The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the nature of the church globally, particularly the form of conducting worship. The societal changes arising from the pandemic have challenged the church with a problem—and a possibility.
While the pandemic restricted physical fellowship and worship for many months, it also opened new avenues for gathering. It took church life online and compelled believers to adjust to the “new normal”. Communication technology opened new windows for “meeting” and kept church life “alive” in the context of lockdown and social/physical distancing.
Unfortunately, we had to say “yes” to social distancing that is not theologically compatible with the Christian understanding of worship. Though believers were uncomfortable adjusting to the online “church life” in the initial stage, they embraced it as they could not find another alternative. While some interpreted it as a gift of God and participated in online church life, others engaged in it with hesitation.
Unfortunately, the new trend of online worship and other fellowships continues to influence many believers even after offline church life has restarted. Sadly, many have questioned the need for physical church/offline fellowship without understanding the significance of the church in the life of a believer. They ask why they cannot continue with online church life.
Along with post-modern thinking, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the individualistic approach to living that pushes many believers into thinking of Christian life without an offline church. The danger of this approach is a gradual decline of the nature and purpose of the church among the believers.
Many love to continue online because it does not demand physical presence through which church becomes a space for spiritual and physical koinonia (intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing), kerygma (the preaching and proclamation of the Christian gospel), hospitality, caring for the poor, sharing the resources, etc. Online is not an alternative to offline church life. Back to physical church is the need of the hour because our faith demands so.
Christian faith is a communitarian faith that requires its adherents to express it inwardly and outwardly. While individual commitment to the faith is mandatory, it manifests in community life. The doctrinal and ethical teachings of the Christian faith have communitarian value even though an individual is the point of departure. An individual begins to shape his/her faith by engaging with different layers of community faith-life. Co-believers contribute to nurturing his/her spirituality. The mutual enrichment enables the believers to activate their faith in different spheres of socio-religious life.
This communitarian faith-life is normative for Christians. The church is one of the means through which believers affirm individual and community praxis of faith. I understand the church as a fellowship of believers having a kerygmatic (proclamation), koinonia (fellowship), and diakonic (serving the poor) mandate in this world. The material world requires physical involvement to activate and express the faith. Life and faith happen through the physical experiences of people. Also, church is the location where we learn and relearn the basics of faith and (sometimes) unlearn what is not of faith. Therefore, church plays a vital role in the spiritual journey of a Christian.
The church welcomes believers into a fellowship that ought to embody the life of Jesus. It is the place where believers are reminded of the need for shaping their lives in tune with what Jesus taught and practiced. Sermons, testimonies, exhortations, and participation in worship help every believer become deeply rooted in faith and develop a perspective that is informed by biblical revelation. The fellowship nature of the church opens new avenues of sharing, caring and mutual empowerment regardless of caste, creed, and class.
Every physical event of biblical koinonia gives hope of new life to the participants. They derive energy from the fellowship to face the challenges in personal and societal life. It is this fellowship that makes the Christian faith a communitarian reality; every individual practices their faith by contributing to the life of a fellow believer. The church is a community of faith characterised by fellowship between believers who have covenantal relationships with Jesus and one another. The “Word became flesh” in order to have physical fellowship with humanity. The physicality of this event points to the need for the intimate fellowship of believers. Therefore, physical church life cannot be taken for granted under the pretext of the availability of online platforms and advanced technologies.
Like any other religious tradition, the Christian faith is also known for its ethical system. Love is the basic ethical principle of the Christian faith. It has two dimensions: one’s love with God and one’s love with fellow beings (neighbours). The latter is the extension of the former. Love does not happen in a vacuum but in a community. The church is the basic unit where Christians begin to learn different dimensions of biblical love and concretely experience it. In this sense, believers receive a new morality from their fellowship. It shapes their worldview and defines their identity: a community of love. The internalisation and praxis of love bring them together; they become a community through which the power of love flows and transforms the people.
The church is not simply a physical structure but a community experience of faith through worship and sacraments. The nature of Christian worship and sacraments implies the physical presence of believers. Community experience of faith generates a sense of belonging among the believers. It encourages them to come together and affirm what they believe. Though the individual experience of faith is crucial, its fullness comes from community participation. It is not faceless but a face-to-face experience with God and fellow beings. This is important for the wholistic development of a believer’s life. We need to focus on the community experience of faith in the church rather than its structural or systemic advantages and disadvantages.
Many hesitate to go to church, not because it is irrelevant to them, but because of its present life in society. For instance, the church has become an institution today. Constitutions and by-laws rule the church in place of the Scripture and the community life of early Christians. An institutionalised church does not much bother about community experience of faith. In institutionalised churches individual obedience to the rules prevails over koinonia, diakonia and kerygma. This has created a new class of believers who restrict their church life to themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given these believers another reason to individualise church life. For them, online worship is the preferred alternative because they fail to understand and experience faith beyond their personal boundaries. Biblical faith does not endorse the “individualisation” of church life. In fact, we have damaged the original image of the church through the process of institutionalisation.
The pandemic has taken us away from the physical church. Now, this is the time to go back to church and reclaim its original image. We cannot think of our faith without its community experience. Koinonia, diakonia and kerygma are essential expressions of faith in the community. This is what the church stands for. Going to church is not a “ritual” but an experience of renewing our relationship with God and co-believers. While the pandemic continues to normalise changes in our societal life, it should not define our church life. Church life is a gift of God. We need to own it and care for it because it gives us identity, nurtures our faith, and enables us to partake in the community of Jesus. Therefore, going “back to church” is essential for believers to celebrate faith in a “normal” post-pandemic context.