People all over our city and the world are struggling with the notion of worship from home. Connectivity issues, appropriate equipment to view or hear and user challenges pale in comparison to the uncomfortable feeling that the inside of our homes are not the inside of the church.
Churchgoers have always equated staying at home on Sunday with being separated from the church. Invariably, those that were home on Sunday got a phone call from their pastor, minister or fellow members stating, “We missed you at church today.” Now many are “missing” church for health and safety reason.
Worship is not at church. Fellowship is not happening like it did at church. Funerals are not at church. We don’t hug each other, shake hands or sit with our neighbor at church like we used to. Preachers can’t pull the congregation’s participation into the sermon by shouting “turn to your neighbor,” or “touch your neighbor” or “give your neighbor a high five.” Why? Because for many, the preaching, the preacher and the people are not at church.
In Walter Earl Fluker’s book, “The Ground Has Shifted,” in 2016, Fluker asks the question that all impacted Churches must ask: “What does this new season of worldwide struggle mean for us, for this nation and for the world?” How will pastors visit the sick if they cannot be approached? How will the programs to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and support students go on if the doors of the church are not open? How will the church be able to pay its bills if the people who normally support it are struggling themselves?
We have either been a people in a shift, preparing for a shift, or dealing with the results of a shift. Historically and biblically, there have always been major changes to the way people congregate.
In the Old Testament, when the children of Israel were released from bondage, God called for a moving, yet singular place for worship called the Tabernacle (Dt. 12). When peace and unity came after years of internal conflict in Israel, God commissioned David’s son Solomon to build the First Temple (1 Chr. 28) for Yahweh. After its destruction, the Second Temple was built (Ezra 1) only to be augmented by King Herod in the time of Jesus.
Initially, worship only occurred in one place, but eventually it expanded to several. In the shadow of the Second Temple, synagogues flourished. They eventually spread across to other parts of the world where Jews migrated. It was clear to the community that while synagogues were different, they and the Temple were both places for people to honor the same God.
The impact of Jesus in the world furthered this shift. He unveiled a people who would be children of God through following him. Jesus called those people the Church (Mt. 16:13-18). It is comprised of three components: Jesus, the people, and the confession of faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The ground had shifted. In one motion, Jesus opened the doors of the Temple and the synagogue, and once again expanded worship from exclusively indoors to wherever the people congregate. Certainly, the New Testament is replete with places that people congregated from “the upper room” in Jerusalem to the center of the empire in Rome.
There is no discounting that people have always congregated in a place, but it has never been a requirement that the place be indoors. When Jesus announced the church, he did not denounce the continuation of the Temple or the synagogue. In fact, he and his disciples attended both. However, while the tradition was upheld, the movement of his day for a new wave of believers was to become the Church.
Therefore, what are we to say today about Facebook Live, IGTV, Zoom and free conference call numbers? Is that church? It is certainly not the place we have called church all of our lives; but those who believe and follow Jesus as their Savior and come together to worship him are the Church.
— The Rev. Cecil L. Williams Jr. is pastor of St. John AME Church at Pine Bluff.