One of the many side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the fracturing of relationships. Masks cover emotions, meetings over Zoom replace coffee conversations, and six feet of distance seems like worlds away. For a generation that already struggled to connect relationally face-to-face, our students have faced their own pandemic social regression.
The pandemic has also caused many to seek to redefine the local church. Services have become replaced by livestreaming. Small group conversations have gone online. Due to safety concerns, mission projects have been put on hold. As children we were taught the rhyme “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people…” In our rush to adapt to online church, have we forgotten the people?
In the book of Acts, relationships are a driving force of the early church. Christians are gathered almost daily in community. As a persecuted minority, the church holds on for dear life to the relationships they have in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand them.
From this community, the followers of the way of Jesus experience growth, fellowship, communion, and mutual encouragement. Luke describes the impact of their community:
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).
Every day, life-on-life discipleship marked the early church. They worshipped together, ate together, and saw the Holy Spirit move among their community together as people were drawn to Jesus. The relational community of the early church became an attractive apologetic to the world as the people lived the ways of the kingdom amid a foreign world.
Streaming sermons, playing worship songs on Spotify, and Zoom calls are mere shadows of what we were designed to experience in Christian community together in the local church. Although we were all thankful for these technologies in the height of the pandemic shutdowns, these shadows of community were never meant to replace our in-person fellowship.
As a youth worker, you stand at a strategic and challenging time. Some families may have fully embraced the shadow of online community, believing it is the best and most convenient way forward. You may have restarted the engine of gathering in-person for ministry, only to have the engine slowed by another COVID outbreak. You may have families that have built a fear of community due to the pandemic. For some these fears may be legitimate in keeping loved ones with health issues safe, but for others, the pandemic has created a great excuse to hide from the inconvenience of living real life alongside other broken people in community.
The enemy is using the COVID-19 virus in many ways, one of which is an attack on community that is keeping people from one another. We have been taught to fear those around us, including the closest family and friends, for concern that they may pass the virus to us. We must, therefore, live with the tension between dealing with real immediate health concerns while also fighting to be in person. For us and for the families in our ministries to overcome this fear of community, we must preach the gospel to ourselves. At the cross, Jesus redefined life and death. To live is for Jesus, and to die is to spend eternity with Him. God is the one who stands as sovereign over life and death. He is the One who holds our lives. His trustworthiness and faithfulness are not deterred, even by a global pandemic.
For youth workers who are just beginning to make the transition, bringing students back into community may take any number of different forms. Community could begin through relaunching a small group ministry. In a small group setting, students could be placed into groups where they already are interacting such as those who attend the same school or are already hanging out socially in a peer group. For a larger group meeting, students could gather in a park, local high school sports field, or another large outdoor space. In this outdoor environment, students could make their own choices based on distancing depending on the comfortability of their parents. Whatever baby steps need to be taken, even a small step towards community and regathering is a move in the right direction.
We should fight for community. Our students are dying for it. The Church is built on it. Our mission is driven by it. The gospel is seen in it as Jesus defines both our church and our community. We need to be together, and our families and students need to be reminded that it truly does matter.