I received a package from my church the other day.
Christmas Eve service, of course, will be online. All in-person services everywhere around me are canceled or online-only; the presence of the virus has gotten worse here since Thanksgiving.
So our doorbell rang and, when we opened it, a man was already waving from his car before he drove away down the road. We thought he was a church employee: our suspicion was confirmed when we spotted the gift bag tagged with our name.
Inside? Everything required for our Christmas Eve service: a small Christ candle for our home, the candles for the candelight service, hot chocolate for the ‘before-service fellowship,’ an ornament, and two tiny servings of prepackaged communion. Our church has delivered these to basically every address on the church roster.
What a surreal year.
This year is without a doubt the strangest I think I’ve ever lived through. For all that the modern church tried for the past several years to emulate the ‘New Testament Church,’ I think this pandemic has brought us closer to the reality than we ever wanted to be: we depend on the feet of willing messengers to bring us what we need to celebrate together, our corporate body scattered hither and yon as we send missives back and forth (albeit on the internet rather than on paper).
But I don’t think it is bad for us. In fact, I think it is good.
Let me clarify, here. What I mean is that I don’t think this sundering is inherently a bad experience for the church as a whole. Of course it is a nightmare for individuals; I am actually stupendously concerned about the toll this pandemic has taken on people financially and emotionally, as well as physically. I am in prayer a lot, as I imagine you are, for all the believers impacted in so many ways by this pandemic.
But for the church, this might actually be transformative. The scattering has divorced churches from stagecraft and marketing and branding, forced us out of Christianity-as-consumer-lifestyle-choice. Ministries have to be purposefully and thoughtfully managed rather than farmed out perpetually to small groups. Fellowship can no longer substitute for learning or spiritual growth. A really cool building with really cool activities to draw people in is…well, kind of moot in a pandemic.
Most of all, the pandemic has forced American churches in particular away from (or at least forced them to reconsider) what Ben Sixsmith in an article on ‘celebrity Christianity’ scathingly, and I believe accurately, called: “…mainstream culture, celebrities, fashion, music, modish political activism and a message of self-love, but with a twist of Christianity.”
In place of our reliance on bells and whistles, we have been taught to hunger. We have been taught what it is, exactly, that we miss. Many of us have learned how to be faithful in times of trial and what it means to exist in a body of believers we cannot immediately access. We have learned, perhaps a little, about what it means to persevere and to love as a corporate body. We have remembered that Christ is the center and point of the whole thing, and the rest is just details.
We have remembered that this place is not our home.
I don’t mean, of course, that I don’t miss going to church. I very much do and I will be as thankful when this pandemic ends as everyone else. It’s been a difficult year. But I have to acknowledge that what the pandemic has forced is a realization of what matters very much and what matters very little, perhaps more than before.
The paring-down always reveals what is most essential, and what we have tricked ourselves into believing is essential when it isn’t.
I know this Christmas will be strange and difficult for many. My husband and I will be lighting our Christ candle in unison with believers in our church, and all over the world, in the shared knowledge that invisible brothers and sisters are working together in love alongside us. And we will miss singing carols together with our fellow congregants and looking at all the lit candles in the dark sanctuary. But when this dark period does finally pass, I hope I will remember two things: what I longed for from corporate worship when I could not have it, and everything I learned I could live without.
I pray that you and yours enjoy a rich and blessed holiday as near the end of Advent; the season of Christmas joy is almost upon us.
The light shines on in the dark.