Difficulties of Discipleship During COVID-19

By Chris Hansen

Published November 1st, 2020

            Now eight months since the initial lockdown, COVID-19 has significantly changed the way we live. Actions and attitudes that once seemed over-cautious, foreign, or rare have now become the norm: wearing masks, Zoom calls, using hand sanitizer when entering any building, Zoom calls, social distancing, so many Zoom calls. These practices are not terribly uncomfortable anymore. It doesn’t feel weird to put a mask on like it once did. I just assume that meetings will be hosted on Zoom now, quickly locating the meeting ID and password on that invite email with way too much information. COVID-19 has changed our habits and expectations, and when you adjust the way you live, it transforms the way you see and understand the world. It is these kinds of changes that mold the imagination.
            Life in the church has changed just as drastically. As I reflect on the last months, as I consider the habits we have formed and the ways that culture has changed, I am becoming increasingly convinced that this transformation in our social/cultural spheres reinforces values that are antithetical to true Christian discipleship. Let me be clear, I fully support and advocate for submitting to the restrictions and mandates that our local authorities have placed on us. We should wear our masks. We should maintain social distance. But we should not do any of these things without critical reflection. We must evaluate how these new social habits are forming the way we interpret the world around us; molding what we know to be true, good, and beautiful. What follows will be an introductory evaluation of many of the new social/cultural practices we have formed and how true discipleship seeks entirely different goals. This discussion is not meant to promote a rebellious spirit or to dismiss health and safety precautions, but an honest dialogue about how to pursue true discipleship on this new cultural landscape. 


Hand Sanitizer

            An unencumbered entry way was once the norm, but now, hand sanitizer dispensers impede entry, begging to be used. We are quick to take a puddle of this clear liquid into our hands, trusting that it has done its job: killing 99.99% of germs. The surface of our hands is sterilized, breeding no potential for life. Sterilization is a growing social value. If there is no microbial life, there is no potential for illness. Authentic discipleship is rooted in the incarnation of Christ, who “made himself nothing by taking on the very nature of a servant,” who washed his disciples’ dirty feet, who touched the leper.[1] In the incarnation of Christ, new life is brought forth to humanity, new flourishing for all creation. Discipleship is not sterilized, it breeds life.


Social Distancing

            Prior to March, six feet meant nothing more to me than marking the threshold between someone who is tall and someone who is short. Things are different now and I’m far more conscious of who is in proximity to me. Tacky dots, lines, and X’s mark our sidewalks and hallways, constantly reminding us to keep one another at arm’s length. The Christian faith prioritizes union and embrace to a privatized and secluded life. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). When we tried to keep distance ourselves from God, Jesus did the work to draw near. Discipleship is about drawing near to the outcast, the sinner, the downcast, the poor, and the dirty, just as Christ did for us.


Gathering Outside

            One of the deep pains of the last months has been refusing to let others into our homes, being refused when we desire to enter. The level of safety outside of our homes in the open air goes far deeper than this virus. Home is a place of intimacy, so much can be learned and appreciated about a person by stepping foot into their abode – how they decorate, how they arrange their furniture, what fills their refrigerator, which possessions are prized, etc. There is something exposing about bringing someone into your space. It is a vulnerability that breeds friendships. This very physical act is one that we emulate relationally, opening up ourselves to let one another into the deeper parts of our being. Christians have their sights set on the day when heaven and earth become one, when our home and God’s home dwell in one another.[2] Discipleship is hospitable, inviting others into our lives and not leaving them as outsiders.


Not Sharing Meals

            Do you remember church potlucks? Those wonderful events where everyone brings food to share, providing for another, sharing one massive meal. There is something still uncomfortable to me about coming together with our own food to keep for ourselves. It seems to rub against the aim of our meetings and feels more like the elementary school lunch table than church. Jesus’s ultimate sign of unity and sacrifice to his people was the Lord’s supper, where he broke the one loaf and shared the one cup.[3] This is the one meal through which Jesus nourishes his people, and as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim Christ’s death until he comes. Disciples break bread together, awaiting the marriage supper of the lamb.


Masks

            Nobody enjoys wearing masks. Unfortunately, this disdain towards them cannot hold back the fear that they reinforce: the fear of breath. While fighting an airborne disease, we are acutely aware when a stranger’s breath is encroaching our space. Breath has become associated with illness and death. This is a real tragedy, because in the scriptures we see something far different. In the beginning, we see God breathing the breath of life in the dust that he formed, giving life and being to the first human.[4] The rhythms of our breathing are a daily reminder of God’s gift of life, allowing us to move and have our being in a new day. Seeing the rising and falling chest of another human, smelling their foul coffee breath when we get too close, reminds us of the beauty of life in each other. Disciples value the breath of life in each person.


Zoom Calls

            Zoom has certainly come in the clutch for keeping society going during the last months. This ability to communicate in large groups has been essential. But let us not be deceived into thinking that this is a pure form of communication or an adequate substitute for face to face meeting. Zoom is a mediator, a digital veil. It is quite literally, two-dimensional communication. While this might be enough to accomplish certain goals, it is not enough for true discipleship. This is a matter of presence. In Christ, we have unfiltered, unencumbered access to the presence of God, whose very Spirit lives in each of us. This same unity is what Jesus desires for his people.[5] Discipleship seeks true presence and does not settle for a filtered alternative.


Quarantining

            At various times and for various reasons, we have all been asked not to leave our homes, even if we are perfectly healthy. We have been told, “Stay Home, Saves Lives,” countless times. In our current health crisis, this has certainly been true in many circumstances. As Christians, this mandate comes in stark contrast to the mandate instituted to us by Jesus Christ. “Go, therefore, and preach the gospel to all nations,” (Mt. 28:19) and “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth” (Ac. 1:7). May we not forget the urgency of our call to leave our homes and show the love and light of Christ in desolate places. Disciples go out and make more disciples.


Livestreamed Church

            The vast majority of evangelical churches have embraced the livestream format. With little time to evaluate the theological implications of this shift, we have begun treading in largely unknown waters. The church struggled enough before lockdown with falling into the sin of consumer church going. Now, the very medium of our worship is one that has been a bastion of entertainment (TV) and self-branding (social media). These consumer enterprises are now where we attempt to conduct church services. May we be shrewd in exposing our tendencies to passively consume. Christianity is a religion of actively receiving Christ, participating in his mission, and giving of ourselves to God and humans.[6] Disciples actively participate in church, not passively consume.
            In reality, many of these new social/cultural habits and attitudes admittedly boil down to eliminating risk. This is true and good, and considering this global crisis, we should do our best to adhere. Let me be clear, in light of all I have said, I am not advocating for the outright rejection of these practices. What I am advocating for is an honest recognition for how our current moment in history is reinforcing deeper values that hinder authentic, Christian discipleship. Jesus Christ has never asked his people to eliminate the risks that come with following him. Instead, he says that those who suffer for his name are blessed.[7] He says that we must take up our cross, daily die to ourselves, and follow him.[8] Discipleship embraces the risk that comes with making Jesus known. 
            Dear Christian, I implore you not to sit back, not to lose your zeal for the Lord, and to press into the life of faith, hope, and love that we have been called to. Cultural change is not too hard for our Lord Jesus. He will continue to build his kingdom in our day. Will you commit to praying for three things this month in light of this discussion? The first is for soft hearts. These tumultuous days have left us prone to defensiveness, to callousness, and to apathy. We need Christ to teach us how to be humble, and in humility, to be faithful to him. The second is for fruitful creativity. The blessed ministry of discipleship is in desperate need of new tools and strategies for authentic connection with one another. We have a chance to remember what discipleship is all about and to show the world in fresh ways. And lastly, will you pray for your local church leaders? For many months now they have been faced too many impossible decisions and countless reorganization of their ministries. Pray for endurance and restoration, and maybe send them a message of appreciation if you would be so bold. May we take the challenges and anxieties of today to our Father in heaven, in whose presence is our very life. 

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Philippians 2:7, John 13, Matthew 8:13 NIV
            [2] Revelation 21
            [3] Luke 22
            [4] Genesis 2:7
            [5] John 17:21
            [6] Romans 12:1
            [7] Matthew 5:11
            [8] Matthew 16:24

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