by Rachel Campbell

We have lived through a year like no other!

The freedoms of a lifestyle that we took for granted have become mere memories, and although there has been an ebb and flow in how strict restrictions may be at any one time, nothing like our old life has resumed. There have been so many things that I’ve missed during the last year…and a few I haven’t! As an extrovert (whose husband thinks I get lonely going to the bathroom!) what I’ve missed most is people. I’ve missed seeing my parents, and I’ve missed inviting people into our home. I’ve missed mask-free smiles, and I’ve really struggled without face-to-face conversations with my friends. It’s also been hard to see my kids deprived of the important experiences of what I would call ‘safe adulthood’ in an eclipse of months that they will never get back.

On the plus side, my husband has not missed his lengthy commute to work, and we’ve both enjoyed having this bonus family time. It’s also been a relief to be spared the calendar-clogging activities of normal life. And who can help being impressed by the way many businesses, universities, churches and others have adapted so quickly to a new way of working. I’m also just a little impressed with myself for becoming conversant in technology that I’d not even heard of a little over a year ago!

So the credits have helped mitigate against the debits. But one question that I’ve repeatedly asked myself in this exercise of pandemic book-keeping is: ‘Which side would I put a year of non-church attendance – debit or credit?’ In normal circumstances our church attendance is guided by the familiar endorsement in Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” 

But how do we uphold this guidance when churches have had to close or restrict attendance? And what about those of us who are shielding a vulnerable family member and so are advised not to go to public places? In the early days of the pandemic, I followed the widely propagated wisdom to stay connected with my own Church service. In fact, I did more than that – after ‘attending’ my own church, I embraced the opportunity to be a silent attendee at other church services, sometimes cramming in up to four services per Sunday. I deeply admired the commitment and ability of those who worked very hard to stream the service week by week, many of whom had to develop their skills rapidly from a standing start. However, as the weeks passed, my enthusiasm for online services waned. I found tuning in a reminder of the aspects of church life that I struggled with (a demographic bias towards young families) and void of the fellowship that I usually enjoyed. The resulting negativity was a long way from what the writer to the Hebrews would consider spurring others on or actually being spurred
on myself.

And yet, the endorsement not to give up meeting together remains, it’s just that in this season it looks very different. While my allegiance to Sunday services grew weak, my commitment to mid-week small groups remained strong. This was where I found fellowship in wrestling with Scripture together, sharing each other’s lives and praying for one another. And although this was all online, it seemed to me a truer and more faithful expression of what the New Testament Church would have been like. However, while online home group has provided a depth of fellowship, these Lockdown months have also yielded a broader experience of Christian community. I have found a joy in being able to use my computer to interact with others in a way that would not have happened in more normal circumstances. This has come in the form of conferences, book clubs and writing groups all accessed from the comfort of my own home. Whilst my local Church seems to prioritise the young, this broader Christian experience has been a reminder of the multi-generational nature of the Kingdom of God, and through it I have been encouraged and blessed.

This diverse experience of fellowship may not be quite the expression of Church that many of us would seek, and there may be a strong temptation to relegate it to the debit side of any pandemic book-keeping, but wouldn’t that miss God’s goodness to us in these days?
Online Church, with all its limitations, is God’s manna and quail provision that will sustain us until we are once more able to meet together without fear or restriction. And when that day comes, I actually hope that it comes with a continuation of the broader fellowship that God
has blessed me with in these days.

In reflecting upon my personal experience of Church during this season, I am in no way meaning to be flippant about the depths of suffering many have endured. If your experience is one of overwhelming loss or loneliness, then my prayer as I write this is that you have
Christian company to walk with you. Should that not be the case, and you feel able, please feel free to message me in the comments below and I will pray for you. The bond we share is greater than the distance between us.

PerGen regular contributor Rachel Campbell is from the UK; she is married to New Zealander Grant and they have three children. In recent years she has undertaken a ministry course and an MA in Theology. Rachel believes God’s gift of life in all its fullness is found in family, friendships, community, and God’s wonderful Word and world. She tweets at @OurRachToo and can be found on Instagram @rachel_e_campbell.