by Rich Lambert, Adult Curriculum Specialist
The first time my wife and I attended church mid-pandemic, it didn’t feel much like church. We had to reserve seats because capacity was limited. We sat away from others, and we met in an open-air tent to minimize the possibility of infection. In August. In the South. We had to remain masked the whole time, and we weren’t allowed to sing. It is amazing to realize how much Christian worship relies on touch and breath. We didn’t go back the following week. Or the week after that. We thought, “We’ll wait it out. It won’t be much longer.” We were wrong. It has been much, muuuuuuch longer.
Live-streamed church wasn’t much better. Televised singing is no substitute for hearing your voice wash and blend with the voices on either side, in front of, and behind you. The broadcast sermon, delivered in a studio or an otherwise empty worship space, was as sincere as ever, but in a live worship space there are reminders that the Word is encountering flesh - coughing, chuckling, ‘amen-ing’, or shifting in the pews. What liturgy there was lagged, and what sacramental observances we witnessed felt too distant to embody grace the way we were craving it. What was missing in all of it was a sense of incarnation. Churches tried, they really did. I’m proud of, and thankful for, the way so many churches adapted in unfamiliar ways to continue ministering the good news during a difficult and confusing time.
Because the ministry of Jesus was incarnational, the ministry of the church is meant to be incarnational, too. Because the cross and resurrection and ascension of Jesus were shared personally and publicly, living in the power of the cross and resurrection and ascension of Jesus are meant to be shared personally and publicly, too. This is what makes worshipping together so vital and dynamic. Certainly, these mysteries are at work for us in large group gatherings on Sunday mornings, but they may reach even deeper when we meet together in small groups. In small groups, our burdens are shared. In small groups, our graces are amplified. In small groups, our sins are exposed. In small groups, forgiveness is practiced and enlarged.
Small groups may also have a new significance in the age of the pandemic. They have always been effective structures for evangelism, church growth, and spiritual formation, but now they are also emergency response teams. If the pandemic taught us anything, it has reminded us that even if we can’t all be together, we must all be the church somehow. The scattered church remains the church. The pandemic was a rare glimpse into what saints in the Old and New Testaments experienced - worshiping through exile, banishment, in hiding, and in flight.
The trouble is, even when COVID is behind us, another virus is sure to hunt us. This will all likely happen again. What will the church do, if out of love for our neighbor, we can’t gather in large groups to prevent infection and spread? How do we best express that identity in this new frontier of viral outbreak and lockdowns? We need to revive an old method that believers have long had in their arsenal - we need to make small groups a fundamental structure of congregational life. Small groups are the perfect viral response unit. Smaller numbers, 8-12 people, allow us to defend against large-scale spread, and yet also against elongated isolation. Small groups allow us to meet in homes when the church is shuttered. Small groups allow us still to meet, period. When the next crisis hits, churches with thriving small groups can break into dozens of mini-churches and still share in the Gospel together.
The church is a magnificent thing! Because we are the people of Jesus, even in seasons of no hope, we have hope! But we still need an emergency plan to ensure that hope is recited and practiced every week. And in person. Not only do we need an emergency plan, we need personal and shared structures to execute it joyfully. Small groups are the assurance that when the next pandemic hits, the church is ready to continue in its identity and mission. No matter what we face in days to come, the church must still find a way to be the church. And we have it on the authority of Jesus himself that where even a few of us are gathered in his name, he is at work in us.
Let's face it, the Christian life is hard. Relationships take work. Christians forget. Sometimes it is tempting to go back to the days when God was not the center of our lives - to backslide. We are all faced with tremendous pressures to drift away from intimacy with Jesus and the community of the Church. However, the Lord invites us to pay attention, to move forward, to draw near, and to live lives of worship. Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship is a Bible study on the Book of Hebrews intended to lead participants into a deeper intimacy with the Living God in the context of New Testament worship. Draw nearer to God in authentic worship today!
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