The Loneliness of the Socially-distanced Worshipper

We are now in that post-lockdown wilderness I dreaded, where no one seems very sure of what is safe, or what is lawful, to do. As so often happens with we humans, it has caused discussion of our plight to degenerate to levels rarely witnessed outside of the playground: ‘but they’re doing it, why can’t we?’ or ‘it’s not fair’, and, of course, ‘because I want to’.

Pubs, shops, hairdressing salons, and even restaurants are beginning to open up – just not places of worship. Children are scheduled to return to the classroom here in mid-August, but there will be no Stornoway communion at the month’s end. You may visit the zoo to stare at rare breeds, but the Leòdhasach èildear cannot be seen in his natural habitat (the suidheachan mòr) until late phase four, whenever that will be.

And, you know, I’m fine with that.

I will undoubtedly be called ‘selfish’ for saying so, but this is a personal blog, so it’s only to be expected that what you get is MY opinion. Here’s  my thinking.

The government did not wait until the virus had been eradicated, nor till effective treatment or vaccine was found; they opened up shops and businesses because this country, this world, is driven by money. It isn’t a Tory thing, or an SNP thing: it’s a people thing. Sadly, it’s all we know. Money is our security blanket. Without it, we are at the mercy of charity, and the mercy of our fellow men. Ask the 29,000 Scottish homeless how that’s working out for them, and you can begin to understand why we were all afraid for ‘the economy’.

So afraid were we that, suddenly, it was safe for businesses to reopen. And then it became okay for folk to stand one metre apart instead of two. Ask yourself why it is now we’re being told we must wear masks while shopping – could it possibly be that the government knows it has done something unsafe in permitting us to mix in such numbers?

So, yes, it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why pubs are open, but not places of worship. It’s why kids are going back to school in August, but I’ll probably be teaching my classes from home. The students I teach don’t need their mammies to stay at home with them, like the school kids would.

Churches are not businesses. Furthermore, they can do their thing perfectly well at a distance. We have been able to be out both ends on a Sunday whilst staying in, we have had our midweek prayer meetings and – I believe, ged nach e mo ghnòthach e – the Session meetings have also carried on. There has been Sunday school and youth groups. I don’t know about others, but my elder has conducted virtual visits, ensuring that his charges receive the usual high standard of pastoral care.

Besides all that, or, indeed, above all that, we have been open in ways that we have never been before. People are coming under the word who previously felt unable to attend church. That has to be a challenge for us, and the uncomfortable part surely is to ask ourselves why. What does online church have that physical church lacks? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s us, the visible church, that puts people off. And perhaps God is keeping us in this holding-pattern for that reason. Amidst all the cries of ‘I miss church’ and ‘I just want to get back’, could it be that God is reminding us that it isn’t all about the comfort of the saved. Is it just possible that he wants us in the wilderness, drawing others to him, instead of back in our time-honoured malaise of Sunday best and ‘fellowship’?

Besides, what would the benefits be to opening up? People like to cite the importance of gathering together. We are doing that. Online church is a gathering together in the spirit. It is possible to see and hear one another, using certain platforms. No, we cannot hug, kiss, or shake hands, but we won’t be allowed to do that anyway. And, I have a massive, personal objection to returning now. This, I guarantee you, will be a reservation shared by many.

Social distancing dictates that family groups and couples may sit together. Individuals – single, divorced, widowed – will have to sit alone in church. It can be a lonely enough experience going to church by yourself, but to have your singleness, your aloneness underlined in this way strikes me not only as uncomfortable, but unnecessarily cruel. I won’t be subjecting myself to it because it will not add a single thing to my relationship with the Lord. He is with me, here in my home, every minute of every day.

He has been in many homes these last three months. I cannot see online church as inferior because, in many ways, it has accomplished part of the great commission in which we were failing. The Gospel has been taken to the people where they are. God’s servants have stepped up to the plate and learned new ways of transmitting his message of hope.

Let’s not lose sight of that in the clamour to get back to ‘normal’. Normal is overrated.

The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.