Continuing and Creating: Church Community in Covid-19

In the second century, the atheist writer Celsus launched a vicious attack on the fledgling Christian church.

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Cartoon credit: davewalker.com

In his work, the True Account, Celsus penned accusation after accusation against the family of God. His writings are now all but lost to us, but much of what he wrote is preserved in the response provided by the third century Christian apologist, Origen. Origen wrote his Contra Celsum in response to the accusations of Celsus, and he quotes the attacks he responds to at length. In this strange time of self-isolation and public lockdown, it is the first accusation that has stood out to me, and perhaps ought to challenge us as we consider how best we ‘do church’ in lockdown.

“The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.

Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.1.

Celsus’ Accusation

So how does Celsus open his great attack on the Christians? What is his first blow as he seeks to dismantle and discredit this new religion? He attacks their gatherings. He tackles their community. In the ancient world, community was a big deal. There were formal guilds and societies one could join: funerary societies, guilds of tradesmen and professions. Often membership of guilds or societies formed an integral part of an individual’s identity. These guilds and associations could care for you in sickness and poverty, pay for your funeral and even care for your children. Many of them had religious aspects, patron gods or goddesses and the like.

But there was one type of association at which every civilised member of Roman society turned their noses up. Secret Associations, where the activities of the group were shrouded in mystery, and membership was tightly limited to the intimately initiated, were a disgrace to civilised society. Such groups had links with the hedonistic gods and practices of the barbarians. These groups, sometimes labelled Mystery Cults, were famed to worship their divine during midnight orgies, to practise human sacrifice, or even cannibalism. Such groups at their best were smutty and secretive, at their worst were criminal and repulsive.

This is the accusation of Celsus, that the Christians willingly enter into such dark and hedonistic associations. He even goes on to label them “love-feasts”. The Christian gatherings, says Celsus, are mysterious, cultic, secret gatherings where the initiates practice ungodly and unwholesome activities.

He makes his accusation to discredit the new faith. And he does so because it is precisely that. It is new, different, and potentially dangerous to the Roman way of life. Origen rebuffs Celsus’ accusation, demonstrating what Christian communities are really like. Celsus has got this one wrong, because although Christians do create set apart communities, it is only so that they can gather to worship their God without confusion or fear of theological pollution. Origen writes (Contra Celsum 1.1) “it is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth.” The Christian, says Origen, formed associations in order to celebrate and hold out the truth, not to hide away and practise evil.

Origen is defending the gathered church. As we meet as the family of God, in the Local Church, we meet to share in His word, to celebrate the family He has made us, and to worship Him. There is nothing dark or secretive about it. The ancient world struggled to understand what Christians were doing because they were creating associations similar to ones they knew and understood, but separate in that they were set apart for the ‘new’ Christian God. The Roman world struggled with the Christian Association, because they were doing something new: worshipping the one true God, in a community that spanned class, gender and ethnicity without discrimination.

Secret Associations and ‘Covid Communities

Our modern world largely understands what a church building is. They understand it to be where Christians gather to read the bible, pray and sing. Our culture understands that our faith is part of our identity, even if they don’t realise that our position before God is fundamentally our whole identity.

But as our world faces a global health crisis, much of what our cultures understand is on pause. Much of what is normal is locked up, isolated and on hold. And that includes our church buildings and meetings. So many churches, rightly, have utilised the technology available at our fingertips, and have gone temporarily online. Church services are broadcast live on Youtube or Facebook, small groups become Skype or Zoom meetings. As churches turned on their tech last Sunday morning for the first of these such services, one well known Christian commentator labelled it one of the most bizarre Sundays in Church History. And it probably was.

As we adjust to the new – temporary – normal of church life, we are faced with a challenge. A difficult one, but also a wonderful opportunity. How do we foster, encourage and develop community within this difficult time? All whilst enabling the outsider to witness the church truly meeting together, and the Gospel really being proclaimed.

The danger of this online church existence is that we become like the Secret Associations Celsus accused the Early Church of being. We hide away from the public gaze, meeting in secret from the comfort of our own home, mysterious ‘church’ meetings held only for the ‘initiated’.

So how do we avoid the trap of a secret church? How do we avoid the pitfalls of mysterious online meetings and closed off community?

The Challenge of Community: Hope & Relationships

We must make our online church a place where any thirsty sinner can come and find true, living water.

These strange times gives us then this unique challenge: how do we do community well? It’s easy for the committed (and especially the technologically literate) members of each church to tune in to every service, log on to each small group conference call, and message on every Whatsapp group. But what of the elderly, the technologically illiterate, or fringe members of our churches? What of individuals who have recently joined our churches, who are just beginning the process of getting stuck in but don’t know many of us well yet? If we close in as a tight-knit group, we will quickly lose those individuals who don’t quite know if they belong yet, and certainly those who don’t know how to go about belonging to a church that has suddenly moved online.* It is important that we both develop and deepen relationships, encouraging one another to cling to the Lord in strange times, but also welcoming new brothers and sisters, all the while holding out the word of truth.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church in this time is this withdrawal from the world. Is our own church in danger of disappearing off the radars of our unbelieving friends, family and colleagues? We cannot any longer physically invite those we know to services and events, but that does not mean we ought to become the secret and mysterious ‘online church’, open only to the believer. We must be creative in inviting people to tune into our services, we ought to consider how seeker courses can be held over video conferencing platforms, and we must remember that the New Testament calls us to an every member ministry.

Our pastors and elders will be tired, busy and overstretched. On them falls the heavy burden of pastoring the church through a difficult season, all the while innovating how ‘church’ is even done. Whilst our leaders can and ought to lead and encourage evangelism, the burden to do so does not simply fall on them alone. As members and believers we must consider how we can step up and bring hope into our own relationships. The church may have gone online, but the Gospel need of the world is just as (if not more!) apparent. Only Christ can offer true hope in the midst of a crisis such as this. Only the Gospel can shine a light into the darkness of a closed off world. But we must not think that the closing of church buildings should signal the halting of our evangelism. Nor should it signal a lack of welcome to the unbeliever.

We must carefully consider if this season is transforming our church into a secret and closed off society. It is a mighty challenge in a difficult time, but we must heed the words of Scripture:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

Christ’s great commission is not on hold because of a global pandemic. As Scripture reminds us elsewhere, nothing will hinder the Lord in building His church. So we must listen to the words of Paul to Timothy. We must challenge unbelievers with the Word. Not because of any legalistic duty, but out of love. With the world in a dark place of fear and trembling, let us be beacons of hope. Holding forth the truth of the light of the world, the hope for all nations. The truth that God so loved His world, that He sent His one and only Son to take the penalty for our sin. The truth that whosoever believes in His Son, shall not perish but have eternal life.

Origen knew that Christians gathered so often and so uniquely because this was the truth they were sharing, celebrating, and holding out. In these dark days, let us not forget that we hold out the same truth to a frightened and confused world.

*Questions that need to be tackled here include (but are not limited to), how do we love well those who have applied for but not yet joined the membership of our churches? Or how about the new face at church, who has moved far from home to settle elsewhere and is only just getting started? Most churches will have individuals that fall into one of these two groups, and perhaps others, and it’s worth taking the time to consider those to whom we need to give special thought.

Book Review: Prayer (How Praying Together Shapes the Church) by John Onwuchekwa

In the midst of strange and unsettling times, perhaps you’ve found yourself with more time to kill, and you’re taking stock of options to fill your time. As I aimlessly scrolled through Twitter yesterday afternoon, I noticed that this short book, part of the 9Marks series on building healthy churches, had now been graciously made available as a free e-book. I made my way through it, and wanted to share a few thoughts here.

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If you’re looking for a short read on a crucial topic during these strange days, look no further than this free offering. As we worry about the fragility of the world around us, to be challenged about the reality of prayer is a wonderful joy.

John’s book isn’t an attempt to provide a definitive study on the privilege of prayer. It’s not even an attempt to define prayer for the struggling Christian. Rather, as he makes clear in his introduction (15) his “hope is that this book will be a guide and a springboard that helps you enjoy the amazing gift of prayer we have as a church.” In days when our church family may not even be physically meeting, considering the role of prayer in our church life seems a worthwhile exercise.

Because as John astutely identifies (18), in many local churches in both the US and beyond, our problem with prayer is “not a complete lack of prayer, but too little prayer.” Too many churches give only a nod to prayer in their gatherings together. We ask humbly for this or that, and the exercise of corporate prayer is over in a minute or two. See you next week.

John’s concern is that (18) “our prayers in the church too often feel like prayer before a meal: obligatory and respectable, but no one really gets much out of it.” And so in this book, just one in a brilliant series of short books seeking to explore the biblical picture of the local church, John provides an honest and raw account of prayer. This is not a book penned by a learned scholar in his ivory tower, or even by a prayer warrior down on his knees. It is an honest and simple read where John wrestles with his own sinfulness, helpfully sharing personal challenges and obstacles to his own prayer life.

The book largely divides into three parts. Having used the introduction to identify the problem of prayer in our churches (too little!), the book moves to consider briefly just what prayer is for the Christian, before moving to apply that to the life and activity of the local church.

Prayer and the Christian Experience.

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. So it follows that prayer must be a source of life for any community of Christians” (23). Prayer is essential for the Christian, and as it sustains the individual believer so it sustains the gathered church. As Christians then, we must begin to foster a culture and habit of prayer. As John explores the lack of prayer in our churches, he considers a lack of prayer in our own lives. Our problem, he writes, is that “prayerlessness is spiritual suicide. So what I’m suggesting is that we pray more” (39). But how do we pray? The reader is walked through Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, and a brilliant exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, to answer this question.

God’s word is so rich and so clear, and as the book walks line by line through the Lord’s Prayer, there are simple and clear challenges. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer is Godward looking, (49) “the world exists as a canvas for God’s glory.” I was struck by John’s simple challenge. How often am I sleepless, grieved, or distracted from other tasks, by the ways in which God’s name is disrespected? If I am honest with myself, how self-centred are my prayers?

As Jesus turns to pray the second half of his prayer, fresh challenges confront the reader. Do we get comfortable fitting our prayer lives around us? Do we really ask for our daily bread, or is it simply the ad hoc or occasional request? Do we wholly depend on God alone, or use him as a backstop in tricky times? Given the current global crisis, such questions are particularly poignant. But more than this, the Lord’s Prayer is communal in outlook. We are not asking for simply our own needs, there is a plurality to this prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” And so John cautions, (59) “even when we pray alone, we should have our neighbours in mind. We should be consumed by ways to love them.”

Prayer requires our humility, as we put others before ourselves and as we submit to God when we sin, or in the storms of life as they rage around us. John helpfully takes us to Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is emotional, the words are raw. And it provides a wonderful model of dependence upon and submission to the Father to whom he prays. (69) “Jesus had taught his disciples how to pray in times of peace. Here [in Gethsemane] he modelled prayer in the midst of suffering. What had been instructed in the classroom was now illustrated in crisis.”

Prayer is a wonderful gift for the Christian. It is the means by which we speak with our Father. Where we can be open, honest and raw. It is a means to depend on and submit to our Father. (76) “God strengthened their hands when they surrendered their hearts to do his will. They began to look like their Saviour. They finally understood that the life-changing work of the gospel isn’t strengthened in the public eye. Rather, it’s strengthened in private before the eyes of God and our family in Christ.”

Prayer and the Local Church

Chapters Six to Eight see the book apply these truths to the local church gathering together. With a mix of solid biblical truth (94-95 for example, an exploration of prayer in the Early Church of the book of Acts) and practical advice, John considers the place of prayer in the life of the local church. He unpacks the ACTS model of prayer at length (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), providing a useful model for the church to use to consider conversations around prayer. Indeed, on this model in particular, the corporate application is clear. As we pray through these four things together we are encouraged to praise God as one body, to confront sin in ourselves as we hear the confessions of others (me too!) and to better love one another as we gather.

Perhaps the most striking direct application of this section was John’s encouragement to recover the prayer meeting. It might not be innovative, but we don’t need innovation. We need intentionality. (96) “The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.” We may not be attracted to a prayer meeting after a long day at work or a long weekend, but when we understand the vitality of prayer in the life of the church, our perspectives and priorities will shift. Helpfully using the example of his own church family, John challenges us to consider whether we make the right space in both our weeks and our hearts to be gathering to pray together.

As this third section of the book is wrapped up, John turns to consider the relationship between evangelism, missions and prayer. He identifies the anxiety and apathy that can so often fuel both our individual and corporate approaches to evangelism (and adds to this helpful challenges: I was struck by his comment on training. Does constant training for evangelism allow cowards like myself to simply avoid every actually going out on mission?) The remedy, he writes, is prayer. (111)  “Prayer is the link in the chain that connects God’s sovereignty to our responsibility.” Indeed, in corporate prayer for our evangelistic efforts, we give over burdens we were never meant to shoulder to the One who can carry them, (114) “anxiety is replaced with boldness. Apathy is replaced with compassion.”

Conclusion

This book was such a helpful check on my own attitude to prayer in my own church family. At a time when it is even harder to gather and pray together, where prayer meetings and the like require the added logistics of video calls and conferencing software, this book provided a great challenge to how I view prayer in my own life, and crucially, in the life of the church. John challenges us with this book: do we cheapen the place of prayer in our church family? Do we enjoy it? Do we really get it? Through considering services, sermons, prayer meetings and outreach (among other things) John shows how prayer relates to the whole life of the church. A life of prayer is an essential joy for Christian exiles in a broken world. (127) “When Christ teaches us to pray, he does so with a fractured world in mind.” In Glory, we will stand before our Father and praise Him to His face. But until that day, as we live for him in this broken and troubled world, we must lean on him, praying without ceasing. This short book is a great read for a lonely Christian in a troubled, self-isolating world. If you have a few hours this coming week, have a quick read and be humble as you think of your own contribution to the prayer life of your church.

Book Review: Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark

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Recently loaned this book by a friend, I decided I would share some thought’s on Elliot Clark’s excellent short book here.

Clark offers a valuable challenge to our evangelism in this book: questioning the place of the fear of God in our evangelism, contextualising our conversations, and framing the discussion within a helpful exposition of 1 Peter. As a British reader, the US context in which Elliot wrote was at times confusing but by no means to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Premise

Clark identifies helpfully the place of Christianity in our postmodern, Western societies. Christianity is no longer the cultural norm in our communities, and so “we must learn and apply the proper dispositions of a church on mission, living as strangers in our own land” (22). We are strangers in our own towns, cities, and nations. We are on mission in our everyday. We are exiles from our true, eternal home. We are foreigners in a strange land.

But we are here for a reason. We are here holding out the words of truth, the only means of salvation. But when we recognise our position as exiles and strangers in our own lands, we must learn how to live as such. And this is the premise upon which Clark challenges his readers: we must learn how to live and love faithfully as we seek to engage in evangelism as exiles.

Challenge

Clark’s book helpfully challenges the preconceptions we have around evangelism. His book opens with the reminder that evangelism is not simply the Christian we see on the TV Channel, or onstage at the big event, but the life and activity of every believer. But as Christians, as evangelists, we operate in a strange land. We are exiles in our evangelism. This frames our efforts, our glory and hope is not in this world, but in the world to come. We see this, in 1 Peter, through the truth of the Gospel. “Peter wanted his readers to understand that God glorified his Son in order to give us, his children, hope for our own exile” (30). Such hope, says Clark, gives us joy in our suffering, a point well made with reference to his own stories on mission in the Middle East.

This challenge allows Clark to get to what, for me, was really the issue at the heart of the book. A challenge to the place of fear in our evangelism. As we live as exiles in a strange land, who do we fear as we consider reaching those we know and love, and those we don’t know, with the Good News of Jesus? “Fear is closely related to shame and it is still a real factor in our evangelism” (50). Is our fear driven by shame in our faith, or is our fear rightly directed at God? “The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear – to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man” (50). Clark’s point here challenged me and my all so often fearful evangelism. The challenge is not to reject fear, but to redirect fear. We know the fear of the Lord is a good and right thing. Prov 9:10: it is the beginning of wisdom. Time and again in the Psalms we see fear of God eclipsing fear of man. To fear rightly is to live with confidence. But more than this, as Clark so winsomely states: this fear must drive us to a fear for our fellow man. We must not have a fear of them, but as we rightly direct our fear towards the Lord, we must fear for their own standing before the Lord and Judge of all things.

And this is Clark’s conclusion: “this is why the Gospel must be proclaimed, because all will give an account to [the] One who is ready to judge the living and the dead ([1 Peter] 4:5-6)” (58). Our fear of God, a right fear, must stir up a fear for man. A fear that those we know and love who do not know Christ, who will have no defence on that final day. But the Gospel – the Good News – is that the Judge Himself sends His Son to provide that defence for mankind. At the Cross, guilty sinners are washed clean. We ought not to allow a fear of man to thwart our evangelism, rather, our fear for man ought to stir us towards evangelism.

There are further challenges I could pick up on, and Clark writes astutely on the roles of prayer and hospitality in our evangelism. Do we bring our efforts to God, do we commit our actions to Him? Do we open up our homes, and our lives, to those we do not know, or to those we would rather not mix with?

Empathy

Clark understands that evangelism is hard. But this shouldn’t stop us from engaging with those we meet. Indeed, Clark urges his readers to consider evangelism as so much more than the mention or namedrop of Christ or the Church. How guilty I am of that in my own evangelistic efforts! Clark confronts this attitude head on (96): “We must consider why we’re only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of another. We must ponder whether we even have a category for proclaiming a message that people oppose, one that’s innately offensive. Or do we tiptoe through polite spiritual conversations and timidly share our opinions, then call it evangelism?” We cannot count our evangelism as a simple mention of our faith, we must confront people with the wonderfully offensive message of the Gospel.

But Clark does not challenge us, in this or in other ways, without a gentle sense of brotherly empathy. Having experienced the mission field first hand, he knows the reality of standing out for the Gospel. “When we are visibly other… the pain of ridicule and social exclusion can be sharp” (121). To be Christian is to be other. To speak the Gospel is to reveal that otherness. And that can be so costly. All the way through Evangelism as Exiles, Clark uses stories of his own time on mission to illustrate his points, and the cost of discipleship is so clear to see in his stories of brothers and sisters living for Christ in the Middle East. We are exiles, we are other. But we must keep on in sharing the Good News that has made us strangers in this land, because we are citizens of the Next.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land

Summary

Evangelism as Exiles is a helpful read, and one that confronted laziness, shortsightedness, and sin in my own understandings of personal evangelism. Clark’s helpful exposition of 1 Peter is clear and valuable teaching, and an encouragement to see points so clearly rooted in God’s word. This book presented me with both clear challenges and encouragements. I would heartily recommend it to those asking questions around evangelism, witness, and our status in this world. As we speak the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ, we are exiles, strangers in a foreign land. This book encourages us to live out our lives, for God’s glory, as we await our true home. I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:5): “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

We live now as exiles, but we are purposed by God, equipped by the Spirit, and guaranteed to one day come to our eternal home.

Acts 17: just another God?

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens was typical of the Roman Empire of the day. 

As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the presence and veneration of countless gods, goddesses, and mystery divinities. The ancient world was “very religious”. Just as much as our own contemporaries worship celebrities, money, fashion and sex, the ancients were worshippers. In many ways they worshiped the same gods as the world around us, they merely personified them. In Plutus they had a god of money, in Aphrodite a goddess of sex. So when Paul passed the “objects of worship” in ancient Athens, he was met not with idols of meaningless false gods, but with manifestations of the false gods the Roman world had raised up as a result of their sinful rebellion against God.

In the absence of an object of True Worship, human beings then and now turn to objects of comfort and self-centred gain and worship them. The Roman merchant would pray to Neptune ahead of a sea voyage – to ensure calm sailing and safe arrival of their cargo. The Roman soldier would pray to Mars before battle, to beg for victory over inferior foe. The traveller would submit to Mercury when setting off on a journey, to ask for safe roads and swift travel. You get the picture. In the absence of a true focal point for human worship, the sinful heart erects false gods to come to. 


The Roman world was full of gods. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in small shrines in every Roman home. There was no state religion, because the state was religion. The Emperor himself encouraged worship of the imperial ancestors, and imperial cults sprung up across the empire venerating past and present Roman Emperors.

So when Paul moves to speak of this Unknown God, he makes a radical call.

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17: 29-31 (NIV).

Paul calls his Athenian audience to repent. Because his True God is not some metal or stone image carved by their sculptors. Nor is he content with ignorance and half-hearted service. Paul’s Christian God does not want you only to heed him on odd days of the week, or at times when you need a hand in a crisis. Paul’s Christian God wants repentance from ignorance, and lives given over to Him before His final judgement comes. This message itself is even more countercultural. The gods were certainly seen as powerful and mighty beings. But they were by no means sovereign. The current gods of Rome and Greece were believed to be ruling (under Jupiter, the King of the gods) merely because they overthrew a divine race of Titans and stole their power and authority. There is no sense in which their rule is eternally assured, certainly no sense in which their sovereignty is so total as to one day call the men of the world to a final judgement. Such teaching contradicts everything the ancients believed. Even their notions of judgement at death were profoundly different: with most believing that all the deceased passed on to a shadelike existence in the underworld, where a mere few enjoyed the semi-passable eternal existence of the Isles of the Blessed.

No, Paul and the faithful of the Early Church taught one God supreme in authority, sovereignty and judgement. And when Paul made known the unknown God, he was asking his pagan audience to turn from their false gods and humble themselves before the one true God. The one God who could satisfy them, the one God who could save them.

Paul was not preaching just another god to fit into their crowded marketplace. He was preaching the one true God, the one true saviour and the one true judge.