The danger of the preference for presence

Congregations love to be together, as implied by the term.

Photo by Jay-Pee Peña on Unsplash

Congregations love to be together, as implied by the term. COVID-19 has frustrated our tendency to gather and forced those who desire community to seek different ways of relating to one another.

As we approach endemicity, or whatever the next phase of the pandemic brings, there will be a deep temptation to return to our previous patterns of gathering. This is normal and desirable. As one colleague has been quoted to me, “There is a reason the Gospel is incarnational.” Tish Harrison Warren makes a similar argument in her most recent New York Times column, “Why churches should drop their online services.”

Of course, we want to be together. And, of course, we miss those not present. But to present the work of the church as necessarily embodied or else substandard, one is required to ignore the bulk of the New Testament.

Let’s begin with the most prolific author in the Christian Scriptures, the Apostle Paul. Everything the church has that is attributed to Paul represents virtual ministry. The letter to the Romans? A stab at a systematic theology, by way of introducing Paul. The letter to the Galatians? A response to an attempt to impose superstandards on new believers. The letters to the Corinthians, including the beloved hymn to love itself — they are Paul’s attempts to effectively guide the nascent church remotely. They are all letters. Certainly, Paul indicates that he longs to be with those he loves, but there is a remarkable realism to his writing. Paul knows that he cannot be everywhere, indeed, that there are those he will not see again. But that does not stop him from offering the care that he can.

Let us also consider the Gospels. Scholars may disagree regarding to whom and when the Gospels were written, but there is no question that they represent the expression of faith from a distance. Had the early church relied only on embodied ministry, the spread of the Gospel would have been drastically limited. Each Gospel narrative has an intended audience, but they also reach beyond their intended audiences, and therein lies their power through the centuries. They speak as profoundly to us today as they did to the limited audience for whom they might have been embodied precisely because of their capacity to reach beyond the immediate. Incidentally, it is often noted that the spread of Christianity through the Mediterranean basin and into Europe and Asia Minor was facilitated by the presence of what could be considered new technology: Roman roads and the Roman post.

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And let us contemplate the multiplicity of voices that Christians consider the communion of the saints. The nature of the eucharistic fellowship of Christ is that we do not consider ourselves removed from those who are no longer embodied to us. The very doctrine of the resurrection of the body speaks to the truth that the love of God transcends physical manifestation. Remember as well, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Christ sends the disciples forth with the great commandment, but concludes with the words, “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And then he ascends. He is no longer bodily present. And yet, the promise remains that he is with us.

The danger of a preference for presence is that it encourages us toward an idolatry of ourselves. We become the center of the church and not the risen Christ. To be sure, our liturgy and even our preaching point us toward the truth that the body of Christ is comprised of its members, but it is not the physical aspect of our bodies that makes this expression true, but rather the intentionality of community that makes it true.

A community that believes that there is only one way, or that there is the best way to be a community impoverishes its understanding of what it means to be a congregation. We need an expansive view of what it means to be the body of Christ, not a limited one. We must use every tool we have available to us to make community real, in as many ways, for as many people, as we possibly can. Because to do otherwise is to belie our birthright as the church, as the people of God, who used every means available to us, to spread good news.