The past couple weeks have offered us a lot to think about in terms of what it means to be Christians in a turbulent world. Those who study such things talk about continuous change and discontinuous change—the former being situations that shift in predictable ways, the latter defined by its essential unpredictability. Sociologists have identified the time we live in as one distinguished by discontinuous change, and the recent societal response to the coronavirus is textbook discontinuous. The phrase “unprecedented” is getting a little shopworn with overuse. But the reality is that we’re in uncharted waters, and the shore is far from sight.
Probably most significant for the church is that we aren’t able to do what we normally do as the church. One of the primary markers of the the Christian community is that we gather together. We take the words from the letter to the Hebrews seriously, when the author admonishes his readers to “…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Heb. 10:25). Whether we realize it or not, our faithful presence in the community, our gathering every week, week after week, says something about our commitment to each other and to God. This is such a profound sign of our identity that we may even allow our weekly gathering to be the be-all and end-all of Christian experience. I know, I’ve been tempted—the primary metric for the success of a Christian community is how many seats are filled on Sunday morning, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay attention to attendance.
But what about when we cannot meet? Are there other ways to be the Church? The obvious answer is yes—our Christian identity is no more centered in church attendance than Jewish identity was in the Temple rituals—the Temple in Jerusalem has been gone since 70 AD, and there are still plenty of faithful, practicing Jews around the world. For the Christian community, I think Jesus is less concerned with where we are the Church than how we are the Church. Being faithful in our gathering is more about how we live the Christian life, and not so much about the physical location or the specific time.
So if it’s about how we are the Church, then how are we doing while this whole social distancing thing is going on? For most of us, because of the centrality of church attendance in the practice of our faith, we may feel that there’s not much we can do as Christians until the social restrictions are lifted and we can get back to our regular Sunday patterns. But if we take Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously, and really believe that we’re supposed to be faithful at all moments of our lives and not just on Sunday, then what might we do to be faithful and obedient followers of Jesus? What if we used the time we’re given to explore some other spiritual disciplines beyond church attendance?
Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have done a lot to reintroduce us to some of the traditional, historic practices of the faithful—Foster in his book “Celebration of Discipline” and in Willard’s book “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” They classify spiritual disciplines into two categories: disciplines of relinquishment and disciplines of activity. They draw the disciplines from the life of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church. The disciplines of relinquishment have to do with things we may give up—they include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. The disciplines of activity are the proactive disciplines: study, worship, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission. This may not be a comprehensive list, other theologians categorize them differently, and each discipline may have other names, but it’s a pretty good list.
So, we may be better at the active disciplines, and gathering on Sunday to worship, study, pray, and fellowship allows us to fulfill a good chunk of these all at once. But how is our practice going these days? While we cannot fellowship in the manner we’re used to, how can we still make fellowship part of our daily Christian practice? How about worship, study and prayer? Do we need to reserve these for Sunday morning, or can we still practice them during our isolation? Submission is challenging, particularly when we’re told we need to do things we don’t want to do. Loving our neighbor gets pretty tough when it’s so disruptive to the order of our days, but can we submit to the command of Jesus, whose idea of neighbor-love is so much more expansive than ours?
Practicing the disciplines of relinquishment may give us an even greater opportunity. It’s not our habit to give things up. And with public health officials telling us that we need to limit our physical contact and refrain from gatherings of more than a handful of people, relinquishment is sort of being forced on us against our will. But what if we used this time as a chance to practice some of the spiritual disciplines we’ve been neglecting? Jesus often withdrew to a solitary place; what if we viewed our isolation from each other and the normal rush of life as an opportunity to quietly be with God? While having conversations with each other is a great way to encourage each other, how about receiving the gift of silence that seems built-in to this social distancing thing? We might consider fasting for a period, or not being able to go to the store at the drop of a hat might make an entry into the discipline of frugality a little more gentle.
Each of these disciplines has a darker side—secrecy when it comes to our generosity is good, secrecy in other areas may not be as beneficial. An over-abundance of Bible study may lead to a faith too much in the head and not enough in the heart. Balance is essential, and the practice needs to consistently draw on the example and teaching of Jesus. But maybe we can see our inability to fellowship as a whisper from that still, small voice telling us that we’ve become unbalanced, and neglectful of some of the other practices that contribute to a full and flourishing Christian life. There’s no need for us to put our Christian life on hold until we get the all-clear to gather together again. In fact, this strange and unprecedented time may be the perfect opportunity to push back the boundaries of a Christian life that’s become a little too narrow, and explore some of the unconsidered disciplines. Spend a little time in intentional solitude. Do some Bible study on your own. Belt out that snippet of a hymn that’s stuck in your head—nobody should be close enough to complain that you’re not perfectly pitched. Pray. Pray a lot, and not just about the coronavirus and the social disruption, but give thanks for the glorious sunrise and the budding trees and the overflowing grace of God that still surprises us. Honestly, this world is so distracting that we skim over a lot of disciplines we would benefit from if we’d only practice them. So in these days where our day-to-day is on hold, I encourage you to dig into the spiritual disciplines you’ve perhaps neglected. And we’ll all be a little stronger and more faithful when we can gather together again. See you soon! John