The moment Sarah and I heard about South Africa entering a three week COVID lockdown, we began to come up with ideas of how we could share the extra space we have in our home with those who: 1. Live in overcrowded home environments unconducive to social distancing; 2. We’ve grown to know and love; 3. Are hungry for some in-depth life on life discipleship for 21 days.
Fast forward to Thursday 26th March, and we made up rooms for four ex-addicts and a young mother and her daughter. Before we picked people up, we prayed and asked God for each of us to encounter him deeply in this period of lockdown and isolation. We had a sense that this time could be really significant, and we envisioned a daily rule of life – feeding our spirits, souls and bodies and learning to serve one another.
The first few days were great, the weekend was a nightmare (for reasons not worth going into here, but related to the pain of transferred brokenness) – but then came confession, reconciliation, transparency and renewed hope. Two weeks in, we have seen God answer our prayers in unimaginably beautiful ways as we have received revelation, had loooong conversations about life, faith, addiction and freedom, hope, the future, you name it.
We have had times of prayer and worship both morning and evening, we have worked out together doing stomach crunches, triceps dips and bench press, we have opened up in vulnerability and seen the Holy Spirit heal wounds, and we have grown in love for Jesus and each other. It has been a lot harder than we’d thought, but so much more wonderful too.
Here at Tree of Life we tend to do church better between Monday to Saturday than we do on Sunday. Though we generally manage to come up with something resembling a Sunday church gathering, it’s not our sweet spot. For us church is a covenant family.
Family means doing life together; doing life together means sharing homes. And sharing homes means getting over our entitlements to certain things (such as space or privacy), exposing myths of individualism and a professionalized, event-based faith, and becoming a congruent people who can’t just present our best, polished self once or twice a week.
It just seemed a no-brainer – who wouldn’t want lockdown to be generative, creative, welcoming, spiritually maturing, inclusive, communal, face to face, space sharing, celebratory, hug giving?
The lockdown so many of us are in presents the church with many unique and exciting opportunities, such as the one I just described.
But what I’ve been witnessing, through social media and conversations with friends, is a slightly weird response to such an amazing opportunity. I believe this is founded both practical and a theological shortcomings. Practically, we’ve failed to prepare church members to disciple others. Theologically, we’ve fallen for the minister/laity divide. Let me explain.
A common approach to lockdown around the world has been for church leaders to curate shed loads of online content to spiritually feed the flock at home. Where for years churches have been exhorting congregants to beware of bingeing on Netflix, it seems that pastors are quickly becoming the protagonists of an enthralling new series called ‘Church’ with a new episode released each week. The church is quickly becoming a new online streaming site, to provide a service for the faithful to consume spiritual content to our hearts’ content. And if you don’t feel like praying but know you probably should – no problem, turn to your phone which will buzz to remind you to get on your knees. The flesh may be weak – but your phone’s notifications are willing.
This is the new normal, we are told. Where anyone who isn’t in church leadership should put on a figurative nappy and wait to be fed on online milk.
[Confession – Tree of Life does two corporate zoom meetings a week. (I know, I know – we are all hypocrites to some extent!) When the internet is working, it’s fine. Not great, but fine. The best bit is when we’re waiting for everyone to log on, and people just shout at each other and laugh and wave. We’ve had to spend thousands of Rand on data to give out to those who cannot afford to stream live online, and phones to those who didn’t have one. (Though if you can’t afford a phone and you get given one, guess the first item you’ll sell when your food runs out or your drug craving hits – right – hardly ideal!) As I say, it’s fine – but only because that’s not the summation of our church life.]
“OK, Pete slow down. What’s your problem?”
I have many dear friends who lead churches – brilliant churches that are changing lives, transforming society, following Jesus way more faithfully than I do a lot of the time. My issue is not with them. Nor is my issue particularly with technology (though on a tech scale I would definitely be nearer ‘Luddite’ than ‘programming wizard’ – so sure, there is a certain cluelessness involved!)
I think my issue revolves around a question, and that is, is this all we’ve got to offer a world in meltdown, crying out for meaning?
What about opening up our homes to those who have been locked out by the mainstream for a lot longer than a couple of weeks? What about inviting those, for whom this new wifi-wielding, zoom-home-group-attending reality is simply unattainable, to live with you for a while – not as an act of charity, but as a commitment to the home-based revival roots of our faith, enabling face to face, life on life discipleship at a depth previously unimaginable? Remember what happened in Acts? Houses of discipleship and encounters with the Holy Spirit that spread across the world? That’s what we’re after – isn’t it?
It seems this virus has shown that the church can be relied upon to help feed people in a time of crisis. Brilliant! But beyond handing out goods and services (soup kitchens and food parcels are actually symptoms of the issue, not the solution of it), the virus has exposed the main issue: that the church seems bound to a professional, centralized expression of faith that is able to offer very little in hospitality, evangelism and Spirit-fuelled discipleship.
In the same way I’m not against food handouts per se, I’m not against a worldwide prayer movement. Our church community is part of one, called 24-7 Prayer. As David Brent once so eloquently put it, ‘how can I dislike women? My mum’s one.’
What I am puzzled by are these ‘next big thing’ ideas that suggest if we join a particular global prayer initiative and all set our watches for exactly the same time then something magical will happen and the virus will just stop, and we can release a video saying it’s a miracle and probably end up asking for cash to ‘sustain this move of God’ (because he can stop a virus but isn’t usually able to provide funds for advertising).
If what happens in wartime is an amplification of what is already happening in a society in peacetime, then this time of ‘war’ against the virus is very instructive as to the effectiveness (or not) of our church models. If your church has little to offer during lockdown beyond a live streamed Sunday performance, then what does that suggest? Might we have ended up somewhere so far from the biblical example of church because we started with a consumer-driven, events-based model? Might it suggest the consumer-driven model equates to conceiving of church more as watered-down Sunday entertainment than fired-up covenant community? Might that expose the fact we have thrown out the hope of grassroots discipling movements in favour of a top-down loyalty to Christendom? And might that be the reason that instead of streaming with life, we’ve settled for live streaming?
As I’ve said many times before – a phrase stolen from my friend Aaron – ‘the poor don’t need more soup and sandwiches [or online content], they need a place at your table for the next twenty years.’ The original revival was sparked by a sharing of homes and the equipping of ordinary people to share their faith with others. Could that be the key to turning pandemic into revival today?