Re-entering 3-D Community: 3 Truths to Consider
“There’s a lot to talk about, but let’s not do it over Zoom. Let’s meet in person; it’s so much better” (2 John 1:12 VERY loosely translated).
Are you tired of Zoom yet? Hopefully you’re not completely burned out on it since many of our summer groups will continue to need to use it or another online platform. But are you longing to meet face-to-face again with your brothers and sisters in Christ? I suppose your answer could depend on whether you have a more introverted or extroverted personality. I have heard some folks say that they prefer the new normal of virtual meetings.
I’ll admit to feeling more at home talking with just a few friends versus roaming amid the Sunday morning crowd and interacting with multiple people. And my personality certainly lends itself to working from home. I’ve always thought I might be alright in solitary confinement. For the record, I’m not planning on being incarcerated anytime soon. I’m just saying I do okay alone.
It’s interesting how much our natural personality and preferences drive our perspectives and behaviors. I’ve been thinking about how this plays into the time we’re in as a church right now, as we begin to navigate our way back out from forced isolation and two-dimensional online fellowship to the partial regaining of three-dimensional Christian community.
Regardless of our natural bent, we as humans were created for in-the-flesh relationships with each other—especially within the church. There’s a reason why solitary confinement is a punishment and why video chats will never replace in-person ones. Even for those of us who can endure isolation longer than the average bear, sooner or later we all need face-to-face community with one another.
Glimpses from Acts and the Epistles
Scripture reveals this to us both descriptively and prescriptively. Acts 2:42 tells us that from the beginning the church was intentional about gathering together physically; in fact, it says they devoted themselves to it. In his epistles, Paul often expressed his desire to be physically present with his readers: “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12).
The writer of Hebrews commands them to gather together: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
We also see from Paul’s letters some of the reasons he gives for desiring to visit, or sending a coworker to visit, the churches:
Even though Paul was writing to them about these vitally important things in the Christian life—truth, information, encouragement, strengthening, growth—he believed these are better communicated in person. We get that. As thankful as we are for the blessing of technology it’s hard to read someone’s body language and facial expressions via phone or Zoom room. It’s like listening to worship music at home versus standing with others in the Auditorium as you worship God together live. The first is good, but never as good as the latter.
Recently, I’ve been taking another look at a classic book on Christian community. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of who we are together as the church. It’s from this perspective that we can best determine next steps during this time of reemergence from isolation.
Here, with corresponding quotes from the book, are three core truths about our fellowship together. I think we would do well to consider these and to work through these with God as we make choices for ourselves and our families:
1. Our Christian community is a gift from God. It is not something we create, but something we are privileged to participate in.
Bonhoeffer writes,“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly…in this world…. The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer…. [But this grace] is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. 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.”
Unlike Bonhoeffer’s at the time of his writing or countless Christians around the world today, our physical fellowship was not interrupted by persecution. For most of us, it was not interrupted by sickness. It is not against the law. It will return. But may this temporary interruption still serve to remind us of God’s incredible grace to us—the privilege of his presence with us in and through his people gathered. And may it reignite our thankfulness and desire for it.
2. Christian community is not optional. It is a grace and privilege, but also an expectation and responsibility.
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
Regardless of personality type, we’re called to actively participate in ongoing discipleship within our local church. This is God’s Plan A context for our sanctification and there is no Plan B. We are responsible to sit under the teaching of God’s truth, and also responsible to speak his truth in love to one another so that the body of Christ grows in unity and maturity (Ephesians 4:12-16). God expects us to participate and has gifted us with the ability to do so (Romans 12:6)
3. Christian community is not about me and my preferences.
“Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…. This dismisses…every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience…. He is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood…with some wishful idea of religious fellowship…. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.”
Not one of us likes everything about our church—whether the style of worship, the Bible translation used in the sermon, or some of the people in your small group. But the church is not about you. Or about me. It’s all about him. And he’s called us to be all about putting him first by putting each other first, bearing each other’s burdens, and loving and serving one another, not trying to pursue our own preferences (Philippians 2:1-18).
Applying the Truths to Reentry
With these three truths in mind, and as our church returns to limited in-person Sunday morning services, and as groups return to limited in-person gatherings, may we be excited to meet again face-to-face. We should long to return to in-person meetings as soon as possible.
That said, there is still a pandemic and no vaccine. So, while our hearts should be set toward meeting together in person, our individual decisions on how or whether or not to participate in person should continue to be driven by wisdom and genuine love, and not by fear or selfishness.
If you or a family member are at high-risk for COVID-19 yourselves or to others then, with prayer, patience and trust, stay home and continue to participate in online Christian community through God’s blessings of technology. You’re in good company with many missionaries, prisoners, the infirm, and others who are unable to physically gather regularly with the saints. God’s Spirit still connects you with himself and other Christians. Bonhoeffer had something to say about this as well: “What is denied them as an actual experience [of physical Christian fellowship] they seize upon more fervently in faith.”
If no one in your family is considered high-risk to themselves or others, prayerfully seek God about returning to in-person gatherings again. And can I lovingly urge you to do it more in light of those three truths than in light of your natural personality or current personal preferences? Maybe that’s not the Sunday morning service yet; maybe that’s your small group. Or maybe that’s just meeting six feet apart with one or two other Bethel brothers or sisters whom you haven’t seen in 3-D for a while.
Get to the Root
Here’s the key: Ask God to reveal to you the root motives of your heart regarding your desire, or lack thereof, to meet again in person. Which motives are glorifying to God and edifying to others and which are self-focused? For example, does my strong desire to return to services or group have anything to do with proving to others how silly they are for not re-emerging? If so, maybe God would have me stay home a little longer while he works on my heart.
Does my desire not to return have more to do with the comfort and convenience of rolling out of bed two minutes before the livestream service begins? Or not having to drive 30 minutes to gather with my small group (you know I’m saving a lot of gas right now by meeting online)? If so, maybe God would have me get around a little earlier, put a mask on my face and some gas in the car, and go be present with his people.
Again, we’re still in a worldwide and local situation that we’ve never experienced before, so I can’t tell us the one path we should all be taking right now. But God loves us, loves his church, and knows our hearts. We can trust him to search us and to lead us in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).