Several years ago, I took part in a week-long retreat alongside those involved in ministry in some of our very poorest neighbourhoods. During our time together, we tried to imagine what the church ‘stripped-back to its very core’ would look like. We identified that without shared worship, a life of prayer and learning through Scripture, the Church would not be the Church.
Over these last months, I have thought occasionally about that week in Scottish Churches House with a group of remarkable women and men. For in these most recent days, we have been working out what the church, minus so many of its usual trappings, is about. And I don’t think that we were far off in our imagining.
Church is about shared worship. Many of us have missed that opportunity. By the miracles of modern technology, and the incredible creativity of many, we have found fresh and different ways to worship – ways that were already part of the experience of a few. And thank God for that. But I, for one, have longed to be in physical proximity with others, my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have a deeper sense of why, over the centuries (and in many different parts of the world today) Christians are willing to risk their lives to worship as a community.
Church is about prayer. Perhaps crisis has enabled us to be more explicit about our prayer life but I have been struck by how many conversations I have been a part of over these last months when people have openly indicated that they are praying for others and know that others have been praying for them. It has been like a quieter and deeper ‘Clap for the NHS and Care Workers.’ Many of us have learnt again that prayer is, indeed, our vital breath.
Church is about Scripture. But it is also about context and over these last months our context has changed dramatically. I have heard countless stories of people who have found fresh insights as they have read the Bible, perhaps especially the Psalms written in exile, through the lens of having to be physically distant from one another and in times of huge sadness, worry and uncertainty. I have found myself understanding the fear of the disciples hiding in a locked room on the evening of Easter Day as never before.
There is, however, one element in our musings from years ago that we have missed, doubtless because we could not even imagine a world without it. This current time has brought its centrality sharply into focus. It is that Church is about community. By that I don’t just mean the church community – important though we have realised that is – but the wider community in which we are called to live out our faith and share the Gospel.
The churches which, by grace, will emerge from these days with a deeper sense of purpose, and be remembered best by their neighbours, will be those who found ways to live out our concern for those who were struggling the most in our neighbourhoods.
Through a small grants programme organised through Faith in Community Scotland to support local faith groups to support some of the most vulnerable people in their neighbourhoods, I’ve had a glimpse to the brilliant things that people have done. Frequently working with others, churches have ensured that people have been fed, children have had creative things to do, the lonely have had someone to talk to, and people have been given access to technology to help them to stay in touch with friends and family.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 edition of Life & Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland.