The Potential of Faithful Presence During a Pandemic
By: David Fitch
Originally posted at Missio Alliance
No doubt, if you pastor a large church or are on its pastoral staff, you were already presented with the reality that groups larger than 200 people have been banned for the foreseeable future in some areas. Then more recently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has moved to discourage meetings of fifty or more. Now it appears to be ten.
So may I make a suggestion? Mobilize your church’s human resources, all that amazing and immense organizational talent, to organize people into neighborhood table gatherings in the neighborhood. A few days ago, Christian thought leader Andy Crouch made a strong case that meeting in small groups of under ten can be done safely when we employ some stringent precautions, following CDC guidelines. He says, “Groups of less than ten people can meet together with minimal risk to public health, provided that:
1) no one present is sick or has any reason to think they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2,
2) shared surfaces are disinfected before and after the meeting,
3) everyone washes their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival and upon returning to their home,
4) food and drink are served individually, and
5) as much distance as possible is maintained between members of different households and their belongings.
His entire article is worth reading. So you can instruct your church on how to gather to share a meal or just a beverage. Provide guidelines for how to be safe together. Provide guidelines for what it might mean to share life, and to listen. But of course, events are changing rapidly. If (or when) we have a quarantine, we’ll have to find other ways to meet. Even more stringent safety precautions might be necessary.
Recently I had a conversation with a member of our house group. We have two very vulnerable members who really must be protected from this virus at all costs. We wondered if we could still meet—because social connection and encouragement are essential to everyone’s health and even immune system—if maybe we had the children (who find it hard to be as disciplined in areas of personal hygiene) meet in a separate area. If we cleaned the surfaces, washed hands, and kept a safe distance, wouldn’t this be safe for everybody? We wondered if meeting outside around a fire pit in someone’s backyard would solve some of the safety issues.
We acknowledged that perhaps in the end we all might have to do a Zoom meeting, Facebook chat, or find some other way of sharing life virtually around our tables. This will take organization, and the freedom for everyone to opt out, per their best judgment. But the potential of the gatherings could still be well worth it.
What’s the Big Deal about Small Gatherings?
What happens in these small gatherings that make them so essential to the body of Christ? Well, we eat together or drink together. Even if it’s online, even if it’s only a snack, our church believes something special happens when we eat/and/or drink together. Jesus becomes spatially present at a meal. And this table has a leveling effect like none other. We all become present to one another and to his presence. No one usurps another. We calm ourselves. We listen and we share. With just a little leadership, we are able to process life in this place, work out what things look like when Jesus is at work by His Spirit. We can yield to one another. Submit to the Spirit. And most of all we can pray and be healed.
A typical house gathering at my house in ordinary times goes something like this: 1) bring food; 2) gather and pray a prayer of thanksgiving and invocation of God’s presence; 3) as we eat and/or drink, we share life, catch up with one another, and get to know one another; we share struggles and celebrate moments of God’s work and provision; 4) we read a text and/or ask a question that might zone into discerning Christ’s lordship at work in and among us and in our neighborhoods; 5) finally, unless the Spirit disrupts, we gather to pray, submit all things to him, and pray for our needs and our neighborhood’s needs that have been shared.
These groups have become a major part of my Christian life in the last twenty years. They have catalyzed and sustained spiritual growth in me as my life becomes known by others. Outside times of crisis such as we are in now, our church has used a document to organize and pattern such groups in the neighborhood.
From these groups, we can reach out to our neighbors and pray for them like never before. As an example of what this could look like in our current crisis, here’s a note that I have modeled after my friend Keith Dow (from Christian Horizons in Canada) and put in the mailbox of our neighbors recently.
It’s Dave and Rae Ann Fitch. In light of the fact that some of us are likely to get sick from COVID-19 in the next little while and will need to stay home in isolation, we just wanted you to have our number and email address. If you run out of supplies like toilet paper or need someone to pick up groceries and drop them off at your door—we’re happy to help out as much as we can.
The impact of a small group like this in a neighborhood cannot be measured.
Of course, we can do all of this in even smaller but no less meaningful ways. These groups can mobilize other, more intimate meetings and one on ones. Yesterday Rae Ann and I visited a couple who could not come to our house gathering because they were pretty convinced that they indeed had COVID-19 from their recent travels. We hung out in their backyard, drank some wine, relaxed, and just were present to one another. I was surprised at how this lifted their spirits. It was cold outside, but the discomfort was well worth it for all us to be there listening and encouraging one another. There are all kinds of ways we can still gather in small groups, taking precautions, meeting, listening, and praying for each other and our neighbors.
A Revolution in the Making
In his book Microchurches, author Brian Sanders says ten people can change a neighborhood. He refers to Abraham’s strange negotiation with God over the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18. God promises, “For the sake of ten righteous people, I will not destroy Sodom.” Sanders says it is because of this text that the number ten becomes an important number in the religious life of the Jewish diaspora. It was the (minyan) minimum number of people over the age of thirteen required for public worship and religious rites. It shaped their understanding of the number of people that could comprise a group that would be potent enough to stay the judgment over a place that was so full of evil. Jesus started a revolution with twelve who met regularly around a table. Whichever number you use, I would argue that the power of a small group of Christians meeting and praying in a neighborhood should never be underestimated.
North American Christians are starved for this kind of fellowship, especially those whose diet for church has largely been the Sunday morning service only. The best megachurches have tried to develop local presence and have too often constrained by the machinery of the megasized church. Defying the attractional and societal orbits has been almost impossible. But maybe now, given the social forces seems this COVID-19 crisis has released among us, we have the opportunity to do what we would not consider before. In a strange way, the COVID-19 could be considered a gift.
Could it be that God has given us this time to force us to discover again the power of presence in a group of fewer than ten people? To learn how to be present in the smallest of ways in our neighborhoods, even if they have to become virtual by necessity? As we sit, eat, listen, dialogue, testify, and pray, will we see space opened for the working of God’s Spirit in this land? Will we engage, pray for, and help neighbors during this time? Will we see an outpouring of God’s Spirit in this time of crisis?
When we do gather again in our large gatherings, maybe in two or three months, I hope we will have much to celebrate. For now, let us pastors turn to the task of cultivating this kingdom life in the small local gatherings of our churches. In the coming three to six months, may we have a depth of life with God we never could have imagined prior to this crisis. May there be a new vibrant witness to the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord and healer.
May it be so; come Lord Jesus.