Tuesday, June 02, 2020

On worship and being good witnesses

There has been a debate in church circles about whether we ought to be pushing for permission to gather again for worship.  As we move to a point where 'non-essential retail' is allowed to open up, you can see why there are more voices pushing for a quicker pace for churches.  On the other hand, the activities of a church are different from the activities undertaken in a department store; there is a reasonable case to be made that gathering for worship carries more risk of spreading disease than popping to the shops.  Hence the debate.

I don't particularly want to engage in that debate now, although obviously I have opinions.  Instead I want to try to see what's happening behind it.  There are lots of motives one way and the other, but I think the strongest advocates on both sides of the debate are talking about (amongst other things) how we can best bear witness to Christ.  Do we best bear witness to Christ and his kingdom by being good citizens, not scandalising our neighbours by returning to activities they would regard as unsafe (and relatively unimportant), staying at home, staying safe?  A case can be made.  It is loving to make sacrifices for the good of others.  It is right that believers should think about the safety of society.  But on the other hand, might we not best bear witness to Christ and his kingdom by showing that we are ultimately citizens of another country, a heavenly one?  That we don't see safety as the ultimate value?  Again, a case can be made.  Christians ought to have different priorities from the world.  We should be demonstrating that our hopes are not primarily in this life.

So apart from all other considerations - and there are plenty of others which would have to be taken into consideration - thinking only about witness, a case can be made either way.

I regularly come back to these words from the 2nd century letter to Diognetus: "But while they live in Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. (Christians) live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners."  Christians participate as citizens, but endure as foreigners.  Which is to be stressed in the current crisis - the participation, or the enduring?  Our standing alongside and with our fellow human beings, or our union with Christ which makes us foreigners wherever we are in the world?

I don't know the answer, but I'll tell you the risk I see whilst we're not gathering.  Corporate worship is the particular event in which we celebrate and remember that the kingdom of God has come in Christ Jesus.  As we together lift up our hearts and minds to heaven by the Holy Spirit within us, we recall that we can do this because heaven came down to us in Christ.  We remember that the kingdoms of this world are passing away, and that the kingdom of God which came in Jesus is also coming with Jesus when he returns.  We nourish ourselves on worship, on the Word, on the body-bread and blood-wine, because we reject the nourishment that this fallen world has to offer - its ideologies, its plans, its spiritualities.  We will take Jesus over them all, because he is Lord over them all.  And because his kingdom is better, his presence is sweeter, his life is life indeed.  So when it comes to witness, our gathered worship is already a testimony that we don't belong here, aren't ultimately invested here, expect nothing good from the setup of this world but all our good from Christ.

Whilst we're not gathering, there is a danger that we will forget this.  It is so easy for Christians to forget the immanent-yet-transcendent kingdom of the enthroned Lamb, and start to identify the kingdom of God with something happening on the plane of this world.  When well-meaning Christians point to all the good works which the church is up to at this time and say 'look, that's the real church', implying that the food banks and the justice ministries are the heart of the matter rather than worship, we are on the very brink of that terrible danger.  The kingdom of God is not to be identified with any social or political movement in this world.  It is not to be identified with governments or protesters against governments; it is not to be identified with the works of the church or the prophetic utterances of her leaders.  (In fact, every truly prophetic utterance will acknowledge and show this).  The kingdom of God is in Christ the King, in heaven, and surely coming quickly.  We need to remember this, and without corporate worship we lose our best reminder.

Don't read this as me arguing for a hasty reopening of the churches.  That's not what it is.  It is a reflection on how quickly and easily we subside from being those crazy people who show by their behaviour that they're really banking on there being a real God, a real resurrection, a genuine eternity - and become instead good citizens, practising our politics (progressive or conservative), doing good works, speaking into society.  In short, we become sane in the eyes of the world, with just a little bit of religion in our morality to which nobody but the hardest humanist could object.  We must be good citizens, of course, but only as foreigners.  Without gathered worship, we need to work extra hard to recall just how much we don't belong.


  1. Very helpful thank you Daniel. There can't be many people who regularly go back to the letter to Diognetus!

    1. I don't suppose there are. Maybe more people should!