I keep getting asked: "When do you think we’ll be able to have church services again?" And I keep wondering how we got to this point of thinking that church services on Sunday mornings are what it means to be a church.
As a pastor, I think that way myself. I’ve put enormous amounts of time and energy into providing well-organized Sunday services. I’ve thought of the people who attend on Sundays as being who we are as a church: it’s who I can see, and it’s how they see me.
And there’s merit to that. A local church is defined by its unique values and emphases, and the people who feel united in those distinctives want to be together and grow together. I agree with the importance of that. There’s great value in the love and joy and synergy that’s expressed when a local church gathers together as a community, and I love those gatherings.
But that’s not the only way for the church to express community, and maybe not even the best way.
As the Manitoba government has introduced the next phase in what we want to be a safe reopening of our city and province, we’ve been told that it’s permissible for groups of up to 25 people to meet indoors, safely socially distanced.
This announcement was made shortly before I found myself reading in my Bible that in the early days of the Church, and amidst great opposition, "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah." (Acts 5:42)
We might consider the reference to "the temple" as the equivalent of "having church services," but it wouldn’t have been what we do on Sunday mornings.
Back then, the temple was a focal point for Jewish religious practices, and Christians would have likely been there to tell others about Jesus rather than to have what we’d consider a tidy Christian worship service. Their unhindered Christian worship was far more likely to happen in their houses, in smaller clusters where a true sense of community and fellowship would be felt, and that’s one place you’d have found them "day after day," teaching about Jesus.
So what about 2020 in Winnipeg? If we still can’t safely meet in our church buildings because having six feet of distance between you and anyone around you means that each person needs 36 square feet of personal space, then what’s to be done?
Why don’t we take a page out of the book of Acts, and choose to never stop teaching Jesus in our homes?
That can mean establishing what’s been known as a family altar — a family time of looking at a story or a lesson in the Bible together and praying together about how to put it into practice. It could be part of children’s bedtime or after a meal. Married couples or roommates could take time to pray together on a regular basis.
The key is being intentional about scheduling something regularly so that Christ will continue to be honoured in our homes and families.
Teaching about Jesus "from house to house" can also mean that churches meet regularly in houses or back yards rather than in buildings, as long as there is adequate space for safe social-distancing. Small groups like these can be ideal places for relationship-building, for sharing prayer requests, for practising spiritual gifts and for looking in God’s Word together.
Why should we consider such examples as lesser expressions of what it means to be a church? If families and small groups are committed to the unique values and emphases of the local church that they’re a part of, and to the online teaching their church is presently offering, it seems to me that such gatherings are a wonderful expression of the Church representing Jesus in Winnipeg!
I don’t honestly know when we’ll be able to have large church services again, but as long as we have houses, we never need to stop "teaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus." And as our provincial leaders seek to gradually reopen the province safely, let’s get back "to church" by establishing family altars and by gathering with friends in our homes (according to Manitoba health guidelines).