On Facebook this morning, I spotted Premier Christian Radio posing the question: is it a bad witness for Christians to break the law by running church services in lockdown? To this, my one word answer is yes.
In a Christian context, “witness” signifies how we communicate God’s message to those around us. A good witness stirs up those who yearn for love and acceptance and draws them into the presence of Jesus; through his self-sacrifice, we can be reconciled to God and stand on solid ground rather then being condemned to empty isolation. Conversely, a bad witness mars that, presenting a view of a small God, constrained by rules enforced by mean and petty people.
Running public worship services during this present, short lockdown worships ritual and demonstrates a lack of imagination. Every church service is full of ritual – what is done or avoided and the expected sequence of events – even if it is at pains to avoid obvious expressions like a written liturgy. Churches have taken a lot of measures to make gathered worship as safe as possible but there are still elevated risks – what if the person behind you who is singing along loudly to the video on screen has an asymptomatic infection and an ineffective mask? Can you resist giving a hug to someone who is clearly in distress and in need of comfort? Also, in my experience, many people did not feel ready to return to live services when they were entirely permitted and so we still needed to maintain online streams as well.
I suspect that some of those who have deliberately persisted in keeping public worship services going during lockdown have had Hebrews 10:24-25 in mind:
… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling 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, NASB
I have those verses in mind too but I don’t see a few weeks where we chose not to run our regular meetings in church as an apostate forsaking of assembly. Technology – online services and Zoom gatherings but also things like plain old telephone lines – gives us the means to express care for one another by staying physically apart while easily keeping in touch. There is no ban on encouraging one another and we express our worship as we find creative ways to do that without just being content to take the low-hanging fruit of the Internet-ready.
Watching an online service isn’t always an amazing experience (especially when you’ve already spent several hours editing it together!) but neither is sitting spread out and masked in a large room. One day, we hope we’ll return to church in the good ole way (whatever that is for you) and may we be ready to relish that like never before! Meanwhile, if you feel oppressed, perhaps spend some time on the Open Doors website and hear the stories of some who deal with a level of persecution that you, frankly, might not be fit enough for.