by Arthur Sibanda  |  9 April 2020  |  

The situation we are in right now, with people the world over keeping distance from one another, is probably unique in history. It is affecting churches especially, because social distancing means that the things we do every Sabbath morning are the very things that we ought not to do if we are to avoid making one another sick. 

It is hardly a surprise to any of you if I say that church people have very strong opinions about precisely how things are to be done when we meet for our various services. If you are a regular churchgoer, you know what will happen each Sabbath. You know what certain people will say, and how they will act. We are strongly set in our customs and rituals. These customs and rituals are thought by many people not to be merely the way we’re accustomed to do things; no, those in church, and leading in church, will insist that the way things are done is the way God wants them done. And we are stubborn and critical of those who don’t comply.

But the lockdown has deprived us of our usual practices and activities and locations. Some are leading worship services at home, with the family. Some are watching them on a phone or a computer screen. Some may even be worshiping all alone.

So I have been wondering this: how are those very opinionated people carrying on those customs and rituals that they say God insists upon?

  • Those who said that everyone must wear suits and proper dresses for divine service: are you dressing up at home? When you wouldn’t allow others to pray up in front because they weren’t wearing a tie and jacket: are you wearing a tie and jacket as you listen to the service on your telephone?
  • Those who insist we can never change the order of service: is a platform party reverently leaving the bedroom and processing to the living room, treading softly with heads bowed?
  • Those who love making endless announcements: are you making long announcements to the family at home?
  • Those who would have long, tedious and energy-sapping sermons, who would insist on taking their “full hour” to deliver a sermon: are you wearing out the saints at home, too?
  • Those who expect to are provided long, flowery and detailed introductions explaining that “He did his PhD at such and such a university”: are you getting that attention at home?
  • Those who would be the center of attention, seizing center stage in all the church activities up in front while the rest of the church watches your performance and applauds: are you strutting back and forth across the living room, being praised and amened? 
  • Those who threatened others that they had to come back to church for the unplanned monotonous services in the “afternoon program”: are you doing the “afternoon program” at home? Is it any more interesting than you make it at church?
  • Those who were always insistent on finding out if others are keeping the Sabbath holy: how do you think they’re coping now that you can’t see them to check on them and criticize them? 
  • Those who would only greet their friends at church and ignore visitors: how are you greeting and being greeted at home? 
  • Those who used to make flowery speeches, quoting Ellen White and scripture, sometimes seeming as if it was only to be seen and admired by others: what are you quoting now? Is it impressing your family?
  • Those who seemed to believe the church is a building, and found most of your satisfaction and pride in an imposing church structure: how do you feel doing church in one or two rooms in your house?
  • Those who insisted on using one mode of evangelism—public meetings—and resisted trying new modern methods: what are you saying now? Are you doing any evangelism at all?
  • Those who called social media “demonic,” telling us the Bible on a phone is not a proper Bible because our phones are capable of accessing bad things, or who told us it is a sin to be online on Sabbath: how can you now be telling us to use our phones on Sabbath to participate in church activities on whatsApp, Facebook and youTube? 

The point is that the church has always been about people worshiping God. Not the building. Not our flowery prayers and long sermons. Not our friends. Not our neckties and dresses. Not the liturgy for how the service progresses. Not announcements. Not your being the center of attention. Not endless Ellen White quotes.

“Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

There is a lesson to be learned from this event. Perhaps we will now come to understand that the church is about people worshiping God. Period. 

A crisis helps us realize what really matters. This lockdown will teach us that we need to stop fussing about the superficials and start concentrating on Jesus.

Arthur Sibanda is a mental health nurse in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. He and his wife, Mercy, have one daughter, Nobukhosi Tashanta. He enjoys writing, composing songs, and singing, and is also involved in a ministry helping people overcome sexual brokenness.

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