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Attentiveness: Belonging

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology


Am I really “attending” worship, or only watching worship on Facebook Live? Has Christianity moved from a full-contact sport to a spectator sport?

During announcements in virtual church, I go to the kitchen and get my cereal. I pour a fresh cup of coffee. I don’t kneel during prayers like I do at “real” church. I feel a little self-conscious, even when there is only an audience of one (my wife), singing the songs during worship. Some of the prayers I say out loud, others I just read.

Nancy and I had our first geophysical worship in four months this Sunday. But the worship was not “in church.” It was on the lawn at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. It was not worship as we had ever had it before. We were wearing masks when we sing (muted praise), we were sitting on beach chairs and blankets, and we did not go forward to receive Eucharist. The Lord’s body came to us. But it was communal worship in a real place. It was wonderful to actually look in the eyes of friends, imagining that they, like me, were masking a smile!

There are times when we cannot be together to worship. I knew of a Vietnamese pastor who was imprisoned by the communists in the 1980s. He was in isolation and not only could not attend worship services; he could not even see another human being. Still, he recited Bible verses out loud as he could remember them. He prayed, often so others could hear. And he sang. He loved to sing praise songs while alone. Others heard and they began conversations through the walls and prison bars.

Worship, even individual worship overflowed to community and to witness. The Church in Vietnam began to grow in prisons.

Our present reality of worshipping at home, alone or with our family, is temporary. The Christian faith is, by definition, communal. We must always work to deepen Christian relationships of trust and love, and this is not done if we stay at home looking at a flat screen. We must insist, as soon as it is safe, that we come together, to love one another again.

Not all people understand this communal necessity. Some Enlightenment thinkers describe religions as only belief and action. People believe something and then they act differently, individually. The New Atheists[1] level this criticism of all religions, that they are simply matters of bad belief leading to violence and separation. They are wrong, of course.

One of the key elements in all religions is community or belonging. Emil Durkheim (1858–1917) identified one of the key elements of societies, and especially of religions as “belonging.” All religions are matters of belief, belonging and action. The belonging part for Christians is a divine paradox: we are to work at unconditionally loving brothers and sisters in Christ, and at the same time we are to seek to include more diverse people. Our mission encourages greater diversity (all nations), but our community is to become more unified in Christ. So the Church is constantly struggling to love one another in the pattern of Jesus, and then intentionally bringing in new people (different people) who also will be discipled and loved.

So we must insist on these essential elements of the Church, that will require again being together: communal life and worship connected to loving witness to outsiders. Worship and witness is how I have described it.[2]

Both worship and witness require a type of belonging to our church (with real personal relationship) and belonging to our local society. We belong in one as fellow servants, bearing one another’s burdens. We belong to the other as loyal witnesses, pointing to a better, beloved community, a more noble good that includes, loves, and heals. We love because he first loved us, and gave himself for us.

And so we pray against this evil pandemic that drives us away from one another and hold on to the hope of the Kingdom of God to come on earth, as it is in heaven.

[1] Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are known as the Four Horsemen!
[2] Sunquist, Why Church? A Basic Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 2019.

SWS


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.