The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines novel as, “a new and not resembling something formally known or used; not previously identified; original or striking, especially in conception or style.”
The word novel has been much-used since the Covid-19 pandemic. The Corona Virus is called ‘novel’ because it’s a new strand of virus not seen before. Biologists and Epidemiologists haven’t come across this virus before. Hence, new or novel. We tend to use this word mostly in a positive context. ‘That’s a novel idea’, ‘the novelty hasn’t worn off yet,’ etc. But in the context of Covid-19, novel is not a good thing. It’s a new threat to our physical health. But is it a threat to our church?
Speaking of novel, my wife and I went to church this past Sunday for the first time since mid-March. That was a novel experience! For the past 6 months we were forced to readjust our deeply rooted habits of sitting in church on Sunday morning to watching and doing ‘church’ in front a computer in our living room. I have gone to church from my childhood (though admittedly often out of duty back then). For the first time in my life, I wasn’t allowed to do something I had done all my life.
So, this weekend, we decided to register and attend a Sunday service, along with 48 other individuals. Many of our BCMB churches have begun Sunday morning service, adapting to the restrictions imposed by our Health Department. As I sat in this large auditorium, feeling almost lost and out of place, I realized for the first time since March that church would not be the same going forward. Of course, I knew that church was going to be different, but I hadn’t experienced it yet. Now that I sat in a room that was 99% empty, following the lyrics to songs that were not on PPT, but you had to download onto your phone, I realized we are indeed in a novel time.
But what does that mean for the body of Christ, the Church? We have all seen or heard how churches tend to respond. On one end of the spectrum, churches will defy the government’s guidelines and operate as if the virus is not as significant of a threat, or they remain fully on-line, staying clear of any risk of spread through physical interaction. In either extreme (and the varying degrees of expressions in each extreme), the focus and drive seem to focus on how to hold on and retain to a semblance of how the church operated prior to Covid-19. But is that the response God hoped we would have when this pandemic came upon us? Should we see this as a test, a trial, or worse, a persecution?
In his hot-of-the-press book Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath, N.T. Wright suggests that there is actually a precedent to this situation. The churches in Acts also faced calamities that threatened the entire world. In Acts 11 we read of a prophet Agabus who came down from Jerusalem to Antioch and foretoled of a great famine that would come upon all the world (Acts 11:28). “So what do the Antioch Jesus-followers say? They do not say either ‘This must be a sign that the Lord is coming back soon!’ or ‘This must mean that we have sinner and need to repent’ – or even ‘this will give us a great opportunity to tell the wider world that everyone sinned and needs to repent’. Nor do they start a blame-game, looking around at the civic authorities in Syria, or the wider region, or even roman empire, to see whose ill-treatment of the eco-system, or whose tampering with food distribution networks, might have contributed to this dangerous situation. They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?” (31).
Jordan Peterson said in a recent YouTube video I watched, “We are mobile creatures. We need to know where we are going, because all we’re concerned about (roughly speaking) is ‘where are we going’, ‘what are we doing, and why’.” This is hardly a novel idea Dr. Peterson discovered, but it’s true. The apostle Paul already recognized this drive in our humanity when he said, “So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Cor. 9:26-27a).
It is hard to know where we are going when we don’t yet know what all the implications are – especially when the hardship is still in the midst of unfolding and continuing. We don’t know when or how Covid-19 will end. We don’t know what church life will be like in the aftermath of this pandemic. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be on those who contracted the virus. We don’t know what the financial fallout will be, both, for business and for churches. But N.T. Wright reminds us of a novel response that we may not have considered yet. One that is akin to how the early church responded. Rather than focusing on how we can survive, how our church will weather this, what would the response be if we invite Jesus to show us who the highest at risk from this pandemic? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?
The Coronavirus is a novel problem for our generation of churches. May God give us a novel solution to respond in a way that not only glorifies Jesus Christ, but shows the community around us, indeed the world, that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are following his model. May he give us grace and mercy.