. I remember the pushing and pulling, the negotiating, who would shower first and who would be next?
We would then head into the car together, head over to church together. At church, we would meet other families who were really like our extended family. Together, we would sing songs, listen to the sermon and after church, I would hang out with friends as we darted around the church playing all sorts of games.
There was something so special about this period, I had no real choice in affairs because I was young but that didn’t seem to matter because things were mostly fun and enjoyable. That time seems a world away from today. Successive lockdowns have accelerated digital trends, all with real impacts and ramifications.
The spirit of our age seems to be rampant individualism. A move away from the kind of intimacy and close proximity I described earlier.
A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that’s socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely — by a striking margin — to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted. This is problematic at the best of times, but I think it might be interesting to ponder how this rampant individualism may have bled into the church and to consider the effect it may be having on church engagement.
What does the Bible say about church?
ACTS 2:42-47 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
If you pay close attention to this passage, all expressions used of the church are one of fellowship. A community of people committed to one another in a real and practical way. This is the first expression of the life of the church. Mutual commitment to each other. Terms like “common shared life” and “breaking off bread” are used to describe what the church experiences should be like. United and communion.
The description given in this passage of scripture is the exact opposite of what seems to typify our age and time. So many of us may be having a subpar Christian experience because we are not connected to the life-giving church of Jesus. It’s impossible to live a rich Christian life without church and community. It’s how God designed us; for intimacy and connection with others.
Because of the COVID -19 Pandemic, it is undeniable that the way we do church has changed. Whilst online church has allowed more people to engage with church, nothing can replace the shared life described in the bible. Distance creates distortion and so what online church allows for in access it often lacks in depth.
Why would someone choose to stay home and consume the gospel online rather than going to church?
That’s a fair question and one that has been asked before. As generations change and churches look for ways to change with them, the allure of connecting online rather than face-to-face has become too prevalent for church leadership to ignore.
More importantly, churches need a way to include people who are physically unable to attend traditional services due to illness, disability, or distance. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found, even before the pandemic that people who reported going to church less said the logistics of getting there was the most significant deterrent.
Currently, 57% of the world uses the Internet, and 45% of the population uses social media. 3.4 billion people are using social media regularly. That’s too large of a number to ignore. In just a single year, social media users increased by over 288 million. In fact, 83% of North America uses social media.
This trend is impossible to ignore. Therefore my desire is not that we reverse this trend. It’s important to remember that this trend is not all positive and the worry of church leaders is well-founded. Whilst online church has many benefits there is something about church that means it can’t be fully captured with distance. In fact, it’s this distance that robs us of the genuine joy of fellowship.
Meaniful fellowship is transformative
In a grey dawn of an April day in 1945, in a Nazi camp in Flossenburg, a pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed. He was executed by the special order of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s executioner. He has been arrested two years before and over that period he had been moved from prison to prison. From Tegal to Berlin to Buchenwald to Schonburg and finally to Flossenburg. Because of the moving, he lost all contact with the outside world. Everyone he knew was severed from him. He lost, according to his own testimony the most precious possession he had and that was Christian fellowship. He wrote a book called “Life Together” based on Psalm 1:33. He wrote in that book about the richness of fellowship which he later lost up until his death.
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparably joy and strength to the believer, a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. How inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!”
“Let him who until now has had the privilege of living in 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.”
Church means Life together and it’s difficult to be together apart. As lockdown lifts across the world, we need to see a radical commitment to the Church. A radical commitment to share life and shared living. We need to resist the spirit of our times and to rediscover something more wholesome and biblical. We need to cherish community before we lose it.