What We Are Missing When We Are Missing Church
Good morning Central! I hope you are all doing well!
For today's Tuesday Devotional, some questions: Are you missing church? Are you missing gathering together with your friends? Many of us are. Some of you may have seen this, but I wrote a blog post on this last week and want to share it with you today as an encouragement to reflect on what we are missing when we are missing church. Blessings!
Over the past few weeks, I have talked with numerous people who have expressed how much they are missing gathering with fellow believers for worship. For the first few weeks of lockdown, there was a novelty of waking up on Sunday mornings, brewing our favorite coffee, and “attending” church online in pajamas while nestled comfortably on the sofa. But as things have settled into a new rhythm, the novelty seems to be wearing off, and people are left with a deepening sense of longing to gather with brothers and sisters in Christ to worship together.
As I have reflected on my own sense of loss in this time of Zoom Bible studies, preaching to a camera in an empty sanctuary, and online prayer meetings, I have asked myself: What is it that we are missing? Yes, we are missing our friends and our Sunday fellowship over donuts, and that is a real loss. But is there something more we are missing, some other loss that can help us to understand what we are feeling during this challenging season? I believe that there is, and this deeper loss reveals much about the nature of the church and how we experience God’s presence.
In pondering the question of what we are missing, I returned again to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known book, Life Together. I’ve read Life Together countless times over the years, but in opening it up during this season I am reading it with new eyes, and my attention is drawn, in particular, to the first pages of the book. In those pages, Bonhoeffer calls us to be grateful for the opportunity to gather together physically. On this, Bonhoeffer writes, “The Church cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians” (LT, 27). In the immediate context of this statement, Bonhoeffer is speaking about the church living among enemies, dwelling among those who are hostile to the Kingdom of God. But as he continues, he deepens his thoughts on the physical presence of other believers by referring to those who are followers of Christ but are unable to gather. About them, he writes, “It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible community is grace” (LT, 28). For those who are unable to gather with God’s people each Lord’s Day, there is a heightened understanding of what they are missing. They know clearly that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer” (LT, 29), and they know this because in their separation from the gathered church they experience the loss of this source of joy.
As a result, Bonhoeffer encourages us that “The believer need not feel any shame when yearning for the physical presence of other Christians, as if one were living too much in the flesh” (LT, 29). In other words, it is not spiritual weakness that desires the physical presence of other believers; progression in faith is not an ascent from community to solitude, as if the pinnacle of sanctification is to be alone and not in need of fellowship with others. Instead, God created us to be with others, to gather physically with one another and to enjoy and be encouraged by the presence of others. And so, Bonhoeffer warns us: Don’t take the physical presence of other believers for granted.
Many of us are feeling the loss of the gathered church, and this loss is unlike anything we’ve experienced before: It isn’t simply that a few of us are unable to gather due to circumstances in our individual lives, but that ALL of us are unable to gather. While we can stream a sermon and connect with each other through Zoom, we cannot replicate the gathering with other believers in one another’s physical presence. There is something essentially physical and spatial about being the church, and when we are unable to gather physically, we have a deep sense of loss.
But in saying this, I want to come back to my original question: What is it that we missing? Is it simply that we are missing our friends, or is there another loss we are experiencing? I want to suggest that, while we are certainly feeling the loss of gathering with our brothers and sisters, it would be theologically incomplete to identify the loss as simply that we are missing our friends. Bonhoeffer’s call not to take for granted the physical presence of the believer points beyond that loss to another, deeper loss that reveals an important theological truth about the gathered church. We are not merely missing our friends, we are also missing God.
What I mean when I say that we are missing God is this: Certainly, as individuals, we are called to be in vital relationship with God in our personal communion with Him. I hope that many of us have taken the opportunity during this time to deepen our personal fellowship with the Lord. However, we are created to commune with God not merely as individuals, but also as the gathered church, where we experience God in and through the presence of other believers. On this, Bonhoeffer writes, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of the fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God” (LT, 29). In other words, as those in whom the presence of God dwells, when we gather physically together, we mediate God’s presence to one another in a unique way that can’t be replicated apart from the gathering. When the church—the temple of the living God—physically gathers for worship, we find in that assembly a manifestation of God’s presence that can’t be experienced in our life alone. To be clear, this is not to say that we don’t experience God outside the gathered church, but it is to say that we don’t experience God in the unique manifestation of His presence that happens when the Body of Christ joins together to worship Him. As such, when we cannot gather together, we cannot partake of God’s unique presence that we experience in our gathering, and so when we can’t gather, we miss, not only each another, but we also miss God.
“Attending” church at home in our PJ’s can be a nice change. But it also represents a real loss. As that novelty wears off, and we miss our gathering together more and more, let’s learn the important ecclesial lesson of what we are missing: Yes, we are missing our brothers and sisters (and donuts). But we are missing so much more: We are missing God in his unique presence among us when we gather together. My prayer is that this time of disruption will produce in each of us, and in our congregations, a deeper longing for the presence of God that we experience in our gathered life together.