When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament image

When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament

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In a number of curious ways, the Coronavirus outbreak is making us more like the New Testament church. There are all sorts of ways in which the opposite is true, of course—the lack of physical contact, the triumph of the private over the public, the retreat into tiny social units, the marginalisation or abolition of the sacraments, the inability to physically gather on Sunday, and so on—and we are all feeling the impact of them. But at the same time, it is worth noticing the ways in which we are becoming more biblical rather than less, and perhaps even giving thanks for them. Five in particular occur to me.

Households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory. We take exercise as households. We identify as households for the purposes of meals, socialising, leaving the home (if applicable) and healthcare. We even (gasp) worship as households. No doubt they are almost always much smaller than their first century equivalents, but that’s an interesting development.

There is a renewed focus on caring for the poor and the elderly. In the New Testament, we continually run into churches and apostles obsessing about serving the poor and caring for widows. The plight of the most vulnerable is not just something people think about sometimes; it is uppermost in their thinking. And today, thanks to the grim disparity in survival rates between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, we are facing a nationwide (even worldwide) return to that position. Ordinary people make daily life choices on the basis of what will help, or harm, the poorest and most vulnerable in society; churches circulate the practical needs and prayer requests of people who, in normal times, might not always receive such attention.

The role of the pastor is changing. In many churches, pastors spend a good deal of their time running things: Sunday services, rotas, programmes and initiatives, volunteer teams, and so forth. (I often think of Eugene Peterson when he first heard his pastor friend utter the phrase, “I run a church.” Peterson writes that although it was decades ago, “I can still distinctly remember the unpleasant impression it made.”) Now, however, after the initial flurry of confusion and activity—how exactly are we going to do Sundays when nobody can leave the house?—the role of the pastor has become much more traditional. Find out how people are doing. Care for them. Connect people together. Pray for them. Rinse, wash, repeat.

There is a renewed focus on prayer, for the simple reason that there really isn’t very much else we can do. When we feel invincible, we don’t pray so much. When we feel helpless—how else are we going to get out of this without masses of people dying?—we realise our intense need of God’s deliverance. When you couple that with the previous point, you get both the incentive and the opportunity to pray, as Phil wrote so beautifully last week based on the life of James Fraser.

We are experiencing the suspension of plenty. Perhaps the largest cause of social distance between the New Testament church and me is abundance. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am thirsty, I drink. For many (although not all) people in the West today, including most readers of this blog, there is a breezy assumption that we will always be able to access enough to eat; Tesco is our cornucopia. Yet in the last two weeks, thanks to panic buying and self-isolation, I have been praying the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, for real, for the first time in my life. Rachel and I have been looking in the fridge and the cupboards carefully, knowing that we won’t be able to restock them for five days, and rationing our staples accordingly. People are giving items that are hard to find, whether toilet roll or eggs or something else, to people whom they know will struggle to buy them. We are all thinking more carefully about how we use our money, our time and our space than we usually do. The temporary suspension of plenty is reminding us of the constraints that have applied to almost everyone in history. (It is also showing us how sinful and selfish we quickly become if we don’t think our family will have enough, and that might prompt us to be a bit less condescending towards our ancestors’ failings, but that is another story.)

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, as they say. There are things to learn here, if we have eyes to see, and they can help us when (God willing) this crisis is over.

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