The thought hit me earlier this week, on Easter Monday. For the first time in living memory, we had spent the entire Easter weekend indoors – from the solemn Good Friday to the usually electrifying Resurrection Sunday. Such an important celebration on the Christian calendar had never passed so quietly or in such solitude.
This had not been by choice. Three quarters of the globe is currently under some form of lockdown, a concerted effort by nations great and small to flatten the curve of the spread of the dreaded Coronavirus.
The lockdown measures and social distancing measures in Ghana are similar to those of Cote d’Ivoire, where I live and work. No large gatherings beyond 10 people, face masks recommended for showing up in public, no non-essential travel between the capital city and the hinterlands. Handwashing and hand sanitizer a hundred times a day. The whole works, and more.
Christians have obviously been significantly hit by these social restrictions. Last Sunday was the fourth one in a row worshipping online, from the safety of our homes. It has certainly not been easy – many of us have missed the in-person fellowship with our Christian brethren and the other communal rites of worship. Those of us who play instruments have had to play to ourselves at home. The only plus side has been the ability to watch multiple sermons all at once, on various social media platforms.
For now, no-one knows how long it’s going to take for things to get back to normal – it could be weeks, months, a year and a half maybe. Should we expect an eventual full-circle return, if ever at all, to the normal we knew before mid-March? Very hard to tell at this point.
But shall we ponder this together, if you will? What if things never get back to the normal we have always known? What, if for a variety of reasons, social distancing measures remained in place for the foreseeable future? On the workplace front, organizations are already planning a future workplace that looks more and more like the present, and it’s only a matter of time that change happens in other aspects of life.
Imagine, for example, a future in which Christians and their leaders were faced with two simple constraints for an indefinite period:
1) No single church assembly is allowed to grow beyond 30 members; and
2) No churchgoer is allowed to attend a church service or fellowship beyond a 5-mile radius from their primary home.
This sounds bizarre of course, but just take a couple of minutes to think through such a possibility. Scripture encourages us in Hebrews chapter 10 to “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together”, but what if we have progressively taken things for granted? This is perhaps a unique opportunity for all of us to revisit and re-examine our motives and approaches towards the entire concept of Christian fellowship and church groupings. The time is ripe perhaps to pay more attention to cell groups, fellowships and smaller groupings based on proximity to one another.
In the scenario above, one cannot travel from Oyibi all the way to Christ Temple in Abossey Okai to worship, bypassing the dozens of ICGC branches and other denominations on the way. Another cannot drive from Kasoa to Action Chapel, just to hear your favorite Archbishop as well as to let your childhood friends know that you are doing very well. And one can certainly not travel from Accra to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in Nigeria to go and chase that special miracle from the Prophet.
By no means do I seek to second-guess the motives behind the actions of people I haven’t met, or to criticize large churches for that matter.
All I’m asking is that we use this unusual downtime to examine, individually and collectively, why we do things the way we always have, and ask ourselves if we are ready to go back to the basics whilst dropping the non-essentials we have picked up over time.
What if we have lost our focus along the way?
What if churches have become too big, in size, in numbers and in infrastructure, necessitating the need for supporting administrative mechanisms, large auditoriums, temples and cathedrals that give the impression that the majesty of God is more visible in such grandiose structures and member numbers?
What if we are utterly wrong in investing otherwise scarce resources into assuring our physical comfort in church premises these days? It started with padded chairs and went on to marble woolen carpets. The latest standard these days revolves around fully airconditioned sanctuaries, state-of—the-art musical instruments and sound systems, not forgetting elaborate projection systems with online streaming possibilities rivalling those of the TV networks. Indeed, we are reaching bigger audiences, but in so doing, are we not driven in part by a hidden competitive drive to see who can mobilize the brightest lights, the loudest speakers and the most modern gadgets?
What if our church members are happy to come all the way just to show off their outfits, Apple watches and newly-acquired BMWs? During this lockdown, I have seen some lighthearted social media comments to the effect that some people miss dressing up for church. Fair enough, but would we still miss dressing up to go the neighborhood fellowship meeting on Sunday (30 people max, remember) if that was as far as we were allowed to go?
How have we managed to bypass the poor, hungry and destitute in our immediate neighborhoods, and yet driven all the way to so-and-so Cathedral or Temple to sow large sums of money in pledges and project contributions? Nothing wrong with those by any means, but what if Jesus was drawing our attention to this, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when He tried to show us who was our “neighbor”. Why are we so willing to love the “neighbors” in our faraway church, but unwilling to consider the plight of the hungry folks down the street?
For the honorable position holders in church – Elders, Deacons, Officers, Mass Servers, and the like – what if they have been faithful and hardworking only because men (and women) see their works? What if they no longer had the chance to be visible in their respective functions, like now? Would they still be cheerful frontliners, or would they gradually fade into the background?
To our zealous and hardworking ministers in song, may the reward of David be your portion. We appreciate what you do to create and sustain the right atmosphere for the Spirit to operate wherever two or more are gathered. It is time however for a re-examination of our motivations.
What if we also had to sit down attentively and be fed with the Word, like everyone else? What if there was no stage to “show off” our skills and talents? What if there was no electricity in that small church gathering of 30 people – would we be as willing to sing out, accompanied only by the clapping of hands and the occasional clanging of hand-held tambourines?
To those endowed with financial strength and resources, we bless God for using your generosity to meet kingdom needs. Most large givers to kingdom work do so with a sincere heart, not expecting any reward in return. A few others only give in the full glare of the public spotlight, ensuring that folks can see and recognize their benevolence. I cannot judge that, for sure, beyond observing the difference between the two kinds of givers.
In this lockdown however, you will get to know your true motives as a giver in the kingdom. When you send mobile money to the church Momo account, or when you write a large cheque, the rest of us will not know about it, unless you take the extreme step of broadcasting it on the church WhatsApp platform. Either way, we thank you for your generosity.
I could go on and on, but the point has been made, I think. That which we have been happy to do on a big stage in times beforehand, let us see how many are still happy to continue doing so from their home sanctuaries. We are in very unusual times now, and no-one can tell when things will return to the old normal. Of course, it is very doubtful though that any national government would infringe on our freedom of worship or right to associate with small or large churches, near or far.
If and when we return to the old normal, let us re-examine the importance of some of the rituals we used to have, without which we have actually survived the lockdown. No offense meant – one would have never thought for example that a church service could be concluded in 90 minutes, but we are now able to do so consistently online.
The point is to reflect carefully of what we do and why we do it the way we do it, being mindful of getting carried away with rituals and forgetting what truly matters. By all means, let us assemble in large numbers where possible to worship God, but let us not forget the basic tenets of simplicity, kindness, compassion and good neighborliness.
In my mind, if these remain the core elements of our future gatherings – sharing a word of encouragement, praying and singing a few songs to lift up our spirits, checking up on our neighbors, giving for missions, then dispersing – I dare say then that bring it on, we are ready!
Stay safe, stay saved, be blessed always.
My dear friend,