More Thoughts on “Church at Home”
After Rekindle crashed in December, I welcomed the opportunity to take a break from blogging regularly. But now that we are up and running again, I am enjoying a renewed vigour and desire to write. I hope it is matched, even if only slightly, by eager and engaged readers. My previous post identified what I believe is an admixture of careless pragmatism and an approach to church that is lacking in proper theological reflection—naturally, these two things usually go hand-in-hand. In this post I will explore some of the conversations that resulted from that post: (1) the reductionistic view of church as teaching; (2) the circumstances that supposedly demanded decisions; and (3) how everything we do shapes what we believe.
Firstly, let me state for the record: I am not opposed to churches recording services or live-streaming songs and preaching. But, since we’re on record, let me add: I find it indicative of the reductionistic view of the church, and therefore the Sunday service, as responsible for generating Christian content. Commenting on my previous post, Brad opined, “I wonder if this lockdown hasn’t exposed something else amiss in our ecclesiology: an obsession with teaching and thereby influence. As so many have scrambled to quickly get content out, they’ve…given the impression that church is teaching; thus it’s easy to continue ‘church’ (i.e. teaching) during lockdown.” Amen. Many pastors have - either unwittingly or deliberately - reduced their primary function to preaching sermons on Sunday. Furthermore, I would venture a guess at this point and claim that the reason so many Christians have relished “church at home” is that it is barely different from their usual Sunday experience. If our measure of Sunday services is the quality of preaching and the musicians’ performance then little has changed. Though if those are your criteria for church meetings then may I recommend downloading some songs from Page CXVI or Josh Garrels, before streaming a sermon by D. A. Carson. However, is this really what the weekly Sunday gathering is about?
Secondly, some responses to my article suggested that I did not properly consider the changing and fleeting time in which decisions about recording services had to be made. As the indefinite lockdown loomed, church leaderships needed to ensure that their people would have access to services online. Well, yes. Though this is only the case if we are of the persuasion that Sunday church meetings are primarily about the message and quality musicianship. But we’ve already touched on that. The question I want to raise at this point may warrant the accusation of being academic, since the time for making decisions has largely passed. However, I do not think that the church needed to offer a prompt solution. And I am not saying this merely because these sorts of solutions tend towards being pragmatic or theologically reckless. My challenge to the notion that churches needed to act fast is that it simply isn’t the case. This is evident in the fact that numerous churches simply did not gather on those first Sundays. In addition to that, biblical wisdom involves pause, and prayer. James 1:5 reads, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” If ever there was moment when most pastors were in desperate short supply of wisdom it was in the unprecedented days, prior to South Africa’s lockdown. What solution was sought? “Quick, let’s record services and publish them online,” or “Redeemer Church Muizenberg is doing something called ‘church at home,’ great idea!” Not only does wisdom demand prayer, according to Proverbs it invites counsel. Did churches have to act fast? No, not necessarily. Why they felt they had to is another question entirely.
As an aside, I will suggest just one reason. It it this: church leaders are aware of the near total dependance on them to steer, shape and supplement their people’s spiritual lives or faith. In other words, with the impending reality of no longer being able to give people their weekly Sunday shot of Christianity, pastors scrambled to make sure congregants got something. This assumption may be wide of the mark. I accept that. However the desperate dash made by so many leaderships to create content for their churches may very well reveal an underlying fear. Worse still, this fear may actually be a sober awareness, that if people don’t hear a Sunday word they won’t engage with God once in their week. Let me phrase this as a couple of questions: why did so few pastors feel confident that if a Sunday went by without a worship service that their congregation would remain Christian? Why didn’t more pastors provide their congregations with liturgies to work through at home, while pointing them the wide range of excellent devotional resources already extant? Perhaps the answer to both these questions is that pastors knew they wouldn’t. This suggestions alludes to our first point, above. With church becoming more passive, barely different from viewing a performance, and many attend simply for the great teaching, Christians have become tied to the apron strings of their pastors, their teaching and leadership. I wonder if the hurried and pragmatic decisions of churches to provide services reveals that.
Finally, another interaction suggested that I wasn’t giving Christians enough credit in this whole matter. Though this touches on the ‘it goes without saying’ argument, we could argue that deliberately using qualifying adjectives like ‘online’ before church means that most congregants at least know what they are getting. Therefore, if we put aside the patently muddled speech about ‘still gathering,’ apparently impaled on the horns of ‘business as usual,’ most Christians are not confused. I agree. But only in part. My hesitation is that humans are creatures of habit. In other words, as James K. A. Smith has devoted significant effort to convincing Christians: we are more than brains on a stick. We can know something, and we can be told something, so that we affirm it with our minds. But our habits or daily liturgies are just as powerful in shaping what we love and how we live—even what we think. Who doesn’t act in ways contradictory to what they know? This was Paul’s experience when he bemoaned, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Whether Paul was converted or not at the time of writing is irrelevant. Rather, the point his frustration makes is that there can be a vast chasm between what we know and how we act. Our actions and habits, what we love and the ways we sin, are much more than the fruit of what we know or the result of ignorance. Christianity is not Rationalism. Writing in the 4th century, Augustine considered sin absolutely irrational. This point warrants entire posts, and has received much attention recently. But I raise it here merely to voice my concern that our practises are powerful. Our habits shape us. What we believe is configured by what we do. Therefore, pastors should be at pains to remind their people that our present configuration is not church. Gathering cannot be done through screens. Failure in this area will reorder many Christian’s view of church and their role in the Christian community.
In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Many are led either by pride, dislike, or rivalry to the conviction that they can profit enough from private reading and meditation; hence they despise public assemblies and deem preaching superfluous” (4.1.5). I realise that some of what I’ve said in this post could land me in Calvin’s crosshairs. So let me clarify, as I conclude. We can praise God that the technology for hearing sermons and watching recorded services possible exists. But we should also allow common sense along with previously held theological convictions about Christian community hold sway. Whatever we are doing through the gift that is technology, it is not physically gathering as the people of God to worship him, serving each other with our gifts and actively engaging with his Word, preached and experienced or enacted in the liturgy.